For anyone starting out in a new relationship, there are bound to be lots of things you don’t know about your partner - their favourite hobbies, the foods they hate, and any unsavoury bathroom habits (yes, we know).
But what about the things that people might feel less comfortable disclosing on those first few dates, such as the state of their mental health or any underlying conditions they may be dealing with in private.
Because with an estimated 1 in 6 people in the UK experiencing a common mental health problem every week, according to The Mental Health Foundation, this is a conversation that lots of people need to be having.
But at what point should you start sharing? And what reaction can you expect?
Dr Anshumen Bhagat, GP and founder of the doctor-on-demand app GPDQ, says: “Healthy relationships are built on trust and honesty. If a relationship is getting serious, it would be important to continue deepening that trust by sharing who you really are with your partner, including mental health.”
So we asked three experts, and two people who have been through the experience themselves, to answer the questions you need answering.
How soon should you discuss your mental health?
It might seem too personal to share on the first date, or even the second, but once you are more comfortable and committed to each other is probably the right time. “Bring it up when the relationship starts to feel important to you,” says Relate counsellor, Barbara Bloomfield.
A spokesperson from Anxiety UK agreed that there is no deadline but it is about when you feel comfortable: “Some may feel ready to talk straight away, for others it may take weeks or even months.”
Shea Wong, who has bipolar disorder, and is a supporter of ‘Time To Change’ tells HuffPost UK: “Each relationship is different, so don’t feel as though your medical disclosures have to occur on a certain time frame. I chose to approach it from an emotional standpoint - my feelings were strong enough and I was considering a future with someone - then is a good time to begin discussing your mental health issues, especially if they are chronic.”
How should you bring up the conversation?
Dr Bhagat recommends that before you dive right in (or get drunk and decide to launch into an emotional rant), why not write down the things you want to share so you are prepared?
“Always remember, those who haven’t ever struggled with mental health issues won’t understand it fully, so it may take a while to explain.”
Once you have your ideas together, find a time when you’re not going to be interrupted and are in private, so you can be candid and explain fully.
How should you phrase that conversation?
“You could start by discussing your relationship with your own mental health, how you’ve learned to live with the condition and what makes you feel better,” says Bloomfield.
If you want to angle the conversation so you can gauge their reaction before putting all your cards on the table, then she suggests asking: “Do you know many people with mental health problems?”
When you bring it up, speak with confidence and without shame.
How much should you be sharing with them?
Once you’ve started sharing, you might find it difficult to know when to stop.
Wong, explains that based on her own experience, you should be thinking of yourself as an educator teaching a student.
“You don’t want to overwhelm them, but at the same time you don’t want to be so stingy with details that they fill in the blanks with their own pre-conceived ideas,” she says.
“Give a general overview of the illness: What it does to the brain, how it generally affects you, how you handle it, and then encourage them to ask questions as they are ready to take on more info. Always leave them understanding that there are no bad questions, and you are here to help them understand.”
What do you want to achieve by telling your partner?
One thing you might want to consider before telling your partner, is what you want their response to be, and how you hope this might help you or change the way you deal with your illness or relationship.
Gina Hadden, 33, who has OCD, says that telling her partner Sam helped her to gain knowledge and educate herself about getting the right help.
“He encouraged me to be open about my illness so now I bring awareness to it and write about it publicly.”
But one thing you must be aware of, is making sure you aren’t looking for your partner to solve your problem. Dr Bhagat says: “Ultimately, only you are responsible for your behaviour and for managing your mental health. It’s completely okay to ask your new partner for support, but don’t make them feel responsible, as this could add pressure and strain to the relationship. The best thing to ask for is their patience and understanding, as you work out how to deal with it together.”
How do you deal with your partner’s reaction?
Everyone hopes that the person will be accepting straight away, but that’s not always realistic. Some people may have prejudices and may not be willing to give you a chance, others may need a little time to comprehend what you’ve told them.
Dr Bhagat said: “Try not to expect a certain reaction, but just be prepared for lots of questions and do your best to help them understand.
“If the reaction isn’t what you hoped for, don’t blame yourself, and most importantly, don’t let that put you off telling other prospective partners.”
Useful websites and helplines:
- Mind, open Monday to Friday, 9am-6pm on 0300 123 3393
- Samaritans offers a listening service which is open 24 hours a day, on 116 123 (UK and ROI - this number is FREE to call and will not appear on your phone bill.)
- Get Connected is a free advice service for people under 25. Call 0808 808 4994 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Anxiety UK supports individuals living with or affected by anxiety or stress, through the provision of services and information. For more information visit www.anxietyuk.org.uk or contact 08444 775 774.