If you’ve noticed changes in your partner’s mood and behaviour, it may be a sign that they are experiencing mental health issues. It’s okay to be worried, and normal to wonder how you can help them to access support. You may have already tried to talk to them about your concerns, only to be rebuffed, hear them deny there’s a problem, or attempt to change the subject. Don’t give up – there are ways you can support your partner to seek help.
Talking about mental health problems can feel really confronting for some people, especially if you or your partner were raised in a family or community where this was not encouraged. Taking control by seeking help for mental health is an act of courage, and it takes strength.
Many people find it really hard to reach out – but when they do, there’s often overwhelming relief that support is available. By sharing the burden of what they’re going through, the weight of isolation lifts, and the path to recovery becomes clearer.
Before you initiate a conversation with your partner about their mental health, it’s important that you educate yourself about the signs and symptoms of a decline in mental health – and what kind of help is available when your partner is open to talking to someone.
Below are some common indicators that your partner might not be coping as well as usual:
- Changes to sleep: either sleeping much more than usual, frequently fatigued – or broken sleep, and sleeping a lot less.
- Mood swings: either feeling flat and low, or agitated with a noticeable increase in irritability and frustration.
- Increase in negative self-talk, anxious perfectionism.
- Appetite fluctuations: an increase or decrease in appetite, or changes to the types of food they’re consuming (eg more sweets, carbs, ‘junk’ food)
- Self-neglect: this includes poor personal hygiene (eg wearing the same dirty clothes, not showering or shaving), not taking prescribed medications or attending regular health professional appointments, reduction in housekeeping or not attending to financial responsibilities.
- Increase in use of alcohol, tobacco or other drugs.
- Changes to libido, sexual activity and desire for intimacy.
- Social withdrawal, lack of interest in everyday life.
If your partner is experiencing any of the mood and behavioural changes listed above, they would benefit from seeing a GP for a mental health assessment. If your partner is not comfortable seeing their GP to discuss their mental health, but is open to counselling, they can also book straight in to see a counsellor without a referral.
Practical ways you can help them include:
- Booking a GP appointment with your partner’s consent.
- Researching counsellors in your area, and discussing suitable options with your partner
- Offering to attend the GP appointment or first counselling session with your partner as their support person. Sometimes having a loved one nearby in the waiting room can be very reassuring.
Ways to approach talking to your partner
Find a time when both of you are able to be present – it might be first thing in the morning when you wake up, after the kids are in bed, or you might like to set aside some time on the weekend to check in. If you know your partner is someone who dreads and avoids “big” conversations, sometimes taking a walk together can be helpful. Being outside with eyes focused on the path ahead (rather than locking eyes across the table or room) can create a bit of breathing space for you both and diffuse the intensity of the discussion.
When talking to your partner about your concerns, it’s a good idea to start the conversation using “I statements” instead of “you” statements. “You” statements can be interpreted as judgemental or accusatory, and put your partner on the defensive.
Here are some examples. “I” statements are an invitation to talk, “you” statements tend to shut down discussions, and lead to arguments:
“I feel like you’ve been drinking a lot more lately, and I’m worried that you might be stressed about something. Can we please check in?”
“You’ve been drinking every night this week, there’s obviously something wrong. You need to stop.”
“I noticed that you seem really tired and have called in sick a lot this month. I’m concerned about you, and I love you. I’m here if you need to talk”.
“If you keep sleeping in and taking days off they might fire you. You need to see someone.”
When someone is experiencing problems with their mental health, it can be hard to find words to express the raw emotions and thoughts that are swirling around. You can support your partner by listening without interruption as they talk, perhaps giving non-verbal encouragement to keep sharing (nodding, smiling, holding their hand). If you provide a safe, nonjudgmental space for your partner, they in turn may feel less vulnerable and open to exploring support options with you.
If your partner is highly self-critical and hard on themselves, it might be helpful to use a mindfulness strategy called ‘self-distancing’. Ask your partner to imagine that you, or a friend had come to them with the same problems or issue. Would they be so harsh in their evaluation of what was happening, so quick to lay blame or responsibility? Self-distancing may help your partner to get some perspective by considering the issue from another angle: an adaptive, self-reflective viewpoint that allows for caring, kindness and support – which is likely exactly what they haven’t given themselves permission to feel.
What NOT to do
Often when we see someone we love struggling with mental health issues, our focus is on finding a quick, effective solution to the problem at hand. This desire to “fix” what is happening can do more harm than good however
People often report that unsolicited advice and suggestions from their partner can leave them feeling more isolated in their distress and ashamed that they are not coping. Telling your partner you have the solution to their problems can feel like an added burden of expectation and pressure to get better quickly.
Here are some of the approaches that we recommend you avoid:
- Don’t minimise what is happening:
If your partner tells you they’re stressed and not coping, take them seriously. Saying “Things aren’t that bad” or “You’re fine, don’t worry so much” can feel dismissive and decrease their help-seeking motivation, due to feelings of shame or guilt.
- Don’t invalidate their experience:
It might be tempting to say “You need to get over it and move on” or “Stop being so down – you just need to think more positively”. Good mental health isn’t a light switch that can be flicked on and off – suggesting that it’s easy to feel better can actually increase negative self-talk and stigma around mental health problems.
- Don’t give advice:
This may be hard to hear, because you want to help so much. If your partner is talking to you about how they’re feeling, your only job right now is to listen. Listen with care and compassion to what they’re saying. Unwanted advice can feel patronising, and leave your partner feeling that you’re not really paying attention to what they’re trying to share with you.
Your partner is the expert on their life – let them guide you. It’s okay to ask questions to clarify what they think might be helpful. You can encourage your partner to talk by being curious and kind, reassuring them that you’re available to chat, and letting them know that when they are ready, you will support them to access help.
Maintaining good mental health and wellbeing is an ongoing commitment, and when there are multiple stressors at play it’s important to allow space and time for your partner to find their own path to recovery.
Your partner may not feel ready to talk to you about what’s happening, and it can be hard not to take that personally. Remember – your partner is responsible for their own wellbeing and mental health, and ultimately they are the one who needs to decide to seek support. You might suggest that your partner try talking to a family member, or a friend instead – and focus on looking after yourself until they are ready to talk to you.
Caring for your partner = looking after yourself too
Living with someone experiencing mental health issues can be stressful and exhausting, and the risk of caregiver burnout is real. An article by US National Libary of Medicine called ‘Mental Disorder and Caregiver Burden in Spouses‘, the study supports “the notion that there is an association between mental disorder in one partner and subjective burden in the spouse”.
Make sure you make your own wellbeing a priority too. Keep some balance by doing things you enjoy, and stay connected to loved ones for support, even if your partner doesn’t feel like socialising. It might be helpful for you to speak to a counsellor yourself about the impact your partner’s mental health issues are having on your relationship and own wellbeing. Sometimes leading by example – and accessing support yourself – can show your partner that there’s no shame in seeking treatment and that positive change is possible.
Marcus Andrews is the founder and director of Life Supports, which was established in 2002. He has extensive professional experience working as a counsellor and family therapist across a broad range of issues. The core component of his role at Life Supports involves the supervision of other counsellors, including secondary consultations. Marcus has worked in many sectors, including private, government, non-profit, health, forensic and community practice.