20/12/2016 17:04 SAST | Updated 20/02/2017 10:31 SAST

What To Do If Your Partner Has A Mental Illness

"The biggest impact that mental illnesses have on relationships is that it stretches people's natural empathy."

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Blac Chyna and Rob Kardashian at the unveiling of the 'Chymoji' Emoji Collection at Hard Rock Cafe on 10 May 2016 in Hollywood, California. The couple split acrimoniously at the weekend, allegedly over Kardashian's mental health issues.

Mental illnesses need a lot of empathy, but it may be hard for partners to sustain that.

This weekend saw reality TV stars Rob Kardashian and Blac Chyna engage in a public spat over Instagram and Snapchat. Chyna allegedly left Kardashian at the weekend and took their one-month-old daughter Dream, and the contents of their home, with her. The model and entrepreneur said she was done dealing with Kardashian's mental health issues, as he had refused to seek treatment and was self medicating.

Kardashian has been battling depression for the last three years. His struggle with depression has featured on the Kardashian family's reality show as well as his own recent show with Chyna.

Chyna has been villified on social media, with many defending Kardashian and saying Chyna shouldn't have left with Dream.

Counselling psychologist Gregory Eccles, however, says that in situations like these, leaving is not an unnatural response.

"The biggest impact that mental illnesses have on relationships is that it stretches people's natural empathy," he says.

Eccles describes mental illnesses as "extreme examples of negative emotions" adding that these extremes "tax the ability to empathise" beyond a certain point.

"You can never force someone to seek treatment," Eccles says. "The best way is to continue to practice a process of empathy as far as possible and remind them of the impact their illness has on you and your relationship."

Psychiatric intake clinician Megan Hosking says that when a mental illness is left untreated, as appears to be the case with Kardashian, it affects all aspects of a person's life. "It will impact their work life, where they may experience a drop in productivity, and that leads to every day at work feeling like a bad day and creating a cycle of negativity," she says.

If someone is suffering from a mental illness, Hosking says, the added strain in the relationship may come from the fact that you no longer recognise your partner as the person you first met or fell in love with. "A lot of symptoms come across in personality and behaviour and those things are negatively affected by mental illness," she says.

It is important to remember that mental illness has an effect on all parties involved as well as the relationship as a whole, Hosking says.

"As a partner, provide a listening ear - not to provide solutions, but to further that process of empathy. Understanding both the mental illness and your partner's experience is essential. For yourself, it is critical to be aware of your own limitations and recognise what your own mental health is. You need to look at those indicators first. The relationship is about finding a balance between these elements," she says.

"Every individual's experience is different and there is certainly not a one-size-fits-all approach to treatment." Mark Jones, clinical psychologist

Clinical psychologist Mark Jones says coping with mental illness can be quite confusing and distressing, especially if a person is unclear about what their partner is experiencing.

"Understanding a certain illness, for example depression, can really help to make sense of the best way to make sense of the situation," he says. "Every individual's experience is different and there is certainly not a one-size-fits-all approach to treatment."

Psycho-education is important for everyone to understand what their partner is going through, Jones says, adding, "Empathy, kindness and compassion also go a long way."

What stops people from seeking help?

Most often, what stops people from seeking help is stigma, says Jones.

"Men, especially South African men, seek treatment far less than women for many reasons," he says, adding that this is often due to the stigma attached to seeking help for mental health concerns, as well as ideas of masculinity and the need to solve one's own problems.

"The old stereotype still exists that boys don't cry and women are more emotional," says Jones. "However, this is changing somewhat, particularly with men trying to make sense of their inner worlds and seeking out more couple's therapy."

Eccles agrees, saying that the vulnerability and weakness associated with seeking help for mental illness is often a barrier to treatment.

Will leaving solve anything?

The added pressure of being the caregiver in a family, which often falls on women, can lead people to breaking point and the decision to leave, as Chyna has said was her reason for leaving Rob.

Hosking says this may not always be the best solution. "Separating a family should not be an option unless someone is in danger," she says.

According to Hosking, it is possible for a couple or family to work through the treatment along with the mentally ill individual, and she believes this is the first avenue that should be explored.

Jones agrees but says that no two experiences will be the same. "Leaving is not always necessary, especially if an individual has sought out treatment. Living with mental illness is not a deal breaker and can be managed (with the correct treatment) just like any other illness. Supporting someone who is suffering with an illness can also help massively in their healing process".

"A breakup rarely has a positive impact on people, even without mental illness," says Eccles. Finally reaching the decision to leave, he says, is a last resort. "If one partner feels unable to cope, and they have sought other solutions that have not worked, a break up would be a final solution, where someone chooses to leave despite really caring for their loved one."