By Stella Ladikos. Mental Health Educator and Advocate.
So, you’ve been dating someone for a few weeks, and they’ve just disclosed that they are currently struggling with or managing a mental health problem or illness – now what?
Whether this is the first time you’ve been seeing someone who has told you about their experience with mental ill-health or it isn’t…. There are quite a few things we sometimes do as partners that can make the experience more difficult for the person.
I personally am very passionate about helping others better support those they’re dating in a safe, supportive & empathetic way. So let’s talk about it!
Here are my suggestions of what you can and should do in this (very common) situation:
Just don’t be a d*** – basically.
You don’t need to 100% know the ins and outs of what they’re going through. Even if what they’re experiencing doesn’t quite make sense to you, simply try to accept that that’s how they feel and try not to make it worse by invalidating or belittling them. And before you freak out and think, “I’m afraid that anything I say will make it worse”, tbh, a lot of situations just come down to common sense (like not yelling at someone while they’re having a panic attack!). Better yet, if you’re afraid of saying the wrong thing, just don’t say much at all!
Take the backseat approach and just be there to listen. In my experience, even though you may not always completely understand why the person feels the way they do at certain times, you can still be super accepting and empathetic! Sometimes, the best things my partner has ever said to me are “I get why you’d feel that way” or “I’m sorry you’re feeling like this”, and trust me folks, it’s little things like that which make a WORLD of difference.
In the case of crisis (for example, if they are aggressive, suicidal, or self-harming), stay calm, do your best to ensure their and your own safety, and connect them with professional supports (click here to access a directory e-book I put together). If it’s safe to do so, stay with them and try to de-escalate the situation until the appropriate professional help arrives; if you’d like to be empowered to better support someone you care about in a crisis, consider joining a Mental Health First Aid Training!
“What can I do to best support you?”
I cannot emphasise enough just how powerful it can be to ask this one simple question! Some people will actually have things in mind that they know will be helpful for them. Even if they don’t, the simple act of you asking can be a huge green flag in their eyes because you’re communicating to them that you genuinely want to support them. Personally, I remember on the first date with my partner, I disclosed my struggles with anxiety and told him that I occasionally get panic attacks. He paused for a second, (although it felt like an eternity of gut-wrenching nerves!) and then said “Okay, so if you have a panic attack in front of me, what can I do to best support you?” – you honestly don’t need to be an expert in this stuff, just approach it with curiosity and an open mind.
And here are two things you should NOT do when supporting someone you’re dating:
Don’t invalidate what they’re telling you.
Being told “grow up”, “get over it”, “it’s all in your head”, “just relax”, “man up”? Yeah, not so supportive folks. Just an FYI, it’s probably taken A LOT of courage & bravery for someone to even open up to you, especially if it’s a new relationship, and nothing feels worse than being invalidated in return. If you don’t know what to say, it’s much better to ask, “Is there anything I can do for you right now?” rather than judge and invalidate.
Don’t try to ‘fix’ them.
Believe me, if you make it your life mission to ‘cure’ or ‘fix’ their problem, you are only setting yourself up for failure and disappointment. We have professionals, medication, self-help, and therapy to help manage mental illness symptoms; it is by no means your responsibility.So please don’t think that you need to be their therapist.
The biggest takeaway? Do your best to support them, and show that you genuinely care.
Supporting someone, though, can take a lot out of you. It’s important to know your limits and ensure that you’re also looking after your mental health at the same time. And don’t forget… all those support services out there are just a phone call away if it’s getting a bit tough.
Crisis support services can be reached 24 hours a day:
- Lifeline 13 11 14;
- Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467;
- Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800;
- MensLine Australia 1300 78 99 78;
- Beyond Blue 1300 22 4636.
- If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault or family violence, call 1800-RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit www.1800RESPECT.org.au
Stella is a Mental Health Educator and Advocate, and Founder of Meraki Mental Health Training.