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Love Matters | Rita Lino

Dating someone with a mental illness

One in four people you know have struggled or are struggling with one mental illness or the other. These people could be family members, close friends, and even current or prospective partners.

In relationships, the mental health of one's partner should be a huge priority as it determines the course your relationship takes in terms of understanding the other's behaviours, triggers, coping mechanisms and the reasons why they do what they do.

As someone living with Depression and Anxiety Disorder, I can say my relationships have suffered from having to always explain and defend some of the things I do that are out of the ordinary. I understand the need for a partner who is not only aware of one's mental state but also knows the right things to say and do.

Below are a few suggestions on how to approach mental health issues when in a relationship with someone with a mental illness.

Your partner Is more than their mental illness.

Even though your partner's mental state is a huge part of their life, it is unhealthy for you to reduce them to just that. Seeing them through a wholesome light, the same way you'd see any other person would make your partner feel respected and loved.

Let them know they can talk about anything with you.

One major suggestion therapists and doctors give to people with mental illness is to try to talk about how they're feeling with someone they can trust. It is important for you not to judge or try to make light of the lived experience of your partner. To help you understand what your partner is going through, you need to create the kind of atmosphere that can encourage them to trust you enough to discuss their mental state with you.

Listen More, Talk Less.

When your partner approaches you about their mental state, the chances are that they just want to know that you are there to listen. They want to know that you are their safe space outside of their mind. It is better to not quickly try to rationalise or cut their thoughts short just so you can get a word in, or worse, try to compare their pain with yours. Sitting close to them or attentively keeping them company from over the phone while they pour themselves out to you often helps improve how they feel.

Encourage them kindly to seek help.

I'd once had a partner who, in the middle of my most devastating anxiety spike, barked at me to go seek for help. They were right. I needed to see a therapist or counsellor yet it didn't feel like they were trying to help me, or that they even cared so long as it didn't affect them in any way. I felt insulted and would live with that shame for a very long time. We all know it is important to seek help, and that we want to see the ones we love get better, but this can be achieved only when you encourage them with kindness and a little, but not spiteful, push.

Remember that there is only so much you can do.

While it varies depending on what mental illness one is struggling with, your care and attention can be sufficient or overbearing. The key is to pay attention to what your partner needs. When they request for some time alone or when they ask to do certain things without you, it is all in a bid to retain a sense of self. And while you might think you can always be there when your partner needs you, you must know that there is only so much you can do, and sometimes you have to step back a little bit.

If you are struggling with your mental health and need someone to talk to, Mentally Aware Nigeria Initiative is one of the platforms in Nigeria committed to promoting mental health as a critical part of overall wellness. Find them on Twitter, @MentallyAwareNG.

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