“Hey, by the way, there’s something you should probably know about me,” I casually interject into a night of intimate conversations. “I’m bipolar.”
In an atypical response, I recall my boyfriend shrugging and saying something along the lines of “I figured,” and “So?”
Relationships can be a minefield when it comes to mental illnesses. I have behaviors and nuances that cannot always be explained, so it was the biggest relief to feel accepted by someone I wanted in my life long-term. Perhaps it was because he has known me through all of my manic and depressive episodes or maybe because he loves me exactly the way I am.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, “approximately 1 in 25 adults in the U.S. — 9.8 million, or 4.0 percent — experiences a serious mental illness in a given year that substantially interferes with or limits one or more major life activities.”
Maybe that’s where I had been going wrong in my previous relationships. As a teen, I was battling my own shame and stigma as a person with bipolar disorder so I felt like I had to hide it. But the thing is, you can’t have a supportive intimate relationship with someone who doesn’t understand you and support you for exactly who you are. I’m very lucky that my “coming out” was pretty painless but I wanted to talk to some experts about the best way to tell someone you have a mental illness.
Dr. Sal Raichbach, a practicing psychiatrist at the Ambrosia Treatment Center, which provides evidence-based behavioral health treatment nationwide, offered some insight:
1. Tell them when you feel safe.
“It isn’t necessary to tell someone about your mental illness before you feel comfortable. Wanting to have a level of trust established with that individual is completely natural, and makes sense when talking about something as personal as mental health. Forcing the conversation before you feel safe will likely result in a miscommunication on some level.”
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2. Don’t sugarcoat it.
“Even though it might be tempting to downplay your mental illness, it’s much better to be honest about your symptoms and how they affect your daily life. Not disclosing the whole truth about a mental illness can set a relationship up for failure with unrealistic expectations. One of the best parts about being in a relationship is the ability to confide in the other person, and if done correctly, telling your loved one about your mental illness can strengthen the bond between you. More than likely, they want to help you, and they need to be informed about your specific diagnosis to do that.”
3. Let them know how they can help you.
“People who don’t have knowledge about mental illness and how it can impact individuals will often try to help them feel better, but fall short by doing things that aren’t really helpful. It’s a good idea to suggest things they can do to help you so they are well-equipped when the time comes you need support. That way, you will get the kind of support you need, and they will feel more confident knowing they are actually helping.”
Los Angeles-based therapist Natalie Moore also added:
4. De-stigmatize mental health.
“Remind your partner that mental illness occurs on a continuum and that all of us — even without a diagnosis — deal with anxiety, depression and relationship issues from time-to-time. What differentiates individuals is the severity of their symptoms and how one copes with them.”
5. Focus on action.
“Often, a psychiatric diagnosis can feel like a life sentence, but it absolutely doesn’t need to be perceived that way. When explaining the situation to your partner, focus on describing the exact steps you’re taking to address your mental health, whether that includes medications, psychotherapy or any alternative health treatments you subscribe to.”
6. Involve them in the process.
“Inform your partner that one of the most predictive elements of one’s successful recovery is the amount of support they have from unconditionally loving others. With this in mind, invite your partner to be part of your treatment. Not only will this improve your ability to heal, but it will also demystify the process for your partner.”
In addition to my own personal experience with facing stigma in past relationships, I spoke with artist and songwriter Stolar, an advocate with depression and bipolar disorder, about his experiences. He told me: “There is courage and bravery in the ability to be vulnerable around these issues and it disarms people. For me, the focus is always on getting healthy, not ‘being sick,’ and being able to talk to the people you love about your depression, mania or any mental issue is part of that health regimen. So, if you can start with complete transparency, I think that is the foundation for building an even stronger relationship. And honestly, if after multiple conversations it’s not feeling like you can communicate with someone about any psychological challenge, they’re probably not the right person to be with.”
I have been in relationships where I was written off for starting a medication regime to handle my bipolar disorder. My boyfriend now reminds me at the same time as my alarm. When I have an off-day, he understands not to take it personally and when I am manic, he takes my hyperactivity with a pinch of salt.
I am no expert but in a world where approximately 1 in 5 adults in the U.S. experiences mental illness in a given year, I think it is important to find a partner who is willing to support your mental health fully. Be honest; start a conversation.