How to Navigate Mental Illness in a Relationship

According to people with depression.
April 17, 2019, 3:55pm
how to navigate mental illness in a relationship.
Mitchell and Richard | Image courtesy of author. 

When my boyfriend first started showing signs of depression, I was sure it was indicative of a failure on my part. I thought, I must not be enough, because if I were, his sadness would not exist. His sadness would evaporate under the glorious sun beam that is Me And My Love.

I have since learned that I am not all-powerful and that depression is a fair bit sturdier than a collection of mist particles; you cannot shoot a love-laser at it and expect disintegration. Despite the popularity of All-You-Need-Is-Love narratives and “Love Conquers All” as a song title—seriously, everyone from Lionel Richie to Deep Purple has written a song called this—you cannot solve the chemical sadness of another person, no matter how much care exists within your relationship.


So what can you do? Anything? Depression is a paralyzing illness, but wanting to provide help without know-how can be extremely daunting as well, especially since we’ve been conditioned to think that shared love means automatically knowing what each other wants and needs in every scenario. But love does not make us telepathic, and so VICE decided to ask people with depression about how their partners and close friends can best help them navigate mental illness. Because even though we may not be able to kiss our lovers back to health a la Sleeping Beauty, we can at least validate their experience, help them see a therapist, or even prevent them from going on a spontaneous multi-day hike—something their hypomanic brain has deemed a “great idea.”

Alex, 28

VICE: In what ways has your partner helped you navigate depression?
Alex: Honestly, the best thing my partner did for my mental health struggles was say “I love you and I want to support you but I don’t know how to do that, so instead I want to help you find a therapist so that you can get the help you deserve.”

How long have you been with your partner, and when did you first start to talk about mental health in your relationship?
We’ve been together for five and a half years. I've struggled with my mental health for a long time. Mostly anxiety and depression and I think I have always been pretty open with him about my mental state—or as open as you can be when you’re feeling dark and overwhelmed and you aren't sure why. I'd say we talked openly about it like one-and-a-half to two years into our relationship.


Has there been a specific moment where your partner really “showed-up” for you, and what did that look like?
A few years ago, maybe three years after being together, I was having a hard time and after a particularly bad meltdown at the grocery store Lucas and I both took the day off work and we just gardened all day. I don't really even like gardening but it was his idea of a distraction from my over-thinking. And honestly, it was so helpful, just to know that he was willing to try things with me to help me feel better. This past year has been tough for me. I'd say my mental health was in the worst state that I've ever experienced in November of this year. And that was when Lucas encouraged me to talk to a therapist. Because it was negatively impacting our relationship and he felt like he was failing me. And that is just the worst. So I started seeing a therapist in January. I go pretty regularly and it's helped a ton! Lucas always asks how my appointments are, and he has said that if I want to share more about them, I can, but if I want to keep that to myself then that’s OK.

andrea, 34

VICE: How can your partner best support you when you’re feeling low?
andrea: For depression, gentle nudges like “it's time to go to the doctor, I think.” I'm bipolar II so it's actually more important for hypomanic periods, which for me usually just last a few days now; I need my partner to help me enforce choices like going to bed on time, cutting caffeine intake to one cup of coffee per day, getting exercise, and, like, texting throughout the day to make sure that I haven't decided that a spontaneous multi-day hike is a GREAT IDEA.

I'm assuming it took some time for you to reach a place of open communication in your relationship. What has the process of opening up about your mental health, and speaking about your wants and needs, with your partner been like?
The first time I was diagnosed with depression, I was eight. I was diagnosed bipolar II at 18. After my diagnosis with bipolar II, it took a few years to stabilize, and to learn what I needed to do to continue to be stable. One of the most important things for me was and is accepting that periods of mental illness are part of my life. Being bipolar II is part of who I am. There isn't some parallel universe “well” me who I could be if I stripped away the highs and lows and serotonin.

It's also extremely important to learn to advocate for yourself if mental illness is part of your life. You won't necessarily get the correct treatment if you don't learn how to do that. Long story short, I met my partner several years after I’d learned all this, and I was up front with him from the get-go about my diagnosis and what that meant in the context of my life. We both were. Good communication was a foundation for building our relationship, which started as a friendship and later turned into a relationship. I've always been more nervous about disclosing in the context of work relationships than friend relationships or relationship-relationships. I don't want my ability to pay my rent to go away based on perceptions of what accommodations I might need and what that means for my productivity. In relationships or friendships, there isn't that same stricture. It's easier for me to be open. If the person needs to walk away, they need to walk away, and that's fine.

Trevor, 36

How can your partner best support you when you’re feeling low?
Trevor: Presence. Meeting me for lunch regularly. Saying “I am here for you,” without being prompted.

And is there any behaviour that would actually make your depression worse? Like any well-meaning but misguided responses they could have?
My biggest trigger is when someone refers to me as “family” without realizing the weight it puts on me. I’ve been called family many times in my life, only to have it not actually be forever like a family is. Even just a work environment where the culture is referred to as a family, really pushes my panic button.


Can you recall a specific time when you were feeling low, but then a friend or partner said or did the absolute right thing?
One time, I was a mess, and three of my friends showed up to my house, with flowers and refilled my entire liquor cabinet. They didn’t come in coddling me. They came in laughing, joyful with each other. Almost ignoring me. I didn’t feel like a patient. I just felt cared for in a way I never have before.

Yeah, I feel like not making someone feel like a patient is really important.
It was probably the warmest I’ve ever felt interpersonally in my life.

Jocelyn, 26

VICE: What has your experience with depression been, and how important have close friendships and family been in terms of your mental health and wellness?
Jocelyn: I have been very lucky to have had really solid support from both friends and family over the years, so there are a lot of things I could pinpoint, but the two times I was at my absolute lowest it really came down to tough love and accountability. In the first instance, my mom literally dialled the number for a counsellor and held the phone out to me—she knew she couldn't make the appointment for me, but she also knew that my head was in a place where I wouldn't physically be able to make that call, and it made all the difference. It was a hard push toward taking the incremental steps on my own that lead me to a much happier and healthier life.

In the second case, I had been stuck in a steadily-declining state of mind for about a year, progressively sinking deeper and deeper. Up until that point I had been confident that my time in counselling had given me all the tools I needed to manage my mental health, and the idea that I couldn't manage it made me feel like a failure—which made it worse, what a joy! It was a type of depression that I wasn't used to, so I ignored it for a long time, until it started to get scary. I went to visit my best friend, and after a twenty-minute conversation he just got tough on me: “you're going to go the doctor on Monday. You're going to ask for an antidepressant. I'm going to check in to make sure you've done it and I'm going to bug you every day until you do.” And it was that demand for accountability from my friend that got me to the doctor and got me on medication that has completely turned my life around.

Elaine, 40

VICE: How can a significant other best support you when you’re depressed?
Elaine: Go to the store to get me candy or whatever I need to feel better. Leave me alone for a few hours. Take me for a drive in the car.

So are these actions something your partner should just DO, without being prompted, or would you rather be the one to ask for these things?
Generally speaking I don’t mind if they do things on their own for me, as in, things that don’t involve my participation. I don’t like to be pushed into anything. So going to the store and getting a treat without asking is good but pressuring me to go outside when I can’t is not good. I prefer he just ask if I feel like doing something rather than insisting on it.

Are there any particular behaviours, like from a partner, that are triggering or detrimental to your mental state?
The only things I really don’t like are when my partner starts getting upset that I’m upset—as in mad or emotional—or tries to force me to do something they think will help. Mostly I just want a lot of space and no witnesses to my low mood, so it’s best my partner keeps his distance. Honestly I feel bad for Evan—it’s pretty tough on him when I’m down in the hole, as I’m not always the kindest in that state. My best advice is give your depressed partner space and do your best to let go of their low mood when they suddenly come out of it.

Mitchell, 29

VICE: What advice you'd give to people who are trying to help their partners deal with depression?
Mitchell: There's one important thing people need to remember before trying to help anyone with depression: no matter what you do for them, no matter what medication they are prescribed, et cetera, they will still possibly struggle some days, and that is absolutely OK. It’s not my partner's job to fix me or make my depression go away.

Is there anything that’s helped you personally, though?
The best thing a partner can do is be patient and supportive by being respectful that they may not be up for doing everything they normally would. Like if I am feeling extremely down, or anxious, my partner doesn't push me to go to social events we are invited to. And if I go out anyway, we have—over time, and through trial and error—found ways to communicate that I'm not handling it well and we find a way to leave if need be.

What does that communication look like?
So Richard is a total social butterfly. But at a party, he tries to keep an eye on me if we're not standing or sitting together. If I’m not doing well, and he can visibly see it, he’ll find a way to talk to me quietly. Or I’ll go to him and whisper. Or if we are at a table across from each other, I'll message him and get his attention to hint him to check.

I'm assuming it took some time to establish such close communication, though. Was disclosing your depression a difficult thing to do?
It definitely took time to establish how to communicate appropriately. We actually met in a funny way. We had encountered once before when I was bartending, but nothing happened. Then a mutual friend invited me to his place on Gabriola Island and asked me if I could pick up a friend of his on my way through Vancouver. Of course, the friend I picked up was Richard, and so we had the drive and two ferry rides to talk and get to know each other. A lot of deep and personal stuff came up as we bonded quickly. He was super compassionate and a great listener, gently asked sensitive questions. He made me comfortable enough to open up a bit about it. Honestly, just talking to him without it being a first date or meeting online first made it easier to be so open about things.

Sign up for the VICE Canada Newsletter to get the best of VICE Canada delivered to your inbox.

Follow Mica Lemiski on Twitter.