When a Significant Other Suffers From a Mental Illness

One in five people suffer from a mental illness so there is a good chance lots of couples face this challenge. There are resources available to help and various places (big and small) where you can seek support. Just remember you're not alone.
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There was a collective swoon heard across the Internet this past spring when Demi Lovato credited her longtime boyfriend Wilmer Valderrama for saving her life. Lovato has openly shared her struggles with addiction and bipolar disorder and today seems healthy with a thriving career. This Hollywood "it" couple is just one small example of how support from a significant other can have a dramatic impact on one's recovery from a mental illness.

"Recovery from mental health conditions most often happens in the context of supportive relationships. By offering hope, helping a person access personal strengths, and supporting resilience, those in a relationship with a person who has been diagnosed with a mental health condition can be the strongest allies," said Elizabeth Whitney, LICSW, Senior Program Manager at Advocates for Human Potential, Inc. and Adjunct Faculty/Field Liaison for SocialWork@Simmons.

As we celebrate love this Valentine's Day, the tradition of buying flowers and chocolates for your partner is sweet, but if your loved one has a mental illness you'll both need support beyond fragrant blossoms and sweets to keep your relationship going strong. One in five people suffer from a mental illness so there is a good chance lots of couples face this challenge. There are resources available to help and various places (big and small) where you can seek support. Just remember you're not alone.

Seeking professional help is key to making your relationship work and keeping on track with a treatment plan as a team. Counseling not only helps the partner who has a mental illness, but the person who is taking care of the loved one who is not well. Recovery is life long process and something to always be maintained for a healthy life.

In addition to expert help, Mental Health America and National Alliance for Mental Illness offers web pages devoted to romantic relationships. These summaries make a salient point that many people who have mental illness can also have fulfilling connections. Also included are tips for disclosing a mental illness to a new partner, the impact on sex and the importance of taking care of yourself if you're caring for someone else. There are many websites and books available too that offer self-help tools. Check with a mental health professional for recommendations.

Couples can also seek out encouragement through other people's first person stories about recovery. Just knowing others have struggled coping with mental illness in their relationship can help alleviate feelings of isolation. These accounts may detail joy and heartbreak and share things about ones' sex life, how to plan for the future and deal with pregnancy and having children.

This article, "10 Ways to Love a Person Who Has a Mental Illness," by Jasmine Rose-Olesco in Thought Catalog provides relationship pointers when dealing with a partner's mental illness and talks about using stigmatizing language, summoning empathy instead of blame and reminding readers that the person you love is not their illness. Buzzfeed also published a compelling article, "Here's What It's Like When Mental Illness Affects a Relationship." The Mental Health Channel and TED Talks offers inspirational stories about coping with mental illness too.

Real life has inspired movies and books, even as far back as Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet," which tells the story of how love drove a young couple to suicide. Fiction and non-fiction storytelling is riddled with mental illness references or used as a central theme. But here's the potential problem: These works don't always accurately portray mental illness. Some stories might romanticize the rescue scenario with him or her pulling someone out of despair, while other tales might air on the side of harrowing or overly dramatic.

If you're looking for hope or answers in coping with mental illness in your relationship, these depictions need to be put in their proper perspective. Check the book blurbs, trailers, reviews and with mental health professionals before diving in. Also think of where you are in your situation before indulging in these stories. This Bustle article, "11 of the Most Realistic Portrayals of Mental Illness in Novels," highlights some well-known and respected book titles, and NAMI published a blog that lists "Top 10 Movies About Mental Illness" Also know that your experience with mental illness is uniquely your own and can't be neatly framed by a popular movie or book.

"The process of recovery is not simply one of passive acceptance of recommended treatments and medications, both of which may help, but also grows from active exploration of a range of wellness activities and pursuit of meaningful life goals," said Whitney, "There is no question that living with a mental health condition, like any serious health condition is, at times, stressful."

Meeting relationship challenges, of any kind, are the norm and for different people this takes different forms whether it's related to a job loss, health challenges or adultery. Mental illness may be just another thing on this list.


If you -- or someone you know -- need help, please call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. If you are outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of international resources.