If you’re dating someone who struggles with anxiety or depression, the situation is probably confusing and difficult for both of you. Although you should always encourage them to see a therapist, there are also plenty of things that you can do for your SO to feel safe and loved.
1. Don’t be their therapist
You can be there for your partner in every way possible, but you can’t give them the professional help they need. “The most important thing that you can do for an anxious or depressed partner is to persuade them to see the importance of getting into psychotherapy,” says Dr. Carole Lieberman, a psychiatrist and author. “Otherwise, the situation could soon get out of control. You cannot be their therapist if you are their romantic partner.”
What you can do for a depressed or anxious partner is to reassure them against the stigma of going into therapy. Talking to a professional is crucial for their mental health, and will also help your relationship.
2. Support them in every situation
If you are not depressed or anxious yourself, it can be difficult to understand what’s going on with your partner, but this doesn’t mean that you should just give up on helping them. “The main advice I would give to someone whose SO struggles with mental health issues is to support them no matter what,” says Helmi Henkin, a junior at the University of Alabama. “They may seem distant at times, and they may often be feeling down for no reason, which are both frustrating circumstances to observe.”
On the other hand, it’s really important that you don’t confuse supporting your SO and encouraging any unhealthy—or even destructive—behaviors they might engage in. “You can support them in the sense of letting them know that you are not judging them and want to make sure they get help, but you can’t support them no matter what,” Dr. Lieberman says.
If your partner is very depressive, they might make extreme or rash decisions, so you should be aware that this is a possibility and be ready to respond in this kind of situation. “For example, if a depressed partner wants to drown their sorrows in alcohol every night or talks about being suicidal, but refuses to get help, you can’t just support them in these bad decisions,” Dr. Lieberman explains. “You may need to alert someone who can get your partner help—such as: his parents, the dorm RA, the mental health service at your school or 911.” You should never try to deal with this alone.
3. Validate their feelings
Some feelings associated with anxiety and depression are not completely rational, and your partner knows this, but it doesn’t make those feelings any less real. “Anxiety is super frustrating for me because I don't even understand it myself,” says Clara*, a junior at the University of California, Los Angeles. “It's really difficult to try to explain something to my partner that I don't even understand. So the best thing for him to do is not to try to understand the anxiety, but to understand how it makes me feel. It's important that he respects how I'm feeling, even if it makes him frustrated or annoyed.”
For Dr. Lieberman, one of the best ways to understand your SO is to try to relate to what is upsetting them. “You can validate your partner’s feelings, such as if they have had a major disappointment and you can empathize with how sad that would make anyone feel,” she says. “Or if they are under a lot of stress to do well in school and work to support their self, you can empathize with how anxious that would make you feel, too.”
4. Remind them that you care
People who are anxious or depressed can sometimes feel like they are alone in the world. “Remind them how much you care about them and be there for them as much as possible,” Helmi says. “Even if they ask you for validation that you love them multiple times a day, please give it to them, because chances are there are voices in their head telling them that no one likes them and they are better off alone, or worse.”
Another difficult thing about anxiety and depression is that they sometimes push people away when the person needs people the most. “My boyfriend has depression and I'm actually the only girl who has stuck with him through it,” says Lexie*, a junior at Boston University. “Any time he would go through his bouts, girls would be like, ‘You're too depressing, bye.’ And that is disheartening. I understand depression is a disease and someone can't just 'get over it.'”
Dr. Lieberman echoes the collegiettes. “When someone is feeling depressed or anxious, they fear that their partner will leave them because they’re no fun to be around,” she says. “So, reminding them that you care goes a long way.” Sticking with them through all the rough times will mean much more than you think.
5. Just listen
Sometimes, there’s really nothing you can do or say that will make your partner feel better. In this case, the best thing to do is to just lend them an ear and a shoulder to cry on. “What I have learned to do is be supportive of [my boyfriend] and just listen,” Lexie says. “When he has his ‘meltdowns,’ or when his depression ‘hits’ him, I just listen. And his mood will gradually get better and that means the world to me because I just want him to be happy.”
Dr. Lieberman encourages listening, as long as you don’t try to “fix” your partner. “Even though you can’t be as objective as a psychotherapist, and should not try to play that role, you can help just by listening,” she says.
Being in a relationship with someone who deals with anxiety or depression is far from easy, but if you care about them, it’s the last thing that should stop you from being with them. Instead, you can help by being there for them, listening and just caring.