Healing hands and better halves: Partners to people with mental health conditions open up

Partners to people with mental health conditions open up about their struggles, acts of support, and striking a balance between love and the self.

Published: 29th August 2022 01:46 AM  |   Last Updated: 29th August 2022 01:56 PM   |  A+A-

counselling Psychotherapy mental health mental illness

Image used for representational purposes (Express llustration | Soumyadip Sinha)

Express News Service

CHENNAI:  Two years into their marriage, Lakshmi and her husband realised that things were not going well. He loved his drink but it took a while for her to understand the gradual yet taxing awareness of his alcohol dependence and the underlying depression that led to it.

“We had zero social life. He wouldn’t go anywhere and his confidence had sunk. The doctors said that underlying depression and a tendency for addiction turned him to alcohol. He would drink non-stop for days until he would have to be taken to the hospital for detox. But he was aware and sought help; he had to be treated for both depression and alcoholism,” she shares.

This lasted for nearly five years. But three years after his release from rehab, Lakshmi is back with her husband’s old self; perhaps even better more confident, jovial and spending time with his family.

“Few people understand this is a mental issue and are quick to see it as a moral failing. I know him to be an exemplary human being and I wanted to try everything to help him get out of his problem. There were lows and moments when I wanted to give up, but that he sincerely wanted to change kept us going,” she adds.

Lakshmi’s story of compassion, understanding and support is one shared by many partners who are trying to navigate their own lives, whilst seeking the best way to support loved ones affected by conditions mental health. The road is certainly not without its hurdles and sacrifices, as a city-based engineer, Nitin found while supporting his wife who was diagnosed with depression. 

“She became easily manipulated by others’ opinions, dwelled on the past, cried continuously, lost sleep and lacked interest in taking care of herself. She blamed me for everything and yelled at me without any reason. It was difficult to face the situation with my two-year-old daughter. I loved her and wanted to help her. Initially, she insisted that I had mental issues and I was ready to go to counselling for her. There, she understood that the problems she had were due to her condition. Though it was not an easy situation to be in, I hoped that my wife would be able to find peace of mind,” he explains, adding that her condition is improving with effective counselling and psychotherapy.

Express Illustration: Soumyadip Sinha

1. Is knowledge power?

The National Health Mission website mentions that one in four families is likely to have at least one member with a behavioural or mental disorder (WHO, 2001) and that most of these are often left untreated. One of the reasons listed for the same is poor awareness of the symptoms of mental illness. 

Latha, a florist, realised the importance of information on her husband’s schizophrenic symptoms over 34 years of being together. Her husband’s symptoms surfaced after five years of marriage (12 years into the relationship) and since his family had a long history of schizophrenia, Latha was prepared for the possibility of history repeating itself. However, at the time, she had struggled with her two roles as a mother and a wife. 

“He would indulge in reckless behaviour (spending money and expressing fickle emotions towards me) and wasn’t present as a father. I grew very frustrated and would sometimes take out my frustration on his mother (who was under our care) and our daughter. I have said some hurtful words. We did go to a counsellor but I still knew fairly little about his condition. At the time, there were not many resources for information. When the Internet came around later, I began reading up about his condition and understanding him better, but it was only when I pursued a diploma in MSW (Master of Social Work) that I understood what was happening (with him) and how I could have dealt with it in a better way,” she says. Another 14 years, several counselling sessions and medication later, the couple still maintain their friendly marriage where “he, ironically, has now become her counsellor.”

While doing the homework can help, theory cannot predict practical circumstances. Mrinalini Ravi, co-lead, Sundram Fasteners Centre for Social Action and Research, mentions that while one can be very competent theoretically, it is only when you or someone close to you is going through something that you know you have to go through different ebbs and flows. “Sometimes I feel that mental health professionals or those who know about mental health come in with a chip on their shoulder and say ‘These are the symptoms for anxiety and xyz is how we’ll treat it’. While it is great that you are looking at it from a scientific standpoint, real life transcends theory. And it is important to know that when your theoretical underpinnings and knowledge are not working, the water needs to find its level whether it is through medication, therapy or work,” she notes.

2. Supportive significant others

While there are some common support practices, such as communication and trust, that foster a healthy relationship, there is no one-solution-fits-all formula, given the range and diversity in mental health conditions.

“There are psychiatric situations which are psychotic in nature that is a little more serious generally in terms of psychiatric treatment and medication. And then, there are neurotic conditions that affect daily life situations and have extreme reactions in a person. All of us have some of these neurotic situations such as anxiety, depression, conflict management, and lack of emotional intelligence that are dealt with at the level of a counsellor. With people under medical treatment, partners will find (supporting them) way more challenging because those symptoms have greater intensity and are not ignorable,” says Dr Sandhya Thumsi L, integrative mental health consultant counsellor.

For some, like Navya, a home baker, words of affirmation and communication seemed to help with her partner struggling with depression and generalised anxiety disorder.

 “It is important to help out and acknowledge the little achievements. Sometimes it becomes a struggle to even do the small, daily tasks for someone who deals with these issues. Your partner having anxiety can be really hard on you, because a lot of times, my partner doesn’t realise that it’s not only him that is suffering. I stay up at night crying sometimes because I don’t know how to help him. At the end of the day, it’s all about having an open conversation. I and my partner had to have many, many conversations about this to be able to form a relationship that accommodates both of us,” she informs.

The last statement rings true according to Divija Bhasin, founder and head counselling psychologist at The Friendly Couch, who emphasises the importance of the boundary between being supportive and giving space, and being kind even if you cannot understand or empathise with their condition. “It depends on what the partner wants and how one’s relationship is,” she says. One of the best ways to support your partner, according to her, is by asking, “What would you like me to do?”

For others like Jiya*, acts of comfort and follow-ups have worked to ensure a healthy collaboration. As a person with anxiety and depression herself, finding a partner that was going through something similar was, in a sense, comforting as they could understand her experiences and vice-versa. “I would check in on when they ate, send cat memes and such; things that we found comforting. Little positive reassurances. I think that helped,” she adds.  

3. Boundaries and self-care

For the many things done right, there are also aspects of care that partners can overlook or misunderstand. Jiya found that some people have the wrong idea about mental health conditions, citing with experience that they believe a certain course or passage of a few months can make her anxiety go away. The want to be an exception is also sometimes exhibited by partners, as seen by Mrinalini. “People think they would be exempt from unique traits of mental illness that would be distressing for other people. Supportive caregivers because of the support and love they exhibit or homework do feel like they should be let off the hook, which is fair enough.

Since they are responding to the mental illness as they ought to, they feel like the favour needs to be returned which are valid and human emotions. Sometimes they see it is only a one-way street and it can lead them to give up. Caregivers should be open about their frustrations, and not just get help but also develop a friendship with their partner to communicate if something is not working for them,” she says. According to Mrinalini, while wanting to do things for a person that no one else has is a noble pursuit, it could lead partners to put themselves second or lose themselves in the process. Latha finds herself wanting to rectify the same mentality in hindsight.

With little information or awareness of therapy a couple of decades ago, she relied on a support system of friends and family, as it allowed her a breath of relief and helped with the caretaking of her daughter.

“At the time, the family and I thought that their support was enough. But looking back, I should have gone to a counsellor. I had become a bitter person and if I had sought help then, perhaps I wouldn’t have done or said certain things that I did,” she rues.

Unfortunately, despite trial and error, some relationships were not meant to be. Bengaluru-based photographer Shiva explains his experience with a relationship that had run its course.

“If your partner who is dealing with mental illness issues requires your full attention, you need to make a choice if you want to do that and if you can do that in the long term or not. My partner was diagnosed with anxiety and ADHD. It’s like being in two different rooms under one roof. You give them enough space to let them be but you’re also present at a convenient distance when needed. I tried hard to be there for my partner, but ultimately, we decided to part in order to heal, so that the relationship doesn’t get toxic,” he mentions.

“In a healthy relationship, love means reciprocal emotions generally. It also means commitment, trust and mutual ability to sacrifice for the well-being of the other. There are people who stand by partners with severe mental illness because there is a sense of commitment but if this commitment is blinding you and creating unsolvable situations, they (the couple) can seek help first to clarify whether it is a toxic relationship or if one person is the source of the toxicity… It depends, what I’m saying is very generic. All they need is to be authentic in their point, you cannot live a lie.

It is important to acknowledge the truth about yourself, your partner and the relationship. You may end up regretting even making the right decision. Nothing is black and white about this,” explains Dr Sandhya. Sour memories for some, happy beginnings for others, lessons learned for many. In the journey to help others with mental health conditions, there is support and trust that must extend to you as well.

(With inputs from Fia Majumdar)

*Names changed

Look out for

  • Struggling with the loss of sleep, loss of appetite, and emotional & physical isolation from their partner.
  • Excessive crying, unusual dreams
  • Not taking care of themselves, irregularity with work & business, not taking care of the child, then, consider counselling to identify the cause of their sufferings

Source: B Elayaraja, a counselling psychologist at Kavithalayaa Counselling Centre

India Matters


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