A few months ago my husband of 10 years had a mental breakdown and attempted to commit suicide. He was committed to a psychiatric hospital and diagnosed with bipolar disorder. i always expected marriage to be challenging and was prepared to deal with that, but nothing prepared me to deal with a spouse with mental illness. i’m struggling with whether or not to leave him. i want my kids and me to be safe. What should i do? While you are the only person who can ultimately decide how to handle your present situation, we hope the following information will guide you in making the decision that is best for you and your family.
Mental illness can be a devastating stressor for any marriage or family. For too long, mental illness has been the “silent” illness in faith communities, and especially in the African-American community. Unfortunately, this silence has caused many to go undiagnosed and untreated, and has left family members unprepared to deal with a very real, and sometimes destructive, illness.
When a family member is diagnosed with a lifelong, lifethreatening illness, it can scare a spouse away or leave parents and other family members in distress. According to an article in the November 2003 Psychology Today, “Managing Bipolar Disorder,” in marriages in which a person has bipolar disorder it is estimated that 90 percent of these marriages end in divorce. Studies suggest that nearly half of the people living with bipolar disorder attempt killing themselves. The unpredictability and instability of volatile emotions of someone with mental illness can lead to insecurity and fragility in the marriage and the family.
In spite of daunting statistics, many marriages and families have survived living with a spouse or family member with mental illness. Recently it has become far too common for people to say of someone who is behaving strangely, “Oh, that person is bipolar.” Most people would not easily recognize signs of mental illness, and just because someone is a little moody may not necessarily mean they are bipolar. What is important is to identify if a spouse, child, or other loved one behaves in erratic and unpredictable ways that create a lot of tension and instability in the family. When you identify such disruptions, getting help from a professional counselor, psychologist, or psychiatrist is critical.
Early intervention and proper diagnosis and treatment are important first steps in managing mental illness. As a supporting spouse or caregiver, educate yourself as much as possible on the person’s illness. Spouses and families must also develop coping strategies and safety plans for the person with the illness and the rest of the family. For someone who has attempted suicide and survived, it may take weeks, and maybe even months, before medication and therapy reduces their suicidal feelings. Empathy, kindness, and support from loved ones are a valuable part of their treatment. Of course, this may be extremely difficult for loved ones who are confused, frightened, and angry themselves. Learning to cope with both the behavior of the mentally ill person and one’s own reactions to that behavior often requires counseling for a spouse and the rest of the family as well.
One huge advantage for the Christian who is living with a mentally ill relative is faith in God. Recent studies have affirmed that a person’s faith plays an important role in helping such an individual cope with challenges in his or her life—including helping family members cope with the stress of caring for a mentally ill relative (Rammohan, 2008). However, this faith has to be intrinsic, rather than extrinsic (Pargament, 2001), meaning, the person must truly believe what he or she claims to believe in. “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13).
We hope our response will help you and others in similar circumstances. Beyond that, always remember the promise of God in Isaiah 41:10, “Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you, yes, I will help you, I will uphold you with My righteous right hand.”