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Should You Date Someone With a Mental Illness?

14/07/2014 17:12 BST | Updated 13/09/2014 10:59 BST

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Photo: Lindsay/Flickr

A recent study by the UK mental health charity Time To Change found that 57% of single people would not date someone with a mental illness. When the study was published, numerous people tweeted or Facebook messaged me the results, and expressed their disappointment and disgust about the stigma surrounding mental illness.

"Being an extremely active mental health advocate, I know that you would never have a problem dating someone with a mental illness," some of them said.

'Well . . .' I replied. 'It would depend on the situation.'

They were shocked.

'What! Why not? You're a mental health advocate! How can you, of all people, say that you may have a problem dating someone who's mentally ill? You're such a hypocrite!'

I'm not a hypocrite, and I would never stigmatise someone for being sick. But at the same time, the truth is that it's not always a good idea to date someone with a mental illness.

And that's not stigmatising the person in question.

That's just taking care of yourself.

Below I break down three common situations, and talk about why in each one I either would or wouldn't date a person with a mental illness.

Situation #1: The girl has a mental illness, but she's stable and has it under control

Mental illness is treatable, and if the girl in question had sought help for her illness and had learned how to manage it such that it had minimal or no impact on her life, then I'd feel privileged to date her. To not do so in this particular situation would be to stigmatise her - i.e. treat her differently just because she has a mental illness.

Situation #2: The girl has a mental illness, she is NOT stable and does NOT have it under control, but she's doing the right things to try and get better

Let's call a spade a spade - until the person manages to recover, dating someone in this situation is going to be a roller-coaster. I know because I've been the mentally ill one in a relationship, and I've also been the healthy one dating someone who's mentally ill. When you're trapped in the throes of a mental illness, you tend to be unstable and erratic, and when you're in that state, it usually leads to a lot of fighting, drama and stress - which of course can be very exhausting and taxing to deal with.

My position in such an instance would be this: if I really liked the girl, then I would still keep dating her. This is because, as I qualified above, she's doing the right things to try and get better - which means that she'd be taking medication, committing herself to therapy, reading self-help books, eating well, sleeping well and exercising frequently. If she was doing things like this and I really liked her, then I'd definitely still love to date her, because all the drama would be temporary. Since she's doing the right things to beat her illness, then over time, she eventually would. If I really liked her, then I'd be more than happy to go through the messy stuff with her and do everything in my power to help her get better.

In saying that, however, I can understand how some people might not want to date someone in that position. Not everyone has a propensity to deal with such difficulties - even if those difficulties are likely to be temporary because the mentally ill party is receiving treatment. And I don't think that's being prejudiced or discriminatory. That's just the reality. We all have our tastes and preferences in potential suitors, and I don't think it's fair to play the stigma card just because someone would rather date a person who's not mentally unstable.

Situation #3: The girl has a mental illness, she is NOT stable and does NOT have it under control, and furthermore, she is NOT doing the right things to try and get better

In such a case, the drama I spoke of in situation #2, instead of fading after a while because the girl's getting treatment, would in all likelihood never end - because the reality is that if you don't get treatment, then you'll never recover. So the question then becomes, would I want to date someone who's always going to be unstable?

And the answer is: absolutely not.

And that's not because I'm stigmatising her.

That's because I'm trying to protect myself.

I've been in this position before. She was a great girl, but she refused to get treatment for her depression. We had some good times, but more often than not, our relationship was strenuous and exhausting. Some nights she'd call me at four in the morning needing me to talk her out of suicide. Other nights she'd call me slurring into the phone because she'd gotten drunk alone in her apartment. She'd often get irritable and start fights over nothing. Other times she'd feel so insecure that I'd have to spend hours trying to convince her that, yes, I did find her attractive, that yes, I did think she was funny, that yes, I did think she was interesting, that yes, I did think she was . . . etcetera, etcetera. For months I tried to convince her to reach out for help, but she always made up an excuse. Over time I grew more and more drained, and eventually, I couldn't take it anymore. I realised that she was always going to be this way, and that if I stayed with her, she'd just continue to drag me down with her. So sadly, I left.

Yes, I left her because of her mental illness.

And in such a case, I wasn't discriminating against her, nor was I being prejudiced. I tried my best to save her, and once I realised I couldn't, I chose to save myself. I don't think it's fair to blame anyone for doing that.

So . . . what should you do?

If the person you've just started dating discloses to you that they have a mental illness, don't stigmatise them and immediately end the relationship. Instead, read up on their illness so that you know more about it, and ask them how they're handling it. Ask them how far along the road to recovery they are. Ask them what they're doing to try and get better. From there, you'll be able to better decide how you want to proceed with the relationship.

Now, if you're the one with the mental illness, then I'd advise you to honestly ask yourself which of the above categories you fall in to.

If it's the first, and someone doesn't want to date you once you tell them you have a mental illness, then shame on them. You deserve better.

If it's the second and they reject you, then I think it's more of a compatibility thing: you're not right for them because they're not able to handle your current condition, and they're not right for you for the same reason - so you're better off without them anyway.

On the other hand, if you fall into the third category and someone rejects you, then you're kidding yourself if you blame stigma. The person in question is not rejecting you because they're being a prejudicial asshole - they're rejecting you because you're not fit to be in a healthy relationship, and because you're not seeking treatment, there's nothing to suggest that you ever will be.

I know that may sound harsh, but it is the truth.

So please, if you're in this position, then do yourself a favour and reach out for help. You deserve to be happy and in a loving relationship, so take that first step and give yourself a chance to let it happen.

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