Learning how to care

April Saleeba wants you to balance self-care with care for others

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Germaine* describes her years of being in a relationship with a man suffering from Borderline Personality Disorder as “a constant state of anxiety, of hyper-vigilance, of a complete lack of self-esteem”. The conviction with which her former partner presented his abusive, erratic, and dangerous behaviour caused her to become convinced that she was the one who was deficient. Despite this, the thought of leaving a relationship was terrifying because it meant failure. “In my mind, once you were a partner with someone, that was forever. Whatever bad things there were, you just had to work through it… I didn’t want my children to grow up in a broken family.”

If you know at least four people between the ages of 16 and 24, which is likely if you are a university student, then chances are you know someone who currently has a mental health disorder. Chances are that this person is a close friend, partner or parent.

As students who inevitably find themselves in these relationships, it makes sense to equip ourselves with the resources to deal with them. The University’s Counselling and Psychological Services (CAPS) has accordingly developed the Sidekicks course. This is a one-hour-a-day training program over a five-week period offered by Counselling and Psychological Services to any student wishing to enrol in it. It aims to provide information to people interested in becoming a better carer of those around them. The course itself does a good job of explaining how to respond empathetically and encourage treatment acceptance in others. This is applied to situations such as helping a drunk friend, dealing with a difficult housemate, and even helping someone with suicidal thoughts.

While the course covers how to help others, the focus was consistently on the one receiving the help. While that is the purpose of the course, it’s also reflective of a broader trend in courses such as these: the prioritisation of the ‘helpee’ at the expense of the ‘helper’. For people like Germaine, who attempt to help at the expense of their own health, courses like Sidekicks reinforce the idea that you should do all you can to care for someone who needs it, and to not do so is morally wrong.

Similarly, Sarah found herself in a situation where the pressure to take care of her partner caused her to take a lot longer to realise that the relationship was abusive. She described how she increasingly found herself trapped “in a situation where my partner’s needs greatly outweighed my own… I was made to feel that as I wasn’t in as dire a situation as [my partner], I owed them”. Sarah’s decision to leave came with the realisation that their relationship went beyond mutual dependence. “We’re all dependent on someone or something at some time or another, and that can be a loving thing, and a way of supporting and helping one another. It’s when that dependence constricts our personal autonomy that it becomes suffocating and we are manipulated, controlled, or duped into thinking that we must put someone else before ourselves, that we owe others more than we can give, I eventually realised that I couldn’t care for others unless I had that agency and felt heard.”

We are so quick to tell people to leave relationships when people are physically abusive, as we should be, but less quick to tell them to leave a partner in need. We are so encouraged to devote ourselves wholly, to carry the weight of another when they require it. And the Sidekicks course shows us effective ways to do so, intended for situations when the relationship is healthy. But sometimes that pressure is unhealthy, and damaging, and should not be yours to bear the weight of. That is something the Sidekicks course, and indeed all other courses of its nature, should be careful not to underplay.

Ultimately, Germaine also made the choice to cut ties. “I just couldn’t take it anymore… so I decided to invent my own way forward and not take from existing examples.” When she went to a GP she says she was “gobsmacked that someone actually cared about me. It helped me to realise that people actually do care and there are services available”.

The CAPS Sidekicks course is an excellent starting point for information on learning how to cope with these relationships, and comes recommended. Beyond that, there are resources you can access or refer to others who may need them. USyd’s Counselling and Psychological Service (CAPS) offers individual counselling sessions and other resources on their website. The University Health Service is also available as a free resource. A GP can give an assessment and provide a mental health care plan.