Tackling your partners mental health: psychologist reveals the practical steps you can take to help

In the UK alone, 1 in 8 men will suffer with a recognised mental health condition, and suicide remains the single biggest killer of men under the age of 50.

Research carried out by the Movember Foundation charity has shown that 83% of men find it helpful to be asked if they are having a difficult time, with 46% stating that no one had done so during the pandemic. This shows that modern men are actually open to emotional conversations but are not being given the opportunity to express how they are really feeling. However, communication and emotional connectivity are key parts to a healthy relationship, so spotting the signs in your partner, friend or family member  is really important to ensure they don’t continue to suffer in silence.

Dr Jonathan Pointer, Chartered Clinical Psychologist at TherapySanctuary.com, has spoken to Vape Club as part of the Quitting Smoking for Mental Health efforts to raise awareness around how small changes can make a big difference to your partner’s mental health and how best to approach the topic with the men in your life if you suspect they’re suffering.

How to make important changes to your lifestyle

Men want to seize the opportunity to talk and unburden themselves, but sometimes their lifestyle can restrict them from opening up. Your lifestyle can impact a wide range of mental health conditions and make a positive difference to how you’re feeling day-to-day if adjusted slightly. Dr Jonathan Pointer recommends putting the below into effect to increase positive conversations:

  • Connect with others. Having good relationships helps to build self-worth and can provide better emotional support. While it’s difficult to arrange days out or meals with friends in current circumstances, making the most of technology even to touch base with someone you’ve not spoken to in some time can feel really worthwhile and leave you with a greater feeling of belonging.

  • Stay physically active. You don’t have to be running marathons; even a small amount of exercise every day can cause chemical changes in the brain that lift your mood. Setting goals and achieving them, however big or small, also helps to raise your self-esteem. Find something you enjoy and make it part of your life, rather than forcing yourself to do exercise as a chore.

  • Cut out unhealthy habits. Processed foods, excessive alcohol and cigarette smoking can all be severely detrimental to your mental health. The Quitting Smoking for Mental Health study of over 1000 individuals in the UK, found that cigarettes directly impact mental as well as physical health. Participants experienced a positive impact on their mental health after a 4-week period of smoking cessation (52.2%), compared to during the initial 4 weeks of smoking cessation (39.1%), which is an increase of 13%. Ex-smokers said that they saw an immediate improvement in their mental health after quitting, and the effect was even greater after 4 weeks.

  • Learn new skills. Focusing your mind on something engaging such as cooking, a DIY project, painting or a new sport, boosts self-confidence and helps you to build a sense of purpose. You could even sign up to a course or try taking on a new responsibility at work which will keep your mind busy and engaged.

  • Pay attention to the present. Practising mindfulness can help you to enjoy daily life more and to understand yourself better, which has a real impact on your overall mental wellbeing. There are many different ways to be mindful and you’re sure to find one that works for you.

How to get your partner to comfortably open up to you

Create a safe environment

  • If you sense that someone may need support, or that person has indicated that they are wanting to begin the process themselves, then you need to look for or create a safe environment, where they will not be overheard or interrupted.

  • Give them time and space.This is their process of opening up so you need to take this disclosure at their pace to avoid your partner retreating inwards.

Go slow and don’t pressurise

  • The person’s process of opening up may be in stages and not be completed in one conversation. Once the person feels that they can trust you, watch out for opportunities to follow up the previous conversation. People will often give subtle signals that they want to broach the conversation again. Going slow can ultimately speed up the process.

  • If someone opens up to you about their mental health issues, then it is important to recognise that it has probably taken bravery on their part to do so, as they have taken what feels to them like a risk. It is important to treat both the person and the conversation with respect.

Let them lead the conversation

  • Men in particular often worry about “giving up control”. Therefore, it is important to keep the focus of control with the person who is opening up. Acknowledge what they are saying to you by reflecting back to them your understanding of what they are saying.

  • Help them name and acknowledge their feelings and beliefs. Unhelpful beliefs can create barriers that prevent a person opening up about their mental health issues, as well as perpetuate their distress. These can include beliefs about their own experiences and feelings. For example, the toxic belief that men are only permitted to show their distress through anger and frustration, rather than expressing what is driving these feelings (anxiety for example), means that some men would rather open up about experiencing anger which may not be perceived as relating to mental health issues.

Listen without judgement

  • The issue of shame is often a large barrier to men because of unhelpful beliefs about masculinity, mental health issues, and seeking support. For example, shame is often caused by unhelpful cultural beliefs, such as “men shouldn’t talk about their feelings”, “men don’t cry”, and “men are supposed to be emotionally independent” and that to seek emotional support from others is a sign of weakness, and being less than a ‘real’ man. These beliefs are unhelpful, and do not serve anyone.

  • Shame is perpetuated by deliberately not disclosing an aspect of ourselves that we fear will provoke judgment in others. However, the more we hide the aspects of ourselves that are shameful to us, the more shame we experience. Conversely, the more we open up, the less shame we feel.

  • Our own experiences of shame can be softened by developing an attitude of non-judgement, acceptance and compassion towards ourselves. This is important because people experience fear and shame based on the concerns that they will be judged, pitied, and no longer seen by others and themselves for who they were before they opened up.

Do a little research and suggest where to seek help

  • If appropriate, when the person is ready, you may wish to suggest self-help books that are recommended by mental health professionals, and/or signpost them towards professional therapy services.

What charities can help with men’s mental health?