Mental health in relationships
Posted Friday 10 February 2012
I’ve been (and still am) a relationship & family counsellor for nearly 22 years. Over that time I have seen first hand the problems and discord that mental health problems cause in couple and family relationships.
I believe the stigma that unfortunately remains around mental illness creates an atmosphere of suspicion and fear in not just couple relationships, but close and extended family relationships.
For example, Kate* told me: “I didn't want to tell my partner about how I was feeling because I knew it would upset him, so I kept it to myself, I just put up with it."
If both partners think this then it prevents them (maybe mistakenly) from saying what's on their mind. Hence neither know exactly what the other feels, they assume, and this is when misunderstandings and resentments occur. In my experience all this does is cause more distress and anguish. Mental illness becomes the preverbal ‘elephant in the room’!
The number of clients who come into my counselling practice, with symptoms of depression, anxiety and stress has certainly increased over the last ten years.
I used to be surprised by the way clients talk around depression, anxiety, stress - they almost seem ‘ashamed’ of the uninvited guest they have brought into their relationships.
As counselling progresses I have found that clients start to open up and become more curious about exploring what they can do about improving their communication, not only about their mental health problems, but also about how they feel.
It bothers me that some clients won’t seek the help of their GP as they don’t want depression recorded on their medical records, they fear that this will impact on job prospects and insurance.
As a matter of course I will ask clients if they are fit and healthy and ask if they are taking medication. Clients will often tell me that they are fit and healthy but then report taking antidepressants!
I’m not sure if they are in denial about the depression they are dealing with or that they consider themselves to be managing their mental health…sometimes this is the first time a partner knows of either.
Clients taking medication often have little knowledge of how the medication can impact on their intimate relationships and as a sex therapist, talking about side affects can help the couple to be more understanding of their situation.
It saddens me that in the 21st century we still have such prejudices regarding mental illness, but then we are scared of what we can’t see or understand. And unlike a broken leg, which we know is likely to heal in a matter of months, we don’t know how long a mental illness may last.
What I do know is that with help and support, individuals, couples and families can enjoy relationships. Sometimes it can be a combination of medical and talking interventions. It takes courage to ask for help, I know, but it’s worth it.
As a Relate counsellor I am privileged to work with such courage.
Denise Knowles is a relationship & family counsellor and a psycho-sexual therapist & clinical supervisor with Relate.
*Not her real name. All Relate counselling is confidential.
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