I could see that my husband, Sam, was becoming more and more withdrawn. I remember going out together to see friends, but I could tell he was somewhere else mentally. He was distant, thinking things through while the rest of us were chatting away.
I asked if he was OK. He said he was fine, but I knew that wasn’t true, so I continued to ask, and eventually, he opened up. He admitted ‘I’m really not ok’, and told me he was feeling suicidal.
Though I had never truly believed he was really ‘fine’, it was still a shock, and very difficult to hear just how much he was struggling.
One of my biggest challenges was knowing what to do and say to help him.
I didn’t know much about mental health, so I felt like a fish out of water. I learned as much as I could, visiting lots of charities' websites, reading about what it was like to experience a mental health problem, and how to help someone. I absorbed the information and adapted it to our situation.
I soon realised all I could do was be there for Sam, offering him practical and emotional support. He admitted he’d kept things in for so long because he wanted to fix everything himself. When he decided he couldn’t do that, he gave up hope. He later explained that when he’d told me how he was feeling, he felt like he’d simultaneously relinquished control. That scared him, and I could see his self-worth was diminishing.
I tried to help him in ways that put decisions back in his hands. One of the first steps I took was trying to find him a counsellor. I put three options in front of him, and I told him to choose which person was best for him. I wanted to guide him, but I knew if he was going to feel better about himself he needed to have some control over what was happening to him.
We soon faced one of our biggest challenges. How could I support him while he was out of sight? Sam told me he needed to go on a work trip, which I was anxious about. I didn’t want him to be in a situation where he felt suicidal and I wasn’t there to spot the signs.
When I asked Sam how he was, he’d say things like “I’m feeling a bit down”, or “I’m OK”, but I didn’t know what that really meant to him.
How down was he really feeling? Emotions like ‘happy’ and ‘sad’ didn’t help me to identify when I needed to step in. If he was sad, was he just upset or did I need to check he was somewhere safe? This resulted in us coming up with a method of communication that we called the ‘numbering system’.
Amelia's husband Sam has also told his story, where he writes about the importance of accepting help in order to make things better.
Our numbering system helped me to better judge how he was feeling, and if I needed to take any further action. I would text him and say “where are we?” and he’d respond with a number between one to five: five meaning he was feeling great and one meaning he was feeling dangerously low. The system relied on him being honest, so it built trust, but it also meant I always knew where he was at, even if I wasn’t with him. If he responded and said he was a one or two, I knew I needed to call and ensure he was safe, but if he was at four or five I didn’t need to follow up.
Sam could be quiet, but that didn’t necessarily mean he was at a one. If he was quieter than usual but said he was a three, I knew he was feeling upset rather than depressed. Being at a three is OK! He didn’t need me to drag things up just because he was feeling down, that didn’t help either of us. So the numbering system unexpectedly helped me to better understand his behaviour in certain situations.
If you’re caring for a loved one, remember to take some of your own advice too.
I wanted to make sure I was equipped to support Sam, so I could ensure he was still there tomorrow, in a month, and next year – but it was a lot to take on. It’s important to show your partner you have their back, but you need to remember to look after your own mental health. Supporting someone can be tough, so take some time for yourself and relax when you can.
It’s also important to add some professional support into the equation. It will take some pressure off you and will also help them to find the balance of expert and emotional support that they might need. Having someone else on our team helped us massively.
Sometimes it’s tempting to give out advice when really all your partner needs is for you to listen.
I was once told that we have one mouth and two ears, and we should listen and speak in that proportion. It could have been easy to say ‘do this, do that’, but most of the time it was better to listen. They will probably need to tell you a lot more than you need to tell them, so listening should be 75% of the conversation.
If you’re worried about someone, ask them if you have reason to be concerned. If they say they’re fine, and you don’t need to worry, trust your gut. Challenge their response if you don’t believe they’re being honest with themselves. Ask ‘how are we today?, ‘how are you really feeling?’, because once you put that out there it shows you’re prepared to listen. It shows they don’t have to go through it alone – you can deal with things together.
Our Ask Twice campaign
The world has changed. Being a mate doesn’t have to. Three out of four men won’t open up to friends about their mental health for fear of being seen as a burden. Find out more about our campaign and help us get more people asking twice today.