Mental Health: Coping With a Spouse Who Has Mental Illness

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Falling in love can be easy. Staying in love might require effort. But what happens when your spouse becomes mentally ill? How do you keep a healthy relationship with your spouse? During my time as a NAMI Family-to-Family Mental Illness Education teacher, I was always amazed at the incredible burden that was carried by spouses of the mentally ill.

One man in particular stands out as an example of how difficult and lonely it is when your spouse is the one with the illness. This man was dedicated to his wife and children, was a hard worker, and was trying to keep his family together. His wife had episodes of psychotic depression that resulted in extensive hospitalization and weeks of separation where he had to be both mother and father to his three small children.

He had a good job with good insurance but incurred child care expenses that caused financial distress for the family. He was married with the expectation that he would build a life with a partner that wouldn't be able to share the burdens of life.

When mental illness strikes a spouse, there is a whole different level of need than when it is a child or sibling. All the hopes and dreams of building a life together and working as a team are threatened.

It may be necessary to exchange roles. When the breadwinner becomes ill, the other spouse may need to become the primary financial support of the family. If small children are in the home, this puts added strain on both spouses, especially if the mentally ill spouse is incapable of contributing much.

The healthy spouse has to juggle feelings of helplessness, anger, frustration, and fear that things will never get better. While a parent may fall naturally into the role of caregiver, it is not always easy or comfortable for that role when it is the spouse who must fill it.

I recommend When Someone You Love Has A Mental Illness by Rebecca Woolis as an excellent book to help in dealing with ill family members. The NAMI Family-to-Family Education Class is also a wonderful place to learn valuable information and to find support from those who truly understand what you are experiencing. The most important thing to remember is that you are not alone.

What are you doing to show support for your spouse? What can you do differently?

Photo courtesy of flickr.

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