5 Tips For Dealing With a Partner Who Has Mental Health Challenges

Here are some helpful tips for dealing with mental illness in a relationship.

As Valentine’s spurred endless photos of red roses, hearts, and wedding rings, us single people spent the day reminiscing about the ups and downs of relationships past.

I remember dating a beautiful Afro-Caribbean brother. He had a neatly cut beard and dreamy eyes. In the beginning, the hearty laughter, the glances, the endless possibilities meant romantic bliss. This didn’t last. Rapid mood swings and episodes of stoic calm took over and it soon became clear that he was suffering from something bigger than both of us—depression. Dating a person with mental health challenges can be daunting. It can make you feel helpless because you want the person to get better.

Here are five truths I came to, while dating someone facing mental health challenges:

1. It’s not you OR them. It's the mental illness.

After two years of dating this man, the most vital lesson I learned is that neither of us were to blame. My ex-boyfriend would go through episodes of uncharted emotions—his waves of enthusiasm one hour would turn to being a brute the next. It left me frustrated and ready to end our relationship. My emotional reactions did not help. In fact, they did the opposite by hurting him and causing him to sink deeper into the abyss.

2. Seek Professional Help.

I was overzealous in my efforts to help my partner cope with his symptoms of disinterest in his everyday activities and restlessness. I tried financial support, sex, motivational talks, prayer, comfort food, healing oils and crystals—none of this kept him happy. A moment of relief swept through my heart when his closest friend called me one day. “He has mad issues,” he said to me after recounting his own stories of my exe’s unusual behavior. For the first time in our relationship, I felt supported in my intuition that my partner’s mental health was declining. However, his friend, like myself was unsure how to help him. Watching him become consumed by his thoughts, lost in his anger, and unable to control his mind was eye opening.

You need to get help,” I told him during one of his stoic episodes. We were sitting in silence for nearly two hours. He was lying down on his bed, with his eyes fixed on the ceiling only blinking a few times. He would later agree to apply for medical insurance—the first step in receiving the professional help he desperately needed and deserved. I was relieved because he agreed to get help. This feeling quickly left me because for weeks, I noticed the signed application on his dresser had not moved. This was the last straw for me!

3. Do not be afraid to leave.

At first I felt guilty for not trying harder to find him help as I am not a professional. Although, the decision was hard to make, I knew it was time to go. There were too many failed attempts to get my partner professional help and he was unwilling to get the help for himself. Within myself, I started to notice that I was embodying his whirlwind of emotions. I became irate when he was irate, anxious when he was anxious. I loved him, but I had to grew to love myself more. My mental health was also at stake and I could no longer have anxiety attacks worrying about him. The deal was sealed; I was done.

4. Give positive energy.

Many of us are too quick to judge our partners for their unusual behavior. I have witnessed men call their girlfriends “crazy” and women call their boyfriends “fuckboys” and so forth. Yet, I have not witnessed enough people willing to admit that their lovers may have serious mental health issues and may need professional help. Spend the same energy you use to bash your exes on social media and offer them a helping hand.

5. Handle your relationship on your own terms.

My friends and family berated me with comments like, “He’s not the one” or “why are you with him? He’s not treating you right.” None of them understood that I was not foolishly dating a “madman,” but I was in love with someone struggling with mental health challenges. I admit I was dangerously in love, perhaps as I found myself living through his unpredictable emotions.

Through this tumultuous relationship, I did learn that love cannot (no matter how hard we contemplate it), be conceptualized or understood. Love defies logic. Think of a parent standing in front of a bullet for their child? Isn’t that essentially considered crazy? Who would literally end their own lives for another? Only an insane person, some may say. Society’s concept of love or how we’re supposed to love will often leave one questioning who's worthy of love? The answer is everyone is worthy.

Photo: courtesy of Natsai Audrey Chieza

100 Women: Natsai Audrey Chieza is Changing the World One Petri Dish at a Time

Her interdisciplinary approach to biology and fashion has sparked conversation about the future of sustainability and pollution in textile manufacturing.

The bold jewel tones of OkayAfrica 100 Women honoree Natsai Audrey Chieza's silk scarves aren't the product of hazardous chemicals or silkscreen printing. Instead, they are the product of bacteria. Specifically coelicolor, a strain of bacteria found in soil that happens to excellently synthesize organic chemical compounds. Working in the trade for six years, the Zimbabwean materials designer quickly came to understand why the textile industry is one of the most polluting industries in the world. Knowing that the most harm occurs during the process of dyeing fabrics, she decided to take action.

Chieza has worked with leading brands such as Microsoft, Nissan, and Unilever to usher in a new approach to science and design. Through her creative R&D; studio Faber Futures, the design innovator uses the process of creating with bacteria to assist in moving mankind away from our fossil fuel dependency. As the biopigment expert put it [last year during her TED talk "Fashion has a pollution problem—can biology fix it?"], in the future we must make sure that we are not "mirroring the destructive legacies of the oil age."

Her interdisciplinary approach to biology and fashion has sparked spirited conversation about the future of sustainability and pollution in textiles. Here, Chieza expounds on her start, the pros and cons of creating something new and the urgency of change.

The following has been edited for length and clarity

Akinyi Ochieng for OkayAfrica: STEM and the arts are often conceptualized as separate worlds. However, in your career, you've managed to find the overlap. How did you, a materials designer, end up dabbling in biotechnology?

Natsai Audrey Chieza: I've always really wanted to work within the creative field. I used to work in architecture where I really enjoyed my education in a systems approach to designs and designing for multiple contexts. But I wanted to explore a different side of the design world, so I began exploring the skill and context of material flows, and how technology and futures fits within this framework of how we design.

For my own work and my practice, not having a scientific background made me try things based on what I understood about materials and what I understood about the interactions in which those materials existed in society. I'm interested in a political lens, an economic lens, and how textiles perform in reality. That's not necessarily the approach that a scientist would have taken. Now that's not to say that science isn't important—it's vital. But innovation can occur in that intersection.

Did you go into this thinking, "Oh, I'll figure it out. There must be a path to make this work"?

To be honest, when I started off, the field was not defined. I think I found something really interesting, which was about how biology was becoming a realm of design, and I just explored that as best as I knew how as a designer and non-scientist. It just so happened that around me there was a context that was imagined but enabled me six years later to say, "That's the industry where this work belongs" and stakeholders who give me a space to further my work in a creative and experimental. The path was never anything clear at all. I learned as I grew.

There's a phrase that is often repeated today: "You can't be what you can't see." But you have really created a niche for yourself. What are the benefits of entering an emerging space?

I think what's amazing is not having anyone or anything telling you that what you think is impossible. If you're carving a new territory then you must trust in your instinct and vision to effectively push where the work can be and where it exists. You're not asking permission to do anything. Of course the flip side of that is you have to bring people with you, and so part of you being able to do the work is convincing people that your vision has legitimacy and it's worth exploring, worth taking a risk to look outside of that box.

It's often quite challenging to figure out how to find the strength to push something that hasn't been done before. There's no precedent or rulebook to my work, but sometimes it's really nice to have a rulebook. [Laughs] However, I think it's made me a person who doesn't see challenges as obstacles that are in the way, but more as problems that can be solved. And I think that's the good thing.

Much of your work is about biopigments. What color excites you?

It's not really the colors that excite me. It's color as a cultural context that really fascinates me. I'm really interested in if a microbe is almost like this living factory that produces this pigment, and the technology can be shared and deployed with people as to how you work with it across the world, then what are the cultural interventions that can happen in South Africa versus in Argentina versus in the United Kingdom, based on this common microbe. I think that's always been what interests me the most, the context in which our materials exist. I think a really good example is indigo, and how from Japan to West Africa, indigo is just this really, really rich material, and the process and the craftsmanship that goes into it. I'm interested to see how the future ecology of making arises in response to biotechnologies across the world.

Where do you see yourself and your work evolving in the near or long term?

I'm sort of going through that growth moment where you've been working toward something and then you've arrived at that and you're like, "Right, what's next?" I think I'm fundamentally somebody that wants to use design as a discursive tool to understand how our technologies proliferate. My focus is really on the imagined life sciences and how they're going to become very much a part of all of our lived experiences, and particularly in the context of really urgent changes that are happening from a local level to a global level. From global warming and climate change to resource scarcity across regions, our response to what I think being able to design with living systems, can afford us in the future. So my work really is about understanding how to engage stakeholders across different sectors to grow a consensus around how we're going to leverage these sorts of technologies so that they can be technologies for good. That's really where this is going.

This article appears as part of OkayAfrica's 100 Women 2018—a project highlighting the impactful work done by African women across the globe. Throughout March, we will be publishing a series of profiles, videos, interviews and feature stories on these inspirational women.

Click here to see the entire list of 2018 honorees.

Maia & The Big Sky LP cover.

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The Assassination of Marielle Franco and the Dawn of Brazil's New Civil Rights Movement

Marielle Franco was one of a new generation of black activists trying to overturn Brazil's entrenched and violent racism

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