According to the National Institute of Mental Health, roughly 26.2 percent of American adults suffer from a diagnosable mental illness in a given year. While you personally may be fortunate to not meet the criteria for a mental health diagnosis, there is a very good chance that one of your loved ones does. Here are six tips of what to do if your spouse is diagnosed with a mental illness.
1. Show support and sympathy to your spouse. Receiving a mental illness diagnosis can be painful, embarrassing and even terrifying. There is so much uncertainty and stigma associated with mental illness that many sufferers worry that nobody could possibly love or want to be married to them. Letting your spouse know that you are there for and love him or her will go a long way to strengthening his or her resolve to seek out professional help and learning to manage the illness. Conversely, negative reactions from spouses can potentially cause mentally ill persons to experience increased symptoms and feelings of hopelessness.
2. Educate yourself. In general, most people are uninformed about mental illness. There are numerous myths about the origins and best treatments of different mental health disorders that can be very harmful to the sufferer if perpetuated. Often, persons will the best intentions of trying to help can do the most damage. Statements such as “you have so much you should be grateful for” or “you have to think positively” are not helpful and generally only cause guilt for those who are almost undoubtedly already feeling ashamed. Seek out quality literature about your spouse’s diagnosis and discover what things are helpful and what are not.
3. Do not become his or her therapist. As previously stated, it is important to educate yourself about your spouse’s illness. However, it is absolutely not your job to be his or her therapist. Doing so is not fair to you or to your spouse. Your job is to love your spouse, be sympathetic and aid in her or his recovery in appropriate fashion. Even if you are clinically trained to work with different mental illnesses, all fields that work with mental health issues strongly prohibit such intimate dual relationships. Remember your role and let the trained professionals do their jobs.
4. Do not enable your spouse. While sympathy and patience are essential to your spouse’s recovery, enabling the person to avoid working out issues and receiving help will only harm him or her. Mental illness is not the sufferer’s fault, but it is his or her problem. Those with a mental health diagnosis are responsible for taking steps to manage their illness so that they can be productive and equal partners with their spouses.
5. Consider marriage counseling. In an informative article called “Beating the Marriage Odds,” David Karp, a sociology professor at Boston College, states that spouses of mentally ill person “may experience emotions they don’t think they should be having—anger, frustration, and even hate.”
Loving someone with a mental illness can be a roller coaster and emotionally exhausting. Attending marriage counseling can help explore these emotions in a productive manner and also help couples establish healthy boundaries and expectations.
6. Take care of yourself. Caregiver fatigue is very real. Spouses of patients with seriously debilitating physical or mental illnesses often see significant deterioration of their own overall health. This fatigue can cause burnout where the caretaker simply has no more empathy to give. To combat this, spouses with an ill partner need to take steps to maintain their own health. If your spouse is diagnosed with a mental health issue, make sure you get plenty of sleep and exercise but also continue to engage in enjoyable outlets and things you enjoy doing.
For more information about mental health issues, log on to the National Alliance on Mental Illness’s website: www.nami.org.