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The F-Word in Mental Illness


That’s the “f-word” people often try to avoid or deny, especially when it comes to the implications of mental illness. Partners often report getting angry with their ill loved ones, but psychologists will tell you that anger is a secondary emotion that masks a primary emotion.

That primary emotion is often fear: fear of the illness’ effects on your partner, fear of the illness’ effects on you, fear of what will happen to your relationship, fear of not getting what is needed, whatever that may be, etc.

Once you realize that your anger may really be a sign of fear, there are steps you can take to alleviate those feelings:

  1. Be gentle with yourself. You are feeling fear because you care about your partner. Reviewing these tips from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) might help in re-focusing your perspective about your role as the partner of someone with mental illness.
  2. Make a list. Now that you’ve realized that you may be feeling fear around your partner’s illness, write down what it is that you are afraid of. Is it that he/she isn’t getting the right treatment? Of what is happening to your relationship? Fear of other people judging you or your partner? That your partner will die? The more honest and thoughtful you can be, the more the list will help in guiding what comes next.
  3. Review the list and identify what you can take care of yourself and what you need assistance in resolving. For instance, if you are afraid that your partner isn’t receiving the best treatment, write down specific questions to ask your partner’s treatment team, or information you can research to learn more. If you have concerns about your relationship, plan a time to have a meaningful conversation with your partner, when neither of you is stressed, ill or otherwise preoccupied.
  4. Talk to others about your fears. Getting your feelings out into the open can make them less scary. See a therapist, call your most supportive friend, look to a support group for help, or speak with another trusted person, such as a minister or clergy person, a healthcare professional or someone else who has gone through something similar.
  5. Talk to your partner about your fears. People are often surprised to find out that what they think is a huge deal regarding another person isn’t much of anything at all. That’s not to say your fears are not valid; it just may be that you don’t have all the information, or what is worrying you is not all that important to your partner. And if your partner shares your fears, then both of you can work together to find a solution.

Remember that you are not alone, nor do you have to deal with any type of feeling about your partner’s illness without support. Check out the 16 Pointers to Help a Partner (and You) Live with Mental Illness, from NAMI of Missouri.

How have you handled situations that have caused you fear with your partner?

The F-Word in Mental Illness

Kate Thieda

Kate Thieda, MS, LPCA, NCC, is a patient advocate for Women's and Children's Services at Duke University Hospital in Durham, North Carolina. She is a licensed professional counselor associate and a National Certified Counselor who specializes in cognitive-behavioral and dialectical behavior therapies. Her book, Loving Someone With Anxiety, will be published by New Harbinger in the spring of 2013.

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APA Reference
Thieda, K. (2011). The F-Word in Mental Illness. Psych Central. Retrieved on June 6, 2020, from


Last updated: 8 Apr 2011
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