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How do I tell a new partner I’ve got a history of mental illness?

Mental illness affects every part of a person’s life; it can be tricky to decide you’re ready for dating and it can be even harder to know when and how to tell a potential partner that you have a mental illness. Whether you consider yourself fully recovered, recovering or if you remain ill, it’s up to you the language you use but I would say it’s important you’re comfortable with yourself and your history before you consider inviting someone else to share your life. Even if you feel your illness is completely behind you, if you have a susceptibility, it may come back, and both you and your partner need to consider the impact it may have on both of you – this subject doesn’t need to be doom and gloom, it’s just another thing to consider alongside others such as children, money and living arrangements.

So, how and when do you tell this potential new partner?!

I would advise against putting a diagnosis as a headline in your dating profile – you don’t go around with it emblazoned on your forehead do you? I say this for 2 reasons, 1) you might attract people purely looking for someone to care for, which is (probably) something to be wary of and 2) you might put a lot of people off! You might think that this is a good reason to do it if you get rid of ignorant people in the 2nd group but what if ‘the one’ is in this group and they just need a little education? It would be a missed opportunity.

I’d spent a big chunk of my life not working as I was in and out of psychiatric hospitals but I was now at a point in my recovery where it wasn’t part of my identity anymore and I wanted my profile to encourage an open dialogue. I used language like “personal difficulties” and “ask me more” – most people have issues that are difficult to explain in a profile so I think it’s fine to leave it at that.

I think it’s really important that you don’t have any hard and fast rules about when you “confess” your past. I had a few taboo subjects I needed to cover – I’m divorced and possibly infertile as well as having a history of mental illness. For example, you don’t have to cover it on the first date or avoid it until your certain about the relationship. Shoehorning the subject in too early will feel awkward for both of you but I also think, leaving it for many months will a) make the subject feel huge when you get around to it and b) may cause your partner to feel you should have been honest sooner.

I think the best thing is to allow the subject to come up naturally. If you listen out for them, there will be opportunities to steer the conversation around to mental health. I was quite fortunate with my (now) husband, it happened when planning the 2nd date. I was at a point in my recovery where I did not want my anorexia to impact my relationship so at the end of our 1st date I agreed to go out for a meal as our 2nd date. As I thought about it, sheer panic bubbled up – turned out, I wasn’t quite ready for that, I’d not eaten in public for years, I needed a smaller challenge. So, it was at this point, I wrote Steve an email (“I hope I don’t put you off”) explaining my difficulties with food but also explaining that I didn’t want my illness to define me or our relationship and that I did want to eat out, I just needed a smaller challenge. He was incredibly understanding and suggested breaking the challenge down even smaller – he naturally knew how to support me and the rest, as they say, is history. It is times like this that can make or break a relationship.

You could bring the subject up naturally when talking about family illnesses – perhaps not the most joyous topic but perhaps you’re talking about having visited an older relative with cancer or dementia recently, at this point you could also say “I have something about my health I’d like to tell you”.

Or perhaps when talking about a period in your life when you got ill, for example when reminiscing about school or uni, you could say “I found studying really stressful and it triggered me to become unwell” and then go on to explain what happened. I think it’s important to use accurate language, state your diagnosis and be honest about what symptoms you had. If this person is right for you, they will listen and not judge you.

Another way to bring it up could be when imagining the future together. “What would it be like if one of us got ill?”. When a relationship starts, it’s not healthy for one person to become a carer (except in exceptional circumstances) but it may be the case later down the line that one of you will need to look after the other for a period of time – you can talk about what that would look like and bring your history into this conversation.

It might be important to consider that if you are worried about bringing it up because you are worried about their response – is this really someone you want to be in a relationship with? Do you want to be with someone with whom you’re not sure you can be honest? I do understand it can be a really difficult subject to bring up, I get paid to write about it so I’m used to it but I know it’s a lot harder for most people. Initially, you could test the waters be talking about “a friend” who’s ill, see how your partner reacts – I’ll be blunt at this point, if their reaction is bad, for example, they laugh, make fun or make derogatory comments, you have 2 choices, either educate or leave. Having a history of mental illness is not something you can keep secret. If you’re concerned you’ve left it too late, please talk about it right now, it’s better to talk now, rather than waiting until you need support to prevent a relapse.

Remember, you’re not looking for the perfect reaction, you just need someone who’s open-minded enough to listen and if they don’t understand, to ask. How someone reacts to your disclosure can be a good indication of their character. It doesn’t need to be your headline defining characteristic but I’d say it’s just as important as discussing thoughts about children and money. It’s essential your on the same page when it comes to your health – and you never know, once you start talking about your history, they may have something to tell you too!

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