Guest Post – Project AKILI

Love and Mental Health

We have isolated conversations on mental health to when famous people die of suicide and even then, we rush through it and make sure to sweep the topic under the carpet as soon as possible. What has made mental illness such a taboo in our society? Why can’t we have PDV (Public Displays of Vulnerability) as much as we have PDA (Public Displays of Affection)? Why not talk about mental illnesses as easily as we talk about cancer and other physical illnesses? Why not include mental health in the curriculum and talk about it in our work spaces? We have probably ignored this since most of the people around us are “too functional” to have a mental illness and we expect people suffering from mental illnesses to be on the streets eating from garbage cans.

Since February is the month of love I thought it fitting to write an article on love and mental health as we do not talk about it as often as we should 🙂

Mahatma Gandhi has been quoted as saying, “Where there is love there is life.” Relationships are known to improve a person’s ability to manage stress and can help to decrease anxiety and depression. Human beings are social creatures and as such we all ought to have a level of social connectedness, as well as nurture stable, loving and fulfilling relationships. Relationships can be secure and even healing when one is faced with the demons in their head.

In recent days, mental illnesses and disorders have become more and more prevalent. Studies have shown that one in every four Kenyans suffers a mental illness at some point in their life. As such, we are in one way going to encounter a loved one, a colleague or even we ourselves are going to need help as far as mental wellness is concerned.

On the topic of love, how likely is it that we know about our partner’s mental health condition? How long into a relationship do we wait before disclosing our mental illness to our significant other? If you battle a mental illness, does your partner know you take medication for it? What care should we give to a loved one with a mental illness and how exactly do we react when our partner or friend discloses to us that they have a mental illness?

There is great stigma attached to mental illness both in Kenya and in Africa making people shy away from disclosing their mental health to even those closest to them, such as family members and significant others. Great long-term relationships require honesty, openness and trust. It is therefore important that one discloses their mental illness to their partner before experiencing an episode that could bring it into the open causing mistrust and misunderstanding. Females in relationships are known to be more open with their mental health to their partners as opposed to males. This is likely due to the fact that men grow up accustomed to not showing their vulnerability causing them to bear all their struggles silently.

As pointed out it is important that one shares their mental health condition with their partner especially since they will be the one “bailing you out” during an episode as they spend the most time with you. Even so, one is left wondering how long into a relationship they would need to wait before disclosing their mental illness to their partner. In a relationship one is able to know when they are comfortable enough with their partner to share their darkest secrets. One of the best love cards I have seen reads “I knew you were the one when I farted and you did not run away”. Such kind of comfort around our partners puts us in a space where we know we shall not be judged no matter what. Our gut though will always tell us when the time is right to share such information with our partners. In most cases, men tend to wait longer than women to disclose their diagnosis probably due to the fact that men feel more stigma surrounding their mental health.

Closely related to the issue of diagnosis is the issue of using medication for one’s mental illness. Some people do not disclose the fact that they use medication for their condition again due to the stigma surrounding mental illness. Medical treatment is a private issue but it is important we share it with the people we trust, our families and our partners.

Support from partners and family is very key for a mentally ill patient’s recovery. More often than not, when we are open about our mental illness and struggles, partners are more likely than not to provide their support especially the follow through of therapy, medication and when one has an episode or relapses.

So how then do we love someone with a mental illness? What happens when my partner of two years suddenly discloses to me that they were diagnosed with bipolar disorder at the age of 17? People suffering from mental illness are not suddenly different people because they are unwell. When having their different episodes they are not monsters. Neither do they become human once they recover. Mental illnesses are simply illnesses that can change our loved ones’ circumstances. I have seen it happen with my friends one too many times. The illness has the ability to change one’s personality, their interests, their warmth, their spirit and strength. However at the end of the day, the person is still the same one you have always loved. The world being so misunderstanding and rough to them they need you, being the closest person to them, to see them for who they are despite the demons they have to fight in their head.

Below are a few tips on how to do that:-

  • Be empathetic and validate their struggles.Validation is acknowledging that a person has a feeling, even if we don’t agree that it’s an appropriate feeling to have or the response we would have in similar circumstances. Usually we feel bad for a person when their circumstances is the worst we’ve heard. We appreciate a struggle if we couldn’t easily overcome something similar. This should not be the case. We should avoid saying things like “I know you’re having a hard time but it could be worse, someone is having it tougher” and accustom ourselves to saying things like, “I don’t know exactly how you are feeling, but I am here for you.” This reduces the chances that our loved ones will feel alone in their pain and we strengthen the chance that they’ll be vulnerable enough to reach out to us in their times of need.
  • Learn all you can about your loved one’s particular illness and do not take any of it personally. It can be very difficult to be the person on the receiving end of these symptoms. It can feel like a personal attack and those feelings can understandably get in the way of compassion. Because of that it is just as important for family members and significant others to have a network of support as it is for the person struggling with the illness.
  • Be present. Supporting our loved ones with mental illnesses can be challenging and we are left under immense pressure not knowing what to do or say since anything we do or not do, say or do not say, can be taken negatively by our loved ones who suffer mental illnesses. There is no instruction manual on what to do or say to make it better for them but always being present and them knowing they can always count on you can be everything they need.
  • When not physically present for your loved one as might be the case at times, keep in close touch and let them know they can count on you even when you are miles away.
  • Help your loved one seek professional attention. When things get tough for them let them know that the hospital is a viable option. Take them there to see a therapist and when they are put under medication ensure to encourage them to follow through the prescription.
  • Understand that no matter how much you love your partner, you cannot fix them. You cannot rescue them so cut yourself some slack and do not be angry when your loved one does not seem to be getting better no matter your great effort. Never try to fix them, just be there and let nature run its course.

For everyone suffering from a mental illness, let that not be a hindrance to you seeking a fulfilling relationship. And to those in relationships with people battling different mental illnesses, learning of your partner’s mental illness should not be a deal breaker. Use that instead as an opportunity to learn about mental illnesses and be the greatest rock you possibly can be.

For the rest of society we all need to embrace love and kindness wherever we go. People have major mental health conditions and have to go to work every day. From the customer service agents in telecoms you call shouting at because your line is yet to be registered correctly a week after you made your first call, to the waiters and waitresses that serve you at your favourite restaurant, the security guard you bark at in the estate, your co-worker who always seems clueless, any of them could have to clock in with their condition. Be kind!!!

Contributor – Wangari Murage who is a member and contributor of projectakili.com, a platform that aims at breaking the stigma surrounding mental illness by creating mental health awareness and demystifying mental illnesses.

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