If there’s one positive thing to come out of the coronavirus pandemic, is that it has put a spotlight on mental health, which has been long overdue. This is likely the result of the fact that more people than ever before felt the weight of mental health struggles. “In so many ways, the pandemic opened people’s eyes to what being mentally and emotionally unhealthy can feel like and how that can impact your life,” says Stephanie Korpal, MEd, LPC, mental health therapist and owner of Marble Wellness in St. Louis, Missouri. “In the same way, I think it encouraged people to truly explore and understand that caring for your mental health can have awesome benefits in your life, family unit, social circle, and general community.”
Thankfully, we no longer live in a world where being in “good health” only equates to one’s physical state—we are now keenly aware of the wide range of implications one’s mental state bears on one’s overall health. This allows us to be more sensitive and vulnerable with our loved ones, and to look out for them more closely.
If you’re in a romantic relationship, it is your responsibility to not only protect and help your partner in times of physical distress, but also mental and emotional distress as well. Having a partner that has healthy boundaries around mental and emotional health and knows how to support you in your mental health is the ultimate goal, according to Korpal. “A partner can sometimes help you detect signs of stress or anxiety or depression a little earlier than we can do on our own, anticipate challenges, reflect back to you patterns and triggers that are adaptive or maladaptive and help prepare you by having a coping strategy ready,” she says. “But that should always be a support role—an additional bolster, not someone who takes on the action steps for you caring for your own mental health first and foremost.”
Here are 6 ways experts say you can and should check in on your partner’s mental health.
Understand what stress looks like in your partner.
We all cope with stress differently, so it might not be easy for you to identify when your partner is stressed or anxious right off the bat. For this reason, Haylie Yakrus, MS, APC, NCC, mental health clinician at Berman Psychotherapy in Atlanta, recommends keeping a close eye on the behaviors your partner engages in when they are stressed out or anxious. “What grounds them and brings them back when they are heightened?” she asks. “When you’re able to answer these questions, you can support them by making sure basic physical needs are being met.”
Create a space for mental health conversations to exist.
If your partner is struggling with their mental health in any way, you can’t expect that they will come out and say so. Just as you would ask “how did your day go?” and expect to hear about happenings at the water cooler, Korpal suggests starting to create a relationship where “how are you feeling?” is just as common of a conversation. “This will make it smoother to have conversations when mental health isn’t at its prime,” she says.
Be mindful of disparaging, judgmental, or critical language.
Mayra Mendez, Ph.D., LMFT, a licensed psychotherapist and program coordinator for intellectual and developmental disabilities and mental health services at Providence Saint John's Child and Family Development Center in Santa Monica, California, recommends focusing on building hope and spotlighting strength, capacities, resiliency, talents and inherent worth. “It is important to realize your actions and reactions can have a significant impact on your partner,” she says. “Promoting a strength-based perspective, enhances the partner’s self-esteem and cultivates a wellness attitude that anticipates access to positive coping skills.”
Share your own mental health journey.
“If you talk about, and therefore normalize, what steps you’re taking to pay attention to and care for your own mental health, it is likely going to have an impact on your partner,” says Korpal. “For example, you might say ‘wow, I’ve been irritable lately. I can tell I haven’t been working out and I need to do that when I am stressed at work.’” Doing so, she notes, may inspire your partner to start considering what changes they can make in their own mental health hygiene practices, or just even bring some basic awareness to them about moods and emotions. “Awareness is such a critical piece of mental health that even that alone can lead to positive outcomes!” she adds.
Commit to consistent quality time.
Whether you and your partner find enjoyment in exercising together, cooking, or watching your newest Netflix favorite, Yakrus recommends committing to a time that is solely for the two of you is integral in the sustainability of a partnership. “I encourage this time together to be scheduled in advance, for both individuals to be ‘unplugged’ and as present as possible,” she says. “If your interests differ from your partners, try trading off between what each of you enjoys, as this compromise lets the other know you’re invested in them, and may even result in new interests for you.”
Suggest resources for mental health support.
Mendez recommends working with your partner to research mental health options such as support groups, individual or family based mental health therapy, speaking with primary care providers to gain referrals that align with health insurance, and consider peer support groups. “Showing your partner that you are available and willing to help with exploring support options, reduces the stigma associated with mental illness and fosters early identification and clarification of the behaviors,” she says. “By supporting exploration of treatment options, a hope, resiliency, and recovery model is realized.”