Talk about it.
I was checking out a guy’s profile on a dating site. He was nerdy, clean-cut, and very easy on the eyes. Even better, we seemed to have a “high-match percent.” To be sure, I checked some of the questions he answered, just in case. The bright text stopped me in my tracks.
Question: Would you date someone with mental illness?
His answer: No
A part of me gets it. If you’ve never had any mental illness, who wants to date a crazy person? Many people think of mental illness in extremes and stereotypes, i.e., depressed people never get out of bed or those with OCD will never leave the bathroom.
As someone who lives with dysthymia, or persistent mild depression, I struggle against this stigma. In the morning I wake up and take a pill to help with my anxiety. Every week, I sit on my therapist’s couch to discuss life, and I’m open about this with many people.
Yet, I’m not alone. Up to 3% of Americans deal with dysthymia every year. For OCD, that number is about 3.3. million. Most of us pay our bills and rarely stand out of the crowd. Many are dating or looking for a romantic relationship.
But when looking for a serious romantic partner, those of us with a mental illness walk a tricky tightrope. You have a right to privacy, but at a certain point your date deserves honesty. So where do you draw the line? Here are five tips I’ve figured out in the murky world of dating.
1. Do Your Research
If you do online dating, some sites, like OKCupid and Match.com, allow you to see someone’s views on different issues. Before you decide to meet, check out what they think about mental illness. Do you want to date someone that thinks therapy is useless?
You don’t need to stalk a potential date, but you can use the information at hand to decide if someone will accept you as you are.
2. Don’t Jump The Gun
One reaction I’ve seen a lot is the tendency to over disclose. It happens on a variety of issues beyond mental illness. You know what’s uncomfortable? Hearing about a date’s last girlfriend before you’ve even ordered a drink — check please!
Depending on your illness, it isn’t likely that you have to disclose it on the first date or second date. Mental health is a very personal issue. Personally, I tend to disclose after three or four dates. At that point, I know that I’m interested in something more serious, but haven’t fully committed.
Take some time to ask yourself when you’d feel guilty for not disclosing. It’s a good sign post for when you’ll need to be honest with a date.
3. Start With The Theoretical
Disclosing my mental health requires me to be vulnerable. It’s not just a diagnosis, but a history of some difficult times. Disclosing means I have to talk about serious depressive episodes, weekly therapy, and many more details.
Disclosure is scary for me: Will he judge me? Will he find me weak for going to therapy? Will he not want to see me anymore?
Before I reveal all of this, I ensure my date is open in general to therapy and medication. It’s easiest to find this out as a theoretical scenario — it can be as lighthearted as a joke on Tom Cruise’s crazy opinions about psychiatry. From there, it’s an easy question to find out what he thinks about these issues.
Keeping the discussion hypothetical can allow your date to be honest. They can tell you you how they feel in general. When discussing mental illness as an idea, people tend to be more honest. Their answer will give you a better idea how they’ll react without putting yourself at risk. Then, you can choose whether to disclose or not.
4. Right Space, Right Time
While you may find the right time occurs organically, I often find that I need to create certain conditions to feel safe disclosing such personal information. For me, the best space involves privacy, time, and an easy exit.
Privacy ensures that no one else overhears the conversation. This can happen at home, a park, or another quiet space. This type of location gives both of you the space to be open and honest.
Giving yourself plenty of time to discuss this is also key. It helps neither you nor your date to rush the conversation. More importantly, providing time gives your date space. They can use it to think over what you’ve said and ask questions. Making time for this conversation shows you respect your date and their needs, too.
Finally, an easy exit is a safety valve. If your date reacts badly, you can leave. For instance, if you choose to meet at a park, don’t rely on your date for transport. This way, you can leave without awkwardly getting back in their car. Having an exit plan makes it easier to be honest without worrying how you’ll get home.
5. Start An Ongoing Discussion
Disclosing is only the beginning. As things change, you’ll need to check in. You would tell a partner about breaking your leg, so you should also share major changes in your mental health.
Ongoing discussions matter more in serious relationships. It can be tough to talk about changes, such as new meds that change your sex life or ability to drink. But discussing your health from time to time builds trust and shows you’re working to maintain your mental health.
Dating isn’t easy. Dating with mental illness comes with even more hurdles. In the long run, by taking the time to ask the right questions and keep the lines of communication open, you can choose better partners, have better communication and have stronger relationships. It’s more work in the beginning, but a lot less heartache and struggle in the long run.