From anxiety and depression to bipolar disorder and addiction, mental illness shapes the daily lives and loves of those who experience it. This includes the symptoms of the illness themselves, but it also includes pervasive ableist discrimination against people with mental illness—including stigma within intimate relationships. If we don’t experience mental illness, but are in a relationship with someone who does, we may wonder how to best support our loved one while respecting their agency and self-determination.
According to Grazel Garcia, a licensed marriage and family therapist with certifications in Emotionally Focused Therapy and therapy for addiction, domestic violence, and trauma, these worries are normal, human, and “something people experience a lot.” In good times, we struggle with being a better ally to an experience we don’t share. During periods of turbulence, we may be unsure how to decide whether to leave or stay.
There are steps we can take toward concrete expressions of support and respect. We can educate ourselves about mental illness and health, deepen our communication skills, and work on setting healthy boundaries. We can question our own ableism, and our own understandings of what it means to be mentally ill and well. Most of all, we can realize that we are not simply a universe of two people, but rather nestled in communities we can consciously build and draw on for support.