How to tell your partner you have a mental illness

One night when my S.O. and I were having an intimate conversation, I casually informed him that I’m bipolar. In an atypical response, my boyfriend shrugged and said, “I figured.” While his nonchalant reaction was amazing, relationships can normally be a minefield when it comes to mental illness.   

Perhaps he responded this way because he’s known me through all my manic and depressive episodes, or maybe it’s because he loves me exactly the way I am. Either way, it was the biggest relief to feel accepted by someone I wanted in my life for the long term, especially since I have certain behaviors that I cannot always explain.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, approximately one in 25 adults in the U.S. experiences a serious mental illness. With a large demographic like this, you would hope that more couples would have conversations like the one my partner and I had, but unfortunately, it doesn’t always happen. “There is courage and bravery in the ability to be vulnerable around these issues, and it disarms people,” says Stolar, artist and advocate for depression and bipolar disorder. “So if you can start with complete transparency, I think that is the foundation for building an even stronger relationship. And honestly, if it’s not feeling like you can communicate with someone about any psychological challenge after multiple conversations, then they’re probably not the right person to be with.”

Maybe that’s where I went wrong with my previous relationships. As a teen, I was battling with my own shame and stigma as a bipolar sufferer, so I felt like I had to hide it from the people I cared the most about. But the thing is, you can’t have a supportive, intimate relationship with someone who doesn’t understand you exactly as you are.

While I was very lucky that my experience was pretty painless, I decided to tap Dr. Sal Raichbach, practicing psychiatrist at the Ambrosia Treatment Center, and Natalie Moore, ​Los Angeles-based therapist, to find out how someone can tell their S.O. they have a mental illness.

Tell them when you feel safe.

According to Raichbach, it isn’t necessary to tell someone about your mental illness until you feel comfortable. Wanting to establish a level of trust with your partner 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 between you and your partner. So before you dive head-first into a talk like this, check in with yourself to make sure you’re ready to discuss.

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 can affect your daily life. According to Raichbach, 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 having the ability to confide in your partner. Telling them about your mental illness can not only strengthen the bond between you, but also give your partner the room to want to help you.

Let them know how they can help you.

People who don’t know much about mental illnesses and how they can impact individuals will often attempt to help their partners feel better but fall short by doing things that aren’t really helpful. It’s a good idea to suggest ways they can help you during the times you may need support. That way, you will get the kind of aid you need, and they will feel more confident knowing that they are actually helping you.

De-stigmatize mental health.

Remind your partner that mental illnesses occur on a continuum and that all of us—even without a diagnosis—deal with issues like anxiety and depression from time to time, according to Moore. What differentiates individuals is the severity of their symptoms and how they copes with them. 

Describe the steps you’re taking.

Often a psychiatric diagnosis can feel like a life sentence, but it absolutely doesn’t need to be 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.

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 a part of your treatment. Not only will this improve your ability to heal, but it will also demystify the process for your partner, according to Moore. 

I am no expert, but in a world where approximately one in five 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.

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