Love and Mental Health

We have isolated mental health topics for when famous people commit suicide; even then, we rush and make sure to sweep the topic under the carpet as soon as possible. What has made mental illnesses such a taboo in our society? Why can’t we have PDV (Public Display of Vulnerability) as much as we have PDA (Public Display of Affection)? Why not talk about mental illnesses as much as we talk about cancer and other physical illnesses? Why not include mental health in the curriculum and talk about it in our work spaces? Since February is the month of love I thought it fit to do an article on love and mental illnesses as we do not talk about it as often as we should.

Mahatma Gandhi is often quoted for saying, “Where there is love there is life.” Relationships are known to improve a person’s ability to manage stress and can help to decrease anxiety and depression. Human beings are social creatures and we all ought to have a level of social connectedness, as well as nurture stable, loving and fulfilling relationships. Relationships that are secure and even healing when one is faced with the demons in their heads. Recently, mental illnesses and disorders have become more and more prevalent. Studies have shown that one in every four Kenyans suffer a mental illness at some point in their life. As such then, we are in one way going to encounter a loved one, a colleague or even we are going to need help as far as mental wellness is concerned.

There is a great stigma attached to mental illnesses in Kenya and in Africa, making people shy of from disclosing their mental illnesses even to those closest to them like family members and spouses. Great long-term relationships require honesty, openness and trust. It is therefore important that one discloses their mental illness to their partner before experiencing an episode that could bring it into the open, causing mistrust and misunderstanding. Females in relationships are known to be more open with their mental illnesses to their partners as opposed to males. This is likely due to the fact that men grow up accustomed to not showing their vulnerability causing them to bear all their struggles silently.

As far as the topic of love is concerned, how likely is it that we know about our spouses’ mental health conditions, how long into a relationship do we wait before disclosing our mental illnesses to our partners? If you battle a mental illness, does your partner know you take medication for it? What care should we give to a loved one with a mental illness and how exactly do we react when our partner or friend discloses to us that they have a mental illness?

It is important that one shares their mental health condition with their partner especially since they would be the one “bailing you out” during an episode as they spend the most time with you. Even so, one is left wondering how long into a relationship they would need to wait before disclosing their mental illness to their partner. In a relationship, one is able to know when they are comfortable enough with their partner to share their darkest secrets. One of the best love cards I have seen reads “I knew you were the one when I farted and you did not run away”. Such kind of comfort around our partners puts us in a space where we know we shall not be judged no matter what. Our guts though will always tell us when the time is right to share such information with our partners. In most cases, men tend to wait longer than women to disclose their diagnosis probably due to the fact that men feel more stigma surrounding their mental health.

Closely related to the issue of diagnosis is the issue of using medication for one’s mental illnesses. Some people do not disclose the fact that they use medication for their conditions again due to the stigma surrounding mental illnesses. Medical treatment is a private issue but it is important we share it with the people we trust, our families and our partners.

Support from partners and family is very key for a mental illness patient’s recovery. Often, when we are open about our mental illnesses and struggles, partners are more likely to provide their support especially the follow through of therapy, medication and when one has an episode or relapses. How then do we love someone with a mental illness? What happens when my partner of two years suddenly discloses to me that they were diagnosed with bipolar disorder at the age of 17?

People suffering from mental illnesses are not suddenly different people because they are sick. When having their different episodes they are not monsters neither do they become human once they recover. Mental illnesses are illnesses that can change our loved ones’ circumstances. I have seen it happen with my friends one, two too many times. The illness has the ability to change one’s personality, their interests, their warmth, their spirit and strength. However at the end of the day, the person is the same one you have always loved. The world being so misunderstanding and rough to them, they need you being the closest person to them, to see them for who they are despite their illnesses and the demons they have to fight in their heads daily. Below are a few tips on how to do that:

  1. Be empathetic and validate their struggles. Validation is acknowledging that a person has a feeling, even if we don’t agree that it’s an appropriate feeling to have or the response we would have in similar circumstances Usually, we feel bad for a person when their circumstances is the worst we’ve heard, we appreciate a struggle if we didn’t easily overcome something similar. This should not be the case. We should avoid saying things like “I know you’re having a hard time but it could be worse, someone is having it tougher.” and accustom ourselves to saying things like, “I don’t know exactly how you are feeling, but I am here for you.” This reduces the chance that our loved ones feel alone in their pain and we strengthen the chance that they’ll be vulnerable enough to reach out to us in their times of need.
  2. Learn all you can about your loved one’s particular illness and do not take any of it personally. It can be very difficult to be the person on the receiving end of these symptoms, it can feel like a personal attack and those feelings can understandably get in the way of compassion; because of that it is just as important for family members and spouses to have a network of support as it is for the person struggling with the illness.
  3. Be present. Supporting our loved ones with mental illnesses can be challenging and we are left under immense pressure not knowing what to do or say since anything we do or not do, anything we say or do not say, can be taken negatively by our loved ones who suffer mental illnesses. There is no instruction manual on what to do or say to make it better for them but always being present for them and knowing they can always count on you can be everything they need.
  4. When not physically present for your loved one as might be the case at times, keep in close touch and let them know they can count on you even when you are miles away.
  5. Help your loved one seek professional attention. When things get tough for them let them know that the hospital is a viable option, take them there to see a therapist and when they are put under medication ensure to encourage them to follow through the prescription.
  6. Understand that no matter how much you love your partner, you cannot be able to fix them. You cannot be able to rescue them so cut yourself some slack and do not be angry when your loved one does not seem to be getting better no matter your great effort. .Never try to fix them, just be there and let nature run its cause :-)

For everyone suffering from a mental illness, let that not be a hindrance to your seeking of a fulfilling relationship. And to those in relationships with people battling different mental illnesses, learning of your partner’s mental illness should never be a deal breaker. Use that as an opportunity to learn about mental illnesses and also be the greatest rock you can be.

For the rest of society we all need to embrace love and kindness wherever we go. People have major mental health conditions and have to go to work every day. From the customer service agents in telecoms you call shouting at because your line is yet to be registered correctly a week after you made your first call, to the waiters and waitresses that serve you at your favorite restaurant, to the security guard you bark at in the estate, to your coworker who always seems clueless, any of them could have to clock in with their condition. Be kind!