By Kate Thieda
For most people, there’s no place like home. Familiar surroundings, your own bed, your own food in the fridge, and maybe pets or other comforting objects all make life run a little smoother.
For people with mental illness, having the optimal environment for healing can make a significant difference in how quickly they recover. If they are living in a stressful environment, it can make getting better a big challenge–not only do they have to deal with their symptoms, but they have to manage household stressors as well.
As the partner of someone with a mental illness, you can play a large role in creating a place of safety and stability for your partner.
Research on the family environment (especially with schizophrenia and PTSD) has clearly demonstrated that the family atmosphere has a strong effect on the functioning of a person with mental illness. In fact, people living in families with high stress levels are more likely to relapse and/or be re-hospitalized (Tarrier, Sommerfield, & Pilgrim, 1999).
Tips to Minimize Stress in Your Home
Create a predictable schedule. This includes sleep and wake times, approximate times to go to and come home from work, meal times, and times for any other routine activities, such as exercise or chores/errands. For people who are recovering from the effects of mental illness, having a routine creates purpose, encourages activity, helps the person feel as if they have been productive, and regulates their system (as in the case of sleep). It also reduces anxiety because the person will be able to predict what is going to happen when.
Agree on roles and responsibilities for family members. If it is just you and your partner at home, decide who is responsible for what household chores, errands, meal preparation, pet responsibilities, paying bills, etc. If there are kids at home, include them in the divvying up of responsibilities. Similar to the effects of creating a predictable schedule, knowing explicitly who will do what in the relationship can ease anxiety for both partners that one will not uphold their end of the bargain. While your partner is recovering, they may not be able to handle everything they once could, so have a discussion about what’s possible and what they feel they can handle.
Maintain a calm atmosphere in the house. Loud music, slamming doors, technology everywhere you look, people talking in loud voices, bright lights and colors, piles of stuff strewn everywhere, and barking dogs can all contribute to high stress levels for everyone in the house. Look for ways to reduce the noise level, clean the messes, and create a space where it feels calm and quiet.
Reduce stimulation. Related to the above point, look for ways to eliminate excessive stimulation. Watching violent shows or movies, using technology constantly, and having visitors (welcome or not!) coming and going on a regular basis should be experienced judiciously while your partner recovers.
Have couple time. This is not the time to discuss the bills, the kids, the stuff happening at work–this is a time to nurture and strengthen your relationship with your partner. Creating weekly rituals, such as going on a walk, taking a picnic to the park, or having “date night” can give you and your partner something to look forward to and take some of the focus off your partner’s illness. It’s easy to get wrapped up in the effects of the symptoms of mental illness, but taking time to play and reconnect can do wonders for your partner’s mood and self-esteem, as well as bolster the bond of your relationship.