WebMD UK – Dating When You Have A Mental Illness


Dating when you have a mental illness

By Paul Dinsdale
WebMD Feature
Medically Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks

Starting a romantic relationship can be difficult at the best of times, even when we are feeling good about ourselves and ‘in the mood’ for beginning something new. We all know that human relationships are one of the fundamental ingredients in our lives, and probably the most important, as we are social animals, and we can achieve happiness and fulfilment when they go well. But what about when we are not feeling so good about ourselves, or are experiencing mental health issues, such as depression?

‘Failed’ relationships

In treating clients, many clinical psychologists have to deal with the issue of past or current relationships with partners, or in many cases broken or ‘failed’ relationships. These can be a source of unhappiness and depression for many people. In some cases, a troubled relationship can lead to a person experiencing depression or, in other cases, depression can be caused by other factors and then lead to problems in relationships.

Depression can affect people in different ways and can cause a wide variety of symptoms, according to psychologists. The symptoms can vary from lasting feelings of sadness and hopelessness, to losing interest in the things you used to enjoy and feeling very tearful. Many people with depression also experience symptoms of anxiety.

There can be physical symptoms too, such as feeling constantly tired, sleeping badly, having no appetite or sex drive, and complaining of various aches and pains.

The severity of the symptoms can also vary. At its mildest, you may simply feel persistently low in spirit – what we commonly call ‘feeling down’ – while at their most severe, depression can make the person feel suicidal and that life is no longer worth living.

Most people experience feelings of stress, sadness or anxiety during difficult times. A low mood often improves after a short time, rather than being a sign of depression.

There are a very effective range of treatments available for people with depression, including cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), which involves discussing your behaviour patterns with a clinical psychologist or counsellor, and discussing how these could be changed and improved; and drug therapy, including a class of drugs called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) which target areas of the brain believed to be responsible for causing depression or making it worse.

When the time is right

Clinical psychologists will often have their own views and guidance which they will be able to offer on starting relationships, or dating, for someone who has experienced depression, so there is no one ‘best’ way to approach the subject.

“There is no right or wrong way to go about dating for a person who has been in this situation,” says Dr Jessamy Hibberd, a clinical psychologist who practises in west London. “It should usually be up to the person, him or herself, to decide when the time is right to go on a date or a series of dates, but the main rule of thumb is that they should feel comfortable about it. We all know that meeting new people, especially on a date, can bring on some anxiety and nervousness for any of us, and it would be strange if it didn’t, but in someone who has experienced depression, or other mental health issues such as anxiety, it can be far more stressful, as it is a one-to-one situation which they might have been avoiding for a while, and they may feel that the other person is examining or judging them.

“There is a certain amount of give and take in any relationship, and this particularly applies in meeting new people. There is always an element of uncertainty in meeting a new person on a first date, and we ask ourselves questions like ‘ill I like him or her? What should I say? What will he or she think of me?'” and, again, these are completely normal questions to be asking oneself. I think the main thing is not to place too much importance on one date or one encounter, and to let the meeting take its natural course.”

Dr Hibberd says: “We all know that there are some people we get on with and those we don’t, and there are some people we like and those we don’t like, and that’s a natural part of human relationships. We can’t all like each other, but for someone who has been having negative mental health issues, that feeling can be much more pronounced, and the anxiety on a date can stem from the feeling that the other person is making a judgment on you. So if the person can go into the date with an ‘open mind’ and not be too preoccupied with worrying too much about whether the other person will really like them, that will help them to relax more.

“We always need to feel comfortable with another person before we reveal things about ourselves, and this is even more so on a date, but it’s important to remember that everyone is selective about what they say to another person, especially at the start of a romantic relationship, so it’s good to remember that. Try to be yourself and present yourself as a positive person, and try to respond to the other person as naturally as you can. It doesn’t matter if you show you’re a bit nervous, as they will be as well, and often, recognising this mutual nervousness can help to break the ice, and often leads to some humour, which relaxes both individuals.”

Here are some tips to bear in mind when considering starting a relationship after having experienced mental health difficulties:

Make sure the timing is right

We all need to take good care of ourselves before we can take care of someone else in a relationship. To do this, try to be positive in your outlook when having a conversation, as this is usually more attractive to the other person. If you are taking medication, take it regularly; be consistent with therapy; surround yourself with a support group of friends and family where you can. Don’t start going on dates if it doesn’t feel right for you.

Don’t tell on the first date

Nobody owes it to the other person to discuss your depression on a first date. If and when things get more serious, you should then tell your potential partner. So a good time might be when you decide to see each other exclusively or when you just feel that you care more deeply about each other. There are always individual differences in when it feels right to talk about it. Sometimes the subject may just come up in a conversation, and it can feel like a natural time to discuss it, or that it may feel dishonest not to, so you might choose that time to share that you have depression.

Introduce the subject gradually

A good approach may be to have a three-part ‘script’, say psychologists. First, tell your partner that he or she is important to you, enough so that you have something about yourself to share with them. Secondly, don’t just blurt out “I suffer from depression.” Instead, ease into it by telling them there’s something you’ve struggled with which is a fairly common problem, let them know you have been diagnosed with depression and that you’re taking care of yourself by seeking treatment.

Finally, emphasise again that you care about the person and the relationship. This message is as important as telling someone that you have depression, and shows that you value the relationship and the other person, which is why you are revealing more about yourself.

Be patient

If your potential partner asks questions or offers advice, you should acknowledge the good intent behind the words, even if they aren’t that helpful. For example, some people feel that it’s their job to make their partner happy. You can accept their good intentions, but let them know you can’t always put on a happy face.

Some, on the other hand, expect partners to take the initiative to plan dates or activities. But this can be hard to do when you are depressed and perhaps have little energy. Let her know you want to be with her, but that you may have to keep things low-key for a while.

Manage low libido

Depression, and some antidepressants, can cause a person to lose interest in sex.
If you are having libido problems related to medication, you should talk to your doctor about alternatives that might be less likely to dampen your sex drive.

You can also let your partner know that you care in other ways. If you don’t feel like having sex, you can still let the person know you still find him or her attractive by cuddling, kissing and being affectionate.

Consider online dating

Millions of people turn to the internet to find romantic partners, but it can still be difficult. When there are lots of profiles of people on a site, it can be difficult to choose the one that’s right for you, although comparing interests and past experience can often help. There are sites geared specifically for those with mental illness. These kinds of sites can be a good place to go to, but consider mainstream dating sites as well. Don’t give up after meeting just one or two people. Talk about the process with friends and family, and don’t be afraid of discussing it, as many people use online dating these days.

WebMD UK – Dating When You Have A Mental Illness

  • September 23, 2015
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