Marriage Preparation – Dealing with a Mental Illness

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By Abby Viveiros and Dr. Thomas B. Holman

Helpful Information: If you suffer from mental illness, be assured that you are not alone. About one in four Americans suffers from mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia each year. That’s a quarter of our population! To put that into perspective, more Americans have mental illness than blue eyes (one in six Americans has blue eyes). Mental illness hits people of all sizes, shapes, backgrounds, and religious beliefs. The great news is that the recovery to a healthy and normal life is possible. According to the National Institute of Mental Illness, “Between 70 and 90 percent of individuals have significant reduction of symptoms and improved quality of life with a combination of treatments and supports”.  You may know of some acquaintances who suffer from mental illness, but because of proper treatment and their faith in Jesus Christ they lead normal lives. Thanks to modern science, and years of research, and The Atonement of the Savior, your chances of recovery are very high.

It is important to understand two things. First, a person does not choose to have a mental illness. The causes of mental illnesses are many—including genetics, physical injury, social/family relationships and many more—varying from person to person and are still not fully understood by the research community. While one can choose, at least to some extent, how to respond to the effects of the illness, one most often has little control over the many causal factors involved.

Second, and related to the first point, someone suffering from a mental illness cannot just “pull themselves up by the bootstraps” as the old saying goes and “get over it.” Mental illness is a medical condition, just like cancer, diabetes, or heart disease. Not only are the causes many and varied, but the “getting over it” is often just as complex and diverse.

If you suffer from a mental illness, it’s counterproductive to blame yourself (“if only I hadn’t …”) or to fault others (“doggone my parents’ genes!”). If you are a partner to someone struggling with a mental illness, you need to be very careful about placing blame or wondering (especially out loud) why he/she can’t just shake it off. Clinical levels of depression or other mental illnesses are qualitatively different from the temporary ups and downs felt by everybody.

Q1: Can I date even though I suffer from mental illness?

A1: Yes. Heavenly Father doesn’t want you – or any of the other 57 million Americans suffering from a mental disorder – to avoid relationships because you have a health issue.  Since you don’t know when your opportunity will come to marry, you should get yourself involved in dating and do everything you can now to prepare yourself for marriage. But, there is one important thing you should do before dating seriously: Seek guidance from Heavenly Father, loving family members and friends, a mental health professional and maybe even a church leader. Why?

Two reasons:

  1. Dating is stressful enough and causes a roller coaster of emotions in folks who don’t have a mental illness. In fact, dating can sometimes bring on symptoms of mental illness in healthy minds. Take break-ups, for example: In even the healthiest individuals, break-ups feel like uppercuts to the heart, compounded by doomsday thoughts lingering in the mind. If it’s that stressful to so many people, how much more difficult is it for those with depression, anxiety, or another form of mental illness? In order for you to be emotionally and mentally prepared to cope with the roller coaster of emotions involved in dating, it is wise to have a correct diagnosis and treatment plan from a mental health professional and enlist support from others whom you trust.
  2. You need to be emotionally available for your partner. If you suffer from mental illness, coping with your life’s stress is often too overwhelming for you to also be emotionally attentive to a partner’s needs. The treatment you receive from your mental health professional, the support you get from loving family and friends, and the guidance you receive from Heavenly Father will not only help you deal with life, but it will also allow you to emotionally connect with your partner.

Q2: Should I tell my partner that I suffer from a mental illness?

A2: Yes. It will require courage, but being transparent about your health is important. We know of unfortunate instances where individuals didn’t give a full disclosure to their potential spouse because they assumed their illness would magically disappear once they married. When the spouse eventually found out, it often had devastating effects on their marriages. Don’t make this mistake. If you are taking care of your mental illness through therapy and/or medication and you are able to participate in normal activities, your partner will see that you are capable of living a normal life. Again, the kind of person you want to marry will be grateful for your willingness to disclose this important information and for taking proper care of your health and he/she will become an important part of your support team.

Q4: Won’t my mental illness go away once I marry?

A4: The story has been told of a beautiful bride on her wedding day who happily declared, “Mom, I’m at the end of all my troubles!” “Yes,” her mother replied, “but at which end?”  Some people have the fantasy that marriage is an endless state of euphoria that rescues them from all their worries. One of the reasons for this misperception may be due to the studies we hear about citing the benefits of marriage. For example, according to the California Healthy Marriage Coalition, married individuals are less likely to suffer psychological illness and are healthier and happier. Someone with depression reading this study might think that marriage is the solution. After all, who wouldn’t want to be happier and healthier? Even though marriage provides many benefits, it is not the sole treatment for mental illness.  Whether or not the spouse is supportive is the crucial factor. That’s why it’s crucial to disclose your illness to your dating partner. It will require work and support on your partner’s part so he or she needs to know. But remember, you have to be careful not to overburden your partner with your issues.  A loving partner can and will want to help you, but it is your problem and you must do most of the work.

Whether or not you make a full recovery really depends on several factors. Generally speaking, depression and anxiety can be managed depending on the depth at which you have suffered, ongoing family or other issues in your life, and the Lord’s timing. Some of the more complicated mental illnesses like bipolar disorder and schizophrenia require more extensive interventions for proper management. To expect that marriage is the cure for the illness is mistaken. If it were only that simple!

Q5: Is mental illness a deal breaker?

A5: According to Kipling Rasmussen, a mental health professional, “Mental illness is not a deal breaker. The real deal breaker is whether you are doing something about it. Mental illness is treatable and the vast majority of sufferers are able to have a good relationship, with the help of therapy and medication”.  That’s great news! If you suffer from mental illness, have hope! You, too, can have a meaningful relationship if you’re willing to seek help and do the work necessary.

Q6: How are people dealing with mental illnesses?

A6: Read Tom’s story and see how he dealt with his mental disorder.

Tom

 

I’ve struggled for years with a mental illness, one called anxiety disorder. I remember as a teenager driving in the car one day and looking down at my stomach and thinking, “How come I always have a nervous feeling in my stomach?” So I’ve always been a worrier and a bit anxious but it became serious about 25 years ago when I began having panic attacks, which are anxiety attacks on steroids! They are crazy bad! Eventually with the help of medication and some therapy, and the power of the Atonement working in my life, I began to recover. After four years I had learned enough about the disorder to know how to manage flare-ups without meds and have continued in recovery to this day. While medication and therapy helped initially, ultimately I had to do it. Three things made all the difference for me:

  1. I learned a procedure that helps me face the terrible physical and emotional manifestations of the anxiety rather than trying to run away from them.
  2. I continued praying regularly, reading the scriptures, and attending church even though I often felt unworthy to pray and inadequate in my level of obedience. Staying with these things even though it was hard was a lifesaver. Eventually the sweet, quiet peace of the Spirit came. I can testify with Gordon B. Hinckley that, “There is nothing sweeter, nothing better, nothing finer than the companionship of the Holy Spirit.
  3. I sought and received support from my wife. She couldn’t cure me, I initially thought my love for her and her love for me would be enough, but it wasn’t. I couldn’t have done it as quickly and as well without her, but I had to do it; she couldn’t—as much as she was willing to—take it from me. The only Being who could take it from me, of course, is the Savior. And He did, as I did my part. He provided the healing balm by the power of His atonement, His grace, and His Holy Spirit.

Am I cured? No, not in the way we usually use that word. I still have moments of anxiety but they are much less intense than they were 25 years ago, and I know how to manage them. So I’m not cured but I have certainly recovered and continue to be in recovery.

Have I been able to have a good marriage despite this disorder? I hope it is not too conceited to say that I think Linda and I have one of the best marriages around. I can’t imagine a better marriage and she tells me she feels the same way!

Has this illness “benefited” me? Time and again I have been able to help people who were suffering from anxiety disorder and depression (anxiety’s twin sister). Without experiencing what I have, I might not have had the understanding needed to help and support those who were suffering. Indeed, I am convinced that the Lord has directed many people and me so that I could be there to help them.

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If you struggle with a mental disorder, what can you do now to begin recovery? Who can you go to for help? What fears are keeping you from seeking help and how can you overcome them?

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This article is one of a series.  For others in the series, see:

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