How To Tell The Person You’re Dating About Your Mental Illness

Photographed by Gabriela Alford.
One out of every five people in America have experienced mental illness. More than six million adults live with bipolar disorder, 16 million live with major depression, and 18 million live with an anxiety disorder. So, if you have a mental illness, you’re in good company. But, that doesn’t change the fact that disclosing your mental illness to someone you’re dating can be quite the challenge.

“The fear is rooted in the stigma that usually surrounds mental illness and the uncertainty about how someone will react,” says Bob Carolla, the director of media relations for The National Alliance on Mental Illness. Geralyn is a 27-year-old mental health counselor in Tampa who lives with bipolar disorder and generalized anxiety disorder. Although she embraces these diagnoses as part of who she is, Geralyn definitely gets nervous about telling new partners.

“It’s a moment of vulnerability, and you never really know how someone is going to respond, but I’ve found it’s very freeing when I do open up,” she says. “I’ve had people tell me that I don’t look ‘crazy’ or even that ‘we all have that.’ I’ve also had people tell me that they think that I’m strong and resilient, and I’m grateful to say that response tends to be the norm in my life.”

Regardless of the response you get, opening up about a mental illness can take your relationship to the next level. “It can actually be a great litmus test regarding the quality of the relationship,” says psychotherapist Meg Batterson. “It can also help you begin to establish truthfulness and intimacy.”

When do you tell?

Talking about struggles is a deep issue and a truth that deserves to be shared only when the person you’re dating is sharing deep issues of his or her own. You wouldn’t share private family matters with someone you didn’t fully trust, and disclosing your mental illness is no different. Whether you decide to talk about it on the first date or not until months in, the important thing is that you have a connection.

“If you’re dating someone, and it’s healthy and genuine, I think you’ll know when it’s the right time to disclose because you’ll feel safe,” says Geralyn. She recalls a guy she dated who, on the third or fourth date, opened up to her about his brother, who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and was addicted to heroin. “He let out a big sigh of relief afterwards saying that he doesn’t talk about this much, but for some reason, he felt that I would understand.”

Geralyn appreciated that “he didn’t speak about his brother as if there was something wrong with him — there was no hint of judgment.” That was the moment when she felt comfortable opening up about her own history.

Kiki, a 35-year-old culture and communications manager in San Francisco, tends to tell the guys she dates right away — within the first few times they hang out. “I have borderline personality disorder (BPD), which makes it tough to be in romantic relationships,” she says. “I tend to be an over-sharer anyway. But, the guys who are attracted to me are attracted to that. I actually haven’t had the experience of scaring any guys off by telling them about my disorder.”

Of course, not everyone is comfortable telling someone right off the bat. An important thing to keep in mind, says Kiki, is context. “If you’re mostly talking about surface level things like your jobs, where you grew up, or places you’ve traveled, then it’s not the time."
Photographed by Gabriela Alford.
What do you say?

Since there is so much misunderstanding around mental illness, it’s best to be prepared. “Have information about your diagnosis and how it is treated ready to share if the person doesn't know much about mental illness and is thrown off balance,” says Carolla. He also recommends being prepared to answer any questions about your personal history with the illness. After all, everyone’s experience with mental illness is different, and your partner may be wondering how it effects you, and what it might mean for the relationship.

“I told one guy about my BPD on our first date, and he actually went home and researched it,” Kiki recalls. “The next time we hung out, he wanted to know what living with it had been like, how it affected my daily life, and what he could do to make me feel comfortable talking about it. It wasn't something that seemed to scare him, but rather interest him. He just wanted to know more. Though our relationship only lasted a couple months, we always had an open and comfortable communication channel about my BPD, and most everything else.”

Based on her experiences, Kiki recommends you don’t just tell the person what your diagnosis is, but you also explain what you do to stay on top of it, whether it’s therapy, exercise, being careful about sleep, psychiatric medication, or any other management technique. Not only will this assure your new partner you’ve got it under control, it will also mean he or she can help support the lifestyle choices that keep you feeling good.

What if it backfires?

Unfortunately, there is always the possibility that the other person will have a horrible reaction. For Geralyn, this happened in a relationship where she waited longer than usual to disclose because there was never a moment when she felt truly safe to do so, which is warning sign number one.

“After I told him, he just looked at me blankly and said ‘I always knew something was wrong with you,’” she says. “Then, he called me ‘crazy’ and told his friends and also people that I knew.”

As if that weren’t bad enough, he would blame every disagreement they had afterward on her bipolar disorder. Fortunately, she got out of the relationship. “Never date someone who is going to throw living with a mental health condition in your face, belittle you, or make you feel inadequate for it,” she says. “That person is not for you, I promise.”

“Remind yourself that this isn’t about being accepted or rejected,” adds Batterson. “This is about you deciding if this person is a good fit for you. Their response to your disclosure will reveal a lot about their capacity to be a loving and caring romantic partner.”

Do you really have to tell?

We all know we shouldn’t date assholes and that a person who doesn’t accept you isn’t worth it, but when you’re really into someone and deciding if you’re going to tell them something you worry could jeopardize the relationship, those platitudes just aren’t that comforting. So, is it ever okay to keep your mental illness to yourself? Probably not.

For one, it’s part of who you are. Without opening up and being willing to show who you really are, you’re cheating yourself out of an honest relationship, says Batterson. And, Kiki warns, it will likely come out eventually.

“If it’s something you experience even semi-regularly, it’s important to share sooner rather than later because once you’re in a depression or feeling intense anxiety, for example, it’s harder to communicate,” she explains. “This isn’t something you want coming out for the first time in a fight, when you’re feeling insecure, or in any intensified emotional state.”

By deciding when you want to tell someone, you get to disclose your mental illness on your terms and in a calm, collected frame of mind. Being vulnerable can be scary, but when you take that leap of faith, it gives your partner license to do the same. And, says Batterson, vulnerability becomes a strength when it comes to relationship building. Besides, you know the person you’re dating has something going on that’s not textbook-perfect, either.
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Photographed by Gabriela Alford.
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