Often when I speak at events I am approached by an audience member during the break asking for tips on how they can support someone they love who experiences mental ill-health. Their desire to help is strong but the idea bank is running close to empty. They often find their situation gruelling, exhausting, and even heartbreaking. Frequently they feel like their own wellbeing is becoming compromised.
After receiving a message from someone in my network on this topic recently, I thought it might be useful to share some ideas about how you could support a partner who’s struggling while maintaining your resilience and wellbeing.
Hold onto hope.
The first thing to remember is that nothing lasts forever. When things get difficult or particularly dark it can be hard to hold onto hope and the bigger picture perspective that everything changes. There are ebbs and flows in everything. This particularly difficult period will not last forever.
Holding onto a sense of hope that things can and will get better is so important, not just for your partner’s mental health and overall sense of light in your household but also for your own mental wellbeing.
Research has shown hope to be significantly correlated with enhanced interpersonal relationships and greater physical and psychological well-being, amongst other things. High hope individuals have a higher likelihood of viewing stressful situations as challenging rather than threatening, which reduces the intensity and escalations of stress.
Positive storytelling and hope journaling are two strategies you could consider to increase your sense of hope. Be aware of the language you use when telling the story of your life to others or yourself as well as the daily stories you are telling yourself. Could your perspective come from a place of hopefulness for the future?
Hope journaling is the practice of writing around the topic of hope in your life. You can use question prompts such as: “Where do I have hope in my life?” “How can I create a greater sense of hope for myself and my partner?” “What activities/conversations make me feel hopeful?” You can create a daily practice of asking yourself “Where did I feel hope today?” This starts to prime your brain to look for hope.
Create a habit of celebrating the small wins with your partner. Did they smile today? Maybe they went for a walk or made a healthy food choice. When a cloud of heaviness starts to hang over us or our relationship we tend to stop seeing the little moments of forward progress. Putting conscious intent into noticing the small moments of forward momentum and improvement helps bring our focus back to the positive and the possibilities of change. This strategy need not only apply to your partner’s behaviour. Recognise the moments where you were able to be extra patient or felt moments of love and joy as well.
Be aware of how you view your partner and the beliefs you hold about them.
There is a theory called the observer-expectancy effect, which suggests that reality can be positively or negatively influenced by the expectations of others. One of the first studies to look at whether expectations positively influenced performance was conducted by Harvard psychologist Robert Rosenthal and elementary school principal Lenore Jacobson in the 1960s. They chose students at random and told the teachers that these children had scored particularly highly on a Harvard aptitude test and were expected to be high performers. The study tracked these children’s performance over the next few years to see how the teachers’ expectations would affect them. The results showed how students, where teachers had higher expectations, had a higher likelihood of making greater gains in their academic performance.
This psychological phenomenon has now been coined the “Pygmalion effect” after a Greek myth regarding a sculptor who falls in love with a statue he carved. Researchers believe that his Pygmalion effect occurs because of the way our beliefs shape our behaviour.
“When we expect certain behaviours of others, we are likely to act in ways that make the expected behaviour more likely to occur.” (Rosenthal and Babad, 1985)
How do you view your partner? Are you seeing all the positive changes and growth even if they’re small steps? Do you believe change is possible? What expectations do you have? Are they positive or negative?
Sometimes it can be easy to just ascribe someone else’s behaviour as their problem without looking at how you might be supporting or hindering their potential. Which takes me into my next point.
Empower your partner.
Mental health struggles can be one of the most disempowering experiences. It can feel like your own mind is giving up on you. There is a feeling of a loss of control. You no longer feel like the person you once were. That’s why one of the keys to improvement is building up a sense of empowerment again.
When someone is struggling either with physical or mental wellbeing we often need to step in and offer support for things that would otherwise be easy. However, it’s a fine line between support and enabling. So much power has already been taken away from someone who’s struggling that it’s important to bring back some sense of personal choice.
One way of putting this into action is by encouraging your partner to voice their needs. Instead of assuming what they need, ask them, and be willing to actually listen to their answers. A good way of asking this is to say “I love you and support you and I want to help you. I know that you’re the person that best knows what you need right now, so how can I support you right now?” They might not have an immediate answer but I encourage you to be patient and keep asking. This question can also be powerful in helping tackle some of the guilt or shame your partner might feel around needing help and support.
Too often we start to see someone as helpless and further feed their disempowerment. Instead, start to have conversations around empowerment. Ask your partner what helps them feel empowered, what helps them feel like they have some power and control? Where have they been able to take action and it left them feeling different? Even if they don’t have clear answers to these questions at first, the questions are opening a pathway in their thinking again to consider how they can help themselves and be helped by others.
Build healthy habits.
A healthy diet and exercise have been shown by numerous studies to have a positive effect on mental wellbeing. You can’t force or control a partner to take up a healthy diet or exercise but you can encourage them by modelling healthy behaviour.
By choosing to make healthy choices for yourself you not only increase your own resilience and ability to cope with stressors you also act as encouragement for your partner. When someone is struggling it can be very hard for them to motivate themselves to exercise and move or make healthy food choices. By taking on these activities together, you can create some positive extrinsic motivation and hereby help your partner. Maybe set a goal together to go for a walk once a week together. Or cook a healthy meal with lots of veggies. Not only is this supporting the physical and mental wellbeing for both of you, but it can also bring back a sense of togetherness and connection through having a shared goal.
Finally, know that it’s okay to acknowledge your own struggles. It’s okay that this is really hard. That sometimes maybe you even think about throwing in the towel. You’re human and you’re holding up your own wellbeing and trying to support a loved one at the same time. It’s important to acknowledge your own needs. You can’t support someone else if you’re running on empty as well. Sometimes that also means looking at healthy boundaries in terms of how much you can give and asking others for help when you need it or can’t be there. Make sure you have the support around you that you need. Whether that’s friends who are willing to take the kids for a night or just someone you feel safe talking to. You are loved and sometimes it just takes reaching out and saying “hey I need some help” to take some of the heavy burden off.
Lazarus, R.S. & Launier, R. (1978). Stress related transactions between person and environment. In L.A. Pervin & M. Lewis (Eds.), Perspectives In Interactional Psychology. New York: Plenum Press.
Rand, K.L. & Cheavens, J.S. (2012). Hope Theory. In S.J. Lopez & C.R.Snyder (Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology. London: OUP.
Rosenthal, R., and E. Y. Babad. (1985). Pygmalion in the gymnasium. Educational Leadership 43 (1): 36–39.
Stathopoulou G, Powers MB, Berry AC, et al. (2006) Exercise interventions for mental health: a quantitative and qualitative review. Clin Psychol (New York) 13: 179-193.
Donna Thistlethwaite is a Brisbane-based speaker and trainer specialising in mental health and resilience. She is an accredited Mental Health First Aid instructor with a passion for suicide prevention and for helping individuals, teams and organisations to THRIVE.