Every relationship has its challenges. For some couples, it stems from financial difficulties, for others, it might be to do with trust issues or communication. Mental health is one that’s often overlooked, but a study published in 2011 found that mental health issues increase the likelihood of divorce by anywhere from 20%-80%. Many couples experiencing a relationship breakdown fail to attribute the breakdown to the mental health of one or both parties. Like any other challenge in a relationship, mental health is best tackled as a team; that means understanding what the other party is going through and finding ways to best support them.
Black men’s mental health
Although conversations around mental health are more commonplace these days, there’s still a lot of work to be done to break the stigma, even in relationships. Research has found that the stigma surrounding mental health is particularly dangerous for men as it keeps them from opening up and seeking help, and they are significantly more at risk of attempting suicide. The main causes of this are the outdated ideas that society still holds about manhood, which both create a lot of the mental health issues experienced by men but also prevent them from seeking professional help. Black men in particular are at risk of mental health problems due to the added stressors of the increased likelihood of incarceration, social conditioning and cultural messages received from a young age. There are activities in our Mental Health Mixtape for Black Men to help the reader understand how mental health stigma affects their daily life.
How mental health can impact relationships
Unchecked mental health can cause serious problems in a relationship. Someone with high anxiety might need constant emotional support from their partner which can prove both draining and frustrating, leading to feelings of resentment. Those that suffer from depression can display emotions such as anger, irritability and hostility. This can often be viewed by the partner as irrational behavior and can cause them to feel unloved or mistreated. People with bipolar disorder can vacillate between depression and mania, causing behavior that can be seen as volatile and unreliable. It’s easy to take this kind of behavior personally, but the truth is, it’s the mental illness causing them to act in this manner.
Is it time to call it quits?
It’s important to note that ultimately, you must put yourself and your feelings first. For some, this might look like divorce or separation, and that is ok. First, though, consider all your options and answer these questions to help you decide:
- What kind of support network is available to you and your partner?
- If that support network was called upon would the divorce still be required?
- Is the mental illness treatable and if so, is treatment currently being received or is the person willing to receive treatment?
- Is the breakdown of the marriage a direct result of the mental illness and if so, should the illness be discussed, and an attempt made to deal with it before getting a divorce?
If you’ve reflected on these questions and decided to stay in the relationship and try to tackle the mental illness, let’s look at how you can provide the best support to your partner.
How to support your partner
It’s said that 66% would confide in their partner above anyone else. So how can you support your partner with a mental health problem?
- First thing’s first: say something. Don’t wait for your partner to come to you for help. A lot of men won’t bring it up unless it’s really bad. A survey highlighted that for 40% of men, it would take thoughts of suicide or self-harm to compel them to seek professional help. In addition, men don’t always show the signs we often associate with depression, like sadness and hopelessness. Instead, they might appear angry or aggressive, making it easier for doctors and loved ones to miss the signs that something is wrong. As a result, men might miss out on the treatment they need. So, if you notice a change in their behavior or mood, talk to them about it, especially if he’s recently experienced something that could trigger mental health issues. Don’t lose valuable time waiting and hoping for them to come to you.
- Give them space to open up. Allow your partner to share what they feel comfortable with. Be patient, they might not open up completely right away. There are activities in our Mental Health Mixtape for Black Men geared specifically at helping him to identify and open up about his struggles. Reassure him that he’s not alone and that you’re there to talk whenever they need to.
- Listen without making judgements. Studies found that mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression were better received by a partner, however, things like PTSD and addiction were less likely to be supported in the right way, and are more likely to lead to divorce. Remember that mental illness cannot be willed away. It isn’t a sign of weakness, and it can affect any man, regardless of his age, race or ethnicity.
- Ask them what they need. This might sound obvious, but sometimes we can make assumptions about how to care for a loved one, which can often make things worse.
- Keep learning. Read books, visit websites and forums, and speak to a professional. The more you know, the better you’ll be able to support your partner.
- Encourage them to get the help they need. This might be seeking professional help or doing self-help like journaling to get all of their feelings out. Ask them if they have any ways they can practice self care and make some suggestions where appropriate. But don’t try to take control of the situation, allow him to make decisions for himself.
- It’s ok not to have all the answers. You’re not an expert, so you’re not expected to know exactly what’s wrong with your partner and have all the solutions. That’s why it’s important to signpost them to someone who is an expert.
- Look after yourself. You can’t pour from an empty cup, so during the process of supporting your partner, make sure you’re getting your own emotional support, either from loved ones or a therapist. It’ll also help to practice self care such as journaling, taking time for hobbies, getting into nature and keeping a good sleep schedule. Our Self Care Workbook for Black Women will help you to keep on top of your own wellbeing.
If you or someone you love is thinking about hurting themselves, get help now. Call 911 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).