Ask a Therapist: What Can I Do to Help Someone I Love Who Is Clearly Struggling With Their Mental Health?

Published on: 31 Mar 2021
Meaghan Rice Ask a Therapist

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Q: I can tell that my partner is struggling emotionally with their mental health. They’ve become really angry and mean. When I try to talk to them about my concerns, they get teary eyed and frustrated with me. I think they have depression. What can I do to help someone I love who is clearly struggling so much with their mental health? What can I say that will actually help? – Angel

Dear Angel,

This is hard. To see our partners struggling, only to have our outreach and concern be met with more upset and anger is awful. It certainly doesn’t feel good to be pushed away from someone we care deeply about. 

When someone is going through mental health challenges or suffering from mental illness, one of the markers is experiencing a lot of complex feelings, and keeping a limited perspective because of those deep feelings. There can also be a lot of shame and fear. So, bringing up the behaviors that you find concerning can be upsetting and make you feel very vulnerable. Directly addressing them seems simple enough, but it doesn’t always work because of that underlying shame and vulnerability. 

It can also feel really tough for you when you can clearly see that your partner needs support but they won’t accept it. It can feel helpless and frustrating, not to mention painful. It’s so important to remember that your partner’s mental health isn’t about you personally. Though, goodness knows, it’s hurtful when they push you away. What can feel like your rejection is really their struggle. The fact is, you can’t make anyone get help or see something they aren’t ready to see or deal with just yet. 

But here’s what you can do: Make intentional efforts to normalize mental health conversations and role model the behaviors you want to see from your partner.   

Talk about your own mental health struggles. Share in a way that keeps it conversational and open, rather than shining a spotlight on their concerning behavior. You don’t have to shy away from reflecting on what you’re concerned about, but make sure you offer your support. Let your partner know you’re there to help and ask if they are willing to talk more. 

Share any insights of what has helped you in the past. Speaking honestly creates a safe space for your partner to be vulnerable and share. It also sends the message that mental health is an integral part of our lives, and we’re not always well. A simple statement such as: “We all have hurdles, so it is less about whether we have them and more about what we do with them,” can help normalize the situation and sends a message that they aren’t alone. 

Role model mental health practices yourself, in any number of categories. Practice self-care. engage in hobbies and interests. Make sure you’re clearing out any of your own mental junk through methods like journaling, writing letters, or attending therapy. Make sure you’re focused on your own goals and growth. As you role model good mental healthcare, talk about your feelings, failures and struggles. Again, it creates a safe space for your partner to share, when they’re ready. 

Here’s another perspective for you to think about: Change happens when we are feeling just miserable enough. It doesn’t happen as easily (and isn’t as necessary) when things are going really well. So, my thoughts are that with some normalizing mental health and some extra focus on what keeps you feeling good, your partner may start to make those shifts on their own terms. Side note: there could also be things going on with your partner that you’re not aware of. Stay open and listen, and let them know they’re not alone. 

Sending positive vibes your way, 

Dr. Meaghan 

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