Brittany King, Contributing Writer
Most people have a list of things they consider before they start dating someone. Height preferences, hobbies they want their partner to enjoy with them, etc. This is generally based on past dating experiences or personal preference. But when a potential partner has a mental illness, there are a few other things to consider. T Henderson*, a mental health therapist on the east coast shared her tips on what to think about before entering a relationship.
First, it is important to remember that everyone comes into a relationship with their own set of baggage. People who have a mental illness and those who do not experience situations in life that have shaped their current reality. Henderson says understanding what you can realistically handle in a relationship is a good first step. That way you can set expectations early on, rather than a few months down the line, causing less conflict.
“Mental illness can bring pretty heavy baggage if it's not being handled correctly,” Henderson says. “If [your potential partner] is not getting treatment for their [sic] illness, run for the hills! Any illness left untreated is bound to get worse.”
While it is helpful to suggest treatment and show support while your partner is seeking treatment, you cannot coerce him to get it. Giving an ultimatum or forcing help-seeking may seem like a good idea, but it usually ends with the person abandoning a program for which there was never buy-in or ownership.
Second, Henderson believes it is important to get educated on the mental illness the significant other has rather than relying on stereotypes. Education can give insight on the struggles people with that particular disorder might deal with. For example, paying attention to whether your partner shows certain symptoms before having an episode will teach you how to provide support through any future episodes. It’s also important to separate your man or lady from the illness. A person is not their illness, they are a human being with an illness and they need to be given the opportunity to take control of it, rather than relying on you.
“It's very easy to fall into the role of being the caretaker, which can cause the relationship to feel like a parent-child one,” Henderson says. “People living with mental illness are responsible for managing it, and shouldn't expect their significant other to do that for them.”
According to Psych Central, self-care is a big part of dating someone with a mental illness as well. Knowing when to take a break and spend time by yourself or with your friends can help drastically, especially if you’re starting to feel like a parent in the relationship rather than a partner.
If you are the person with a mental illness looking to date, Henderson has advice for you as well; mainly, tell your partner about your illness. Being open and honest, even when it’s difficult, is an important pillar of all relationships, especially intimate ones. When it comes to discussing your mental illness for the first time, Henderson believes that there is no hard and fast rule to follow.
“Some people feel a little more comfortable just getting it out of the way early on,” she says. “I think it's best to gauge the direction the relationship is going. If things are getting serious, it's best to be honest about it rather than leave a person feeling blindsided later on.”
At the end of the day, while physical attraction is important, feeling safe and being able to trust your partner is what will make a relationship last. If a person with mental health issues feels that she cannot be herself around you, or he begins to treat you as a crutch, that’s a problem.
Be honest and open when dating; don’t put too much pressure on yourself or the other person. Lastly, Henderson says if you decide to enter a relationship with someone living with mental illness, be supportive without doing everything for that person. Take care of yourself too, you can't neglect your own well-being in order to save someone else's.
*The name has been changed for privacy considerations