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  • Writer's pictureElaine Huang

Love and Mental Illness: 4 Things to Do this Valentine’s Day

Updated: Jun 17, 2022

Relationships are challenging enough when you and your partner are healthy, but what happens when one or both of you are living with a mental illness?

According to the National Retail Foundation, 53 percent of Americans surveyed said that they intend to celebrate Valentine’s Day this year. Among this group, some people might commemorate the day of love with their significant other by indulging in thoughtful gift-giving while others use the opportunity to get together with family and friends to remind each other of how much they matter.

Those who do not plan to celebrate this occasion, of course, have their reasons for not doing so. Perhaps a fraction of them might feel like it is just another marketing-led event, or that one should celebrate love every day, instead of only on a particular day decided by others. Some, too, might find it difficult to muster up any ability to take care of others when their own mental health can feel like too much to handle at times. Spouses of those living with mental illnesses, for example, might feel emotionally, mentally and physically drained, let alone romantic.

Whether you are celebrating, ignoring it, or on the fence this Valentine’s Day, we believe that it is important to be mindful of how mental health affects our relationships, especially with our loved ones. Here are four actionable things you could do this week:

Be aware:

With one in five adults in the US living with mental illness, it is probable that someone we love might be experiencing symptoms from “feeling sad or down” to hallucinating to generating “suicidal thoughts”. Sure, we can all relate to having a difficult day but what happens when you start to see your loved one increasingly affected by their condition?

The first step might just be to keep your eyes and ears open to what you could possibly learn about this challenging topic. On the Internet, there is a multitude of knowledgeable sources, from first-hand accounts of people living with various mental health conditions to medically reviewed factsheets. Always check for credibility; useful resources include the National Institute of Mental Health, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), and the National Institute of Health, among many others. Being critical and keeping an open mind will go a long way.

Measure and celebrate progress:

As the American Psychiatric Association astutely puts it: “Many people who have a mental illness do not want to talk about it. But mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of! It is a medical condition, just like heart disease or diabetes. And mental health conditions are treatable.”

Even as your loved one seeks treatment, measuring and celebrating progress can be a wonderful way for both of you to be more conscious about how they are feeling and responding. Of course, mental health recovery does not look the same for every single person, nor is it usually a linear process.

One way to do so is to remind them to keep a diary or have some way of charting their emotions and behaviors. There are many technological applications in the market that are specific to mental health journaling, but honestly, to start, any notebook will do. Unless they are a huge fan of writing, we recommend letting them decide how they would like to chronicle their journey – there is no wrong answer.

However, if your partner is experiencing serious mental health issues where their condition is greatly interfering with their lives, it might be helpful to work with your partner and their mental health provider to improve their standard of care and outcomes, better assess their negative and cognitive symptoms, and be able to intervene early when signs occur. One such solution would be GenMind™, a remote monitoring and assessment software that strengthens the patient-doctor relationship and empowers caregivers and patients to better measure and celebrate progress.

Care for yourself:

Partners, especially those who double up as full-time caregivers, might often forget that they are not trained mental health providers, nor should they be expected to take on such a challenging role. You are primarily a human being who deserves to be loved and cared for, as much as your loved ones are.

You might think that it is imperative for you to be there – physically, mentally, and emotionally – for those around you, but to do so, you must make sure that your own support system is strong. NAMI advocates caregivers to “avoid guilt”, “notice the positive”, and “gather strength from others”.

For example, you can start by practicing compassion toward yourself and feeling the emotions you do “without judging them as good or bad” - which helps to reduce stress and better manage your moods. Take a quick minute to think about something good that happened to you, however tiny it may seem, and write it down so that you can look back on it and remember that life has its beautiful moments. Additionally, while you stay strong for your partner and yourself, it is okay to be vulnerable and connect with others, be it one on one or in a group. When you do so, you are building your social support system that will keep you grounded during tough times.

Amidst the fanfare that surrounds Valentine’s Day, it might be tempting to take it personally if your partner does not seem excited to celebrate your love for one another, especially if you do expect some form of celebration. While you could, for example, try to plan a small activity to remind each other of your bond, remember to communicate those expectations to your partner, so that they can try their best to care for you as well.

It might also be helpful to join a family support group at a hospital or community mental health agency. In the US, for example, there are more than 600 NAMI chapters where you can get more geographically specific information and resources on a particular mental condition.

Work as a team:

Many people view therapy and counselling as ways couples can get help with their relationships and move forward as a team. Although therapy and counselling may be helpful, some might find these options ‘too little too late’ as they only start considering such pathways toward the end of the relationship as a last resort.

In an article explaining how couples therapy can be helpful for those living with mental illnesses, Canada-based family therapist Jan Sutherland writes, “While couples therapy won’t necessarily erase the mental health issue, it can introduce much-needed hopefulness and movement toward positive change.”

But how should you talk to your loved ones about such matters without them feeling like your relationship is in deep trouble? After all, in certain communities, there is still a strong stigma attached to receiving professional help from mental health providers, regardless of what the cause may be.

One school of thought behind couples counselling, developed by the Gottman Institute, suggests that partners should follow five steps to “inspire” the other:

1) Connect emotionally

Before broaching the subject of mental health, do something romantic that will help your partner feel appreciated and relaxed, so that they are also at their best to communicate constructively and honestly.

2) Proposing the conversation

Ask your partner if they would be open and willing to have a conversation with you about your relationship. After all, no one wants to feel ambushed about such an important topic.

Relationship writer Kyle Benson recommends a quick 3-sentence guide:

“Honey, I want to have a conversation with you about what you want for our relationship.”

“I want you to feel like you’re enough for me, accepted for who you are, and like this [to be] a great relationship for you.”

“Would you be willing to have a quick conversation with me?”

3) Finding the gap

Be sure to listen as well as share – but do not use this as a time to go over grievances and relationship issues in a defensive way.

4) Bridge the couples’ chasm

You’re working on your relationship, not on changing your partner. “No one likes to feel like they need to be fixed”, writes Benson. Highlight some benefits both of you will receive from going to therapy and communicating better.

5) Invite them

When someone invites you to an event, sure, you might want to go – but you should always have the choice of saying no. It is the same in this situation; your partner absolutely has the right to say no to going to counselling with you. Do not pressure them with ultimatums! Many people will, naturally, have more questions so be sure to work together with them to find the answers.

Of course, there is no one-size-fits-all solution because people might have diverse ways of perceiving and responding to external stimuli based on their own mental health issues. But as you remind your partner or yourself that both of you are on the same team striving for the same goals – as they say, “two is better than one”.

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