Supporting Someone with a Mental Health Issue – Part 2

relationships self-care Aug 23, 2021

Supporting someone you care about who’s struggling with a mental health issue can be challenging and stressful. And for men who have no prior caregiving experience or are uncomfortable seeking outside support, the challenge is doubled.

Traditionally, women comprise the majority of family caregivers, but the number of men entering the role is steadily increasing, up from 33% to 40% over the past decade. Men often find themselves caring for a spouse, but without the proper support or experience, they find themselves out of their depths.

As “fixers and providers” men are programmed to solve problems quickly, however, the chronic ups and downs of a loved one’s mental health status can leave them feeling frustrated, stressed and overwhelmed. The problem is that they rarely admit to anyone, including themselves, they are struggling, which only perpetuates the problem.

From here, there are two main ways to approach the situation - you can either learn to care for yourself, or suffer the likely consequence of burnout. 

First, I’d like to validate that if you’re caring for a loved one with a mental health issue, you are playing a valuable role in that person’s life. Just because it’s difficult, doesn’t mean you’re doing a bad job. However, if you find yourself on a roller coaster of feelings ranging from anger and grief to hopeful expectation, you’re not alone.

For a lot of men who have navigated the untamed territory of another person’s mental health, particularly someone that they love, there is a tremendous amount of personal understanding and knowledge that can come from the experience – about yourself, the person whom you care for, and your relationship.

So let’s explore the challenges of caring for someone who’s struggling with a mental health issue and the importance of caring for yourself.

In the airplane, you’re told to put on your own oxygen mask before helping someone else. The same applies to taking care of a loved one during a mental health crisis, where it’s absolutely vital to maintain your own physical and mental health.

Being intentional about caring for others also translates to caring for yourself too. I refer to this as ‘keeping the axe sharp’. Because it’s hard to tackle any task when you are not your best.

The Distress Commonly Experienced by Caregivers:

It’s possible that at the beginning of caring for your loved one you were feeling gung-ho, ready to help in any way you could. Over time, however, the toll it takes to care for someone with a mental condition, especially one that requires constant care, can wear you down and can even lead to the development of your own mental health issues, like anxiety or depression. 

Maybe it affects your performance at work, your relationships with friends and other family members, or your physical health. Without being very intentional about setting healthy boundaries and clear expectations, garnering professional support, and prioritizing your own physical and mental wellbeing, the responsibility of caregiving can negatively affect your quality of life.

When you reach the point of burnout, the quality of care that you are able to provide can drastically decline. When this occurs, you might find yourself disengaging from offering support because you’re dealing with your own experience of burnout. If at this point you begin to feel guilty or inadequate as a caregiver, or if you resent the person you are caring for, it’s important to give yourself a break and seek out the support you need to regain your peace of mind.

Having a structured plan to care for yourself while you’re caring for another is an important part of the equation. Take a moment to write down your thoughts and ideas on your needs and expectations that will allow you to protect your wellbeing so that you can be the best version of yourself to help someone else.

Here are 6 tactics to consider as you develop your caregiver plan.

Tactic 1: Set and communicate expectations.

It’s easy to be sucked into caring too much or offering high levels of support indefinitely. Be honest with yourself about how much time, energy and attention you can give without becoming depleted, and then communicate this with the person for whom you are caring. Of course, you may need to amend this agreement as time goes on and circumstances change.

Now that you’ve outlined what can be expected from you, clarify what you expect from them. If there are particular expectations of action you would like to see them take, for example, seeking therapeutic help, or adopting a particular healthy behavior, it’s important to know what specific change you’d like to observe/experience and communicate these expectations upfront.

For example, you might say: “I know that you’re having a hard time at the moment, and in order to support you to my best ability, I’d like to invite you to take some positive action in seeking professional help. Would you be willing and able to do this?” 

Reaffirm you are there for them and support their journey towards health, while also letting them know how the actions they take (or don’t take) might affect your relationship with them. If they are open to seeking additional support or professional help, ask if you can help source these options for them.

Tactic 2: Practice Self-Care.

For some men, the term self-care conjures up images of bubble baths and relaxing massages, and while there is nothing wrong with those options, at its core self-care is simply the practice of prioritizing your own health and happiness. While practicing self-care is as easy as it is important, it’s often the first thing to fall by the wayside when you’re extremely focused on caring for someone else.

Because we all deal with stress differently, what we choose to ‘keep the axe sharp’ is personal and subjective. Taking a moment to plan and prepare the various activities or actions as a way to ensure we’re ready to step back is extremely helpful. Taking a break from your caregiver responsibilities, spending time with friends, focusing on a favorite pursuit or interest are all options to have ready in the wings. 

Start by thinking about the activities that help you feel rejuvenated and joyful and schedule time each week for those activities. Maybe it’s going to the gym, or hiking in nature or playing pool with friends. Putting these on your calendar as a non-negotiable ensures you don’t let your “me time” slip away.

Another obvious element of self-care is making sure you’re eating healthy foods and getting enough sleep so you’re body is at its best! 

Tactic 3: Communicate your needs and boundaries.

Another way you can practice self-care and optimize your daily interactions with your partner is to be acutely aware of your needs, to communicate those needs and to set clear boundaries that honor your needs.

Setting boundaries might sound like this: “I know you want me home straight after work, however, I need to exercise at the gym for forty minutes to stay fit and healthy, then I’ll be home straight afterward.” 

We often don’t recognize when a personal boundary or expectation has been breached until it happens, so we need to stay flexible in order to communicate what action is needed. Remember, you are constantly evolving and what you are able to tolerate one day might be different the next day. Don’t be afraid to revise your stance as needed.

Here are some other examples of what you could say to the individual you’re supporting.

“I want to be there for you when you need me, but I also need some alone time, so on Sundays I’m going to take the afternoon to myself.”

“I want to support you, but I don’t feel equipped to give you advice. I’d like to help you find professional support from someone who has more experience with this issue than I do.”

“I never want to resent you and in order for me to be at my best and be fully present with you, I can’t be the only person you rely on. Let’s decide together who we can trust to offer us both extra support when we need it.”

Tactic 4: Seeking Professional Support for Yourself.

It’s likely that you’re treading in uncharted territory when it comes to supporting someone. Helping someone through a mental health issue is frequently complicated and there’s an enormous about of ambiguity associated with the experience. Seeking professional help for yourself can offer a tremendous amount of relief and practical guidance.

Therapy is a non-judgmental place to vent your frustrations, process your emotions as they arise and learn better tactics for communication. Your therapist may help you boost your skills and offer helpful advice on how to approach the specific challenges you’re dealing with.

Tactic 5: When Support is Refused.

One of the most heartbreaking experiences one can face is when the person you hope to help, refuses your support. Unfortunately, this is very common.

There are a number of reasons why people resist getting professional help, but the social stigma associated with mental health issues is often the biggest barrier to getting better. Often an unwillingness or inability to admit there’s a problem resigns the sufferer to an indefinite period of struggle. Add to this the fear of medication side effects, the rising cost of care and for some, the lack of access to quality care and it’s no wonder so many people neglect to get help. 

Believe it or not, one barrier to your partner getting the professional help they need might be YOU! If you swoop in and try to “fix” them, rather than guiding them toward therapy, it can create a co-dependent relationship, where they see you as their sole support. 

Instead of playing the role of the armchair expert, acknowledge your partner is experiencing a challenge and talk through the options for seeking help together. Talk with your partner about the behaviors or symptoms you’ve been observing in them in a non-accusatory way so they understand how their mental health might need outside help. Perhaps you offer to help them find a great therapist, to attend couples therapy sessions together, or stay with them through an introductory session so they don’t feel like they’ve been abandoned to a stranger.

An impossible challenge is when your partner experiences anosognosia - meaning they are not aware of the ways in which their mental illness is manifesting. This inability to see what’s happening to them makes it extremely difficult to convince them there’s a problem that needs help. While we can attempt to communicate our perspective and encourage them to seek help, the choice is theirs to make.

Tactic 6: Intentional Untethering: When Things Don’t Work Out. 

There may come a time when you’ve attempted everything practical to offer support and little or no change has occurred. If there is an unwillingness or inability to improve their mental health challenge, you might need to consider intentional untethering – permanently stepping away from the relationship.

Choosing to leave a relationship with someone experiencing mental illness is a difficult decision and is a very personal choice to make. It’s true that societal norms put pressure on us to “stick it out” in sickness and in health, and you might even feel guilty for wanting to leave, but only you know what is right for you.

If you have decided to leave, these suggestions can make the transition smoother.

-Be sure that you’re really done and are not just making a decision on a “bad” day. It’s easier to follow through with the challenges of a separation when you are clear and certain it’s time to go.

-Help your partner set up a structure for support in your absence. This might mean enrolling family members or finding them professional care, if they’ll accept it. There may also be community programs or public assistance available that will help them live more independently.

-Get professional legal advice to make sure you are acting according to your rights while also protecting those of the partner you are leaving, who might be more vulnerable or more volatile.

-If you share children, make a plan that honors your partner as a parent while keeping the children safe and cared for.

-Move through each decision with a calm demeanor and act with kindness.

Taking the pathway to separate can be considered the ultimate form of self-care, albeit one of the most challenging and difficult decisions to discern. You might need to seek professional help to identify how to undertake this change.

You are only ever responsible for yourself.

When you love someone, doing what you can to contribute to their mental health and happiness is a worthy investment. There are many mental health issues that heal in time and with the proper support. Helping your partner work through their challenges can deepen the relationship and bring you closer together.

That said, nothing is guaranteed. The one thing you can be sure of is whether you stay in a caregiving role long term, return to an equal emotional partnership or ultimately leave the relationship, your best bet for an awesome life is to take really good care of yourself.

I hope you’re reach out if you or someone you care about could use professional support. I offer both one-to-one therapy sessions or group therapy.  

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Simon G. Niblock, MA, LMFT, is a licensed psychotherapist, specializing in men’s mental health and wellness. He provides tailored psychotherapy services and online programs for men and is the author of the Anxiety Workbook for Men, Evidence-based Exercises to Manage Anxiety, Depression, and Worry.
Important Notice: The content in this article is for informational purposes only. It does not replace direct professional mental health, medical treatment, or professional care in any way. Seek the support of a physician or other qualified healthcare provider to diagnose and treat any mental health concern directly. Contact 911 or your local emergency services number if you are experiencing a mental health emergency