“I suffer from mental illness.”
“I have an anxiety disorder.”
“I’m not exactly normal.”
I could have uttered these words — or any number of others — when I disclosed to my now-fiancé that I have waged a long, sometimes semi-serious battle with depression and anxiety. But the truth is, while I’m confident we had the conversation early on, a fact he confirms, I don’t remember the exact when and how. This may be because nearly four years later, it hardly seems relevant. But then, it was surely profound. And it’s not nothing now: My mental health continues to affect our relationship (and, to some extent, all my non-romantic relationships as well).
I am lucky that thanks to professional treatment, an array of coping mechanisms, and an impressive support system, my mental illness — it actually feels weird to use those words — is pretty much under control. But it would be a mistake to treat “under control” as interchangeable with “a non-issue.” I know this stuff will follow me forever.
Many people who suffer from mental illnesses, whether they fall at the mild or serious end of the spectrum, would agree that their diseases are part of who they are. And in a healthy relationship, you open up, albeit gradually, down to your core. This necessitates sharing your history, present, and speculated future of mental illness. The question is, how and when?
“There may not be an exact right time, but there is a window,” says Chantel Cohen, LCSW and founder of CWC Coaching & Therapy. “The window would be the time when the relationship is moving into a different stage. Let’s say you’ve been dating for a couple months, and it feels like things are moving in a direction where you might become exclusive. That’s would be the right time.”
Of course, this is a conversation that requires substantial self-examination. “When you disclose anything personal, whether it’s ‘I’ve got diabetes,’ or ‘I’ve got a heart condition,’ or ‘I have a mental illness,’ you have to ask yourself, What’s my intention?” says Erika Boissiere, LMFT and founder of the Relationship Institute of San Francisco. “I don’t think I would ever tell a client that there’s a recipe for when and when not to disclose something, but I would be cautious of oversharing in the beginning with the wrong intention.”
Boissiere points to our tell-all culture — the one by which you learn via group text what your sister ate for breakfast, lunch, and dinner and catch the world’s longest Instagram story featuring a romantic weekend of someone you haven’t spoken to since high school — as a catalyst for unhealthy behavior. “There’s a huge part to us that believes oversharing can potentially bring closeness,” she says. “Sometimes it can, absolutely, no doubt. Then there are times when oversharing can not be that helpful.”
But if mental illness is one of your defining characteristics, it makes perfect sense that you’d want your partner to know the real you sooner rather than later. “Some people are walking this planet and mental illness is a really, really important part of their character,” Boissiere says. “If that’s you, you might need to share in the beginning. For others, it’s back burner piece, so back burner that you’re like, I don’t need to share this right now.”
In the case that your mental illness looms large, your partner deserves that information. “In all fairness, that person needs to be able to make a choice, and they need to at least have the ability to make it, says Cohen. Just like no one wants to find out two years into a relationship that their partner is drowning in debt, no one should have to learn of mental illness when, inevitably, it comes to the forefront. “Then, they start to wonder, Why is my partner sad? Aren’t I enough for them? Why can’t I make them happy?” Cohen adds. “They start putting it on themselves when it’s really something the [other] person is dealing with internally. It can really wreck relationships.”
To avoid going down that path and to set yourself up for a productive conversation, preparation is key. Cohen suggests being ready to inform your partner or potential partner, because while mental illness may be your lifelong companion, it’s very possible that they have never spoken or learned about the topic, thanks in no small part to the stigma surrounding it. She suggests starting out with where you currently are, then giving a little history. In the case that you suffer from moderate depression, you might say, “Currently, I’m taking Prozac for depression that, for the last couple of years, has been well-managed. I realized that I had depression in high school and, since then, I’ve had one major depressive episode.” From there, open the floor to questions — this is an opportunity to correct misconceptions. You might even consider bringing a book, article, or link to a high-quality YouTube video your partner can use to learn more.
“You’re just kind of walking them through but not sounding the alarm bells,” says Cohen. “That’s really, really important because often people are scared because they don’t know what something is, and they’ve only seen movies, which show worst-case scenario. It’s helpful for most people to know [mental illness] is much more common than they realize and to put a face to it. “ Few people realize that nearly one in five American adults experiences mental illness in any given year.
Most of and hardest of all, you must go into the conversation knowing that even if you speak exactly according to plan, you can’t predict another person’s reactions. “At the end of the day, you’re discussing something that could have an effect on the relationship,” say Boissiere. “You should pause before you disclose this information, think about it, and loosen your reins. They could care less, or they could care a lot.”
Either way, there is an upside. Should your partner react poorly, you’ll know not to invest more of yourself in this relationship. Should they react in a way you’re comfortable, you’ve just strengthened your relationship. “The beauty of this is we get really good at talking about complicated stuff, whether it’s mental illness, a physical ailment, or your grandma dying,” says Boissiere. “This is a barometer of a healthy relationship. How good are you at talking about stuff that’s tough and complicated?”