Therapist Stella Ladikos breaks down how we can most effectively navigate conversations about our mental health with our loved ones, and why these discussions are a valuable opportunity for growth in any relationship.
Speaking openly about how we feel can be tricky to navigate at the best of times. Sometimes, our nearest and dearest can be the hardest ones to approach when we’re feeling down or anxious, regardless of how much we know they care.
In any healthy relationship, your partner is more than a romantic counterpart. They’re your sounding board for whatever’s on your mind, and a crucial pillar of your support system. But as we’ve all experienced in some capacity, ebbs and flows in our mental health can have an immense impact on not only our own emotional state but also on our relationship.
And if you’re like me, the only thing more daunting than that anxious pit in your stomach is the prospect of having to talk about it. But as we all know, swallowing these kinds of feelings and conversations in an effort to avoid making a splash, will eventually just sink us.
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But the reality is, that experiencing changes to our mental health is a natural part of what it means to be human. And any healthy relationship that yearns to go the distance must acknowledge the value of maintaining open and honest communication, as difficult as it may sometimes be.
According to Stella Ladikos, Therapist and Founder of Meraki Mental Health Training, understanding all facets of mental health is the first step in any couple’s ability to support one another.
“I like to explain our mental health as our overall state of wellbeing, our ability to cope with the everyday stresses of life, and our ability to live productively,” she says. “Mental health is our mood, emotions, thoughts, mindset, and ability to cope.”
That being said, Ladikos warns that ignoring opportunities to speak openly about any change in our personal state of well-being is a missed opportunity for growth, development, and potential happiness in the relationship.
“For a couple to go the distance, having open conversations about mental health is super important – regardless of where the stressors might be coming from,” says the therapist.
“Whether we’re in a great relationship or a toxic one, both will have an impact on our mental health, and it also works the other way too, where our mental health can affect the relationship.”
So how do we approach tricky conversations for the sake of our relationship’s longevity?
How we best engage in effective conversations with our partners can depend on a few things, explains Ladikos. When it comes to a new relationship, people will often do anything to avoid cutting the honeymoon period short.
But the expert wants to remind us that this is a crucial phase of learning things about each other, however personal they may be. For someone living with a mental health condition, navigating this period can be particularly tricky.
For anyone feeling particularly trepidatious, there are a few simple ways to scope how your new partner may respond.
“You might want to ‘test the waters’ to start off with, such as casually dropping that RUOK Day is coming up, and asking if their work is doing anything to mark the day, or maybe you saw someone talking about their mental health on TikTok,” suggests Ladikos. “If you’re not sure of their stance on mental health, this can be a great way to subtly see their views before you go all in.”
Once you feel ready to share what’s on your mind, it can be helpful to preface the conversations by letting them know you trust them, or asking for their patience as it is a difficult discussion for you.
“In my experience, people tend to be much less ‘afraid’ of these situations if you can give them some clear direction and something tangible that they can work with,” says Ladikos.
“We often avoid conversations about mental health, but this is a really important discussion to have with the person you’re dating,” Ladikos explains. “So while all of the internal alarm bells may be ringing, it’s time to send that ‘we need to chat’ text and prepare to have an open and honest conversation.”
But what about a long-term partner?
Discussing our well-being and mental health isn’t just daunting when it comes to gauging how a new partner might react. You might also experience a number of ebbs and flows years deep in a secure, long-term relationship, leaving you feeling unsure how the shift might impact your relationship dynamic.
“If you’re starting to feel your mental health decline, it’s important to bring it up with your partner,” Ladikos says. “Your change in mental health could be due to a number of things, and it’s likely your partner has already picked up on the signs you’re not feeling yourself before you’re even ready to chat.”
The expert says in the case of long-term relationships, it’s especially important to clearly communicate whether or not your shift in mental health is separate from their behaviours and actions.
“If it is because of something happening within the relationship, it’s often best to start the conversation talking not about what they’re doing wrong but how some of their actions make you feel,” Ladikos says. “Sometimes partners can get on the defensive if they feel like you’re bringing up a problem that’s ‘their fault’ or if they’re feeling attacked.”
It’s a two-way street
Just as we’d appreciate from them, Ladikos says it’s important to create a supportive space for our partners to speak openly about their mental health too.
“If you’ve noticed your partner isn’t acting like their normal self, the best way to bring up any concerns is to tell them what you’re picking up on,” says the expert. “If they’re not open to talking, don’t force their feelings out of them, instead simply remind them that you care, and offer for them to approach the conversation in a different way that suits them later if they’d like.”
For example, they might find it more useful to write you a note or text message about how they’re feeling, rather than immediately having the conversation in person.
If you’re concerned about them on a more serious note and are worried they may be exhibiting suicidal or self-harming behaviours, it’s important you get some immediate professional support. Getting advice from a helpline like Lifeline (13 11 14) or other helplines is always a good point of reference as they can walk you through your situation.
Above all, Ladikos says if you’re in an emotionally supportive, kind, and caring relationship, your partner will embrace these conversations, and work to best support you. When it comes to our mental health, the therapist says nothing is ever ‘too small’ to talk about.
“The moment we start to notice we’re feeling different, we should start to look for support. Whether that’s from friends and family, your GP or counsellor, or an online helpline,” she says. “Just like any physical health problem, your mental health is easier to treat when the problems are less severe.”