Dating with a mental illness can really fucking suck. Stigmas abound, and often make otherwise promising prospects turn cold.
Guy A. Boysen, associate professor of psychology at McKendree University, recently analyzed two studies that, sadly, bear these stigmas out. In the first one, participants rated people with mental illnesses like depression and schizophrenia as having less short and long-term relationship promise than average. In the second study, participants assessed people's physical attractiveness based solely on personal ads that mentioned their disorders. Across the board, mentally ill people were, once again, seen as below-average prospects when it came to building a long-term relationship.
We talked to a handful of young singles about what it's like to date with a mental illness, and the challenges they're still up against.
Matt, 23, Manhattan, NY
"I've always had generalized anxiety and hypochondria. I'd go to the doctor a million times in middle school, and be like, "I have a brain tumor!" In college, I started having panic attacks. After college, I was like, "All right, I need medication." So now I'm on Lexapro and Ativan as needed."
Can you give me an example of when you've felt judged?
I was on a random Tinder date or something, and we were out to dinner. I usually take Lexapro around that time, and when I took it, he asked what it was. I said, "Oh, it's just Lexapro," and I could immediately tell he sort of shut down when I said that. It was clear he didn't have any education on mental health stuff. We never followed up, but I didn't wanna go on another date with that person, anyway.
How has your dating life evolved since then?
I've noticed a big, big change in who I will trust or even go on a date with. I feel like if I even get a slight vibe from someone where they don't really get mental health issues or understand medication, then they're out—it's just not gonna work. And my Lexapro affects my libido sometimes. So I'll try to take my Lexapro at night after my current partner and I have had sex. It's been a tough thing—he's totally understanding, but I don't think he can relate because he hasn't been on meds that affect his sex drive.
Emily, 23, San Francisco, CA
"I just got diagnosed with generalized anxiety and depression about six months ago. I'm on Prozac, which is an anti-depressant and anti-anxiety medication. I also take klonopin—it helps with my panic disorder."
How has that affected your dating life?
I dated someone named Michael* for about a year. I wasn't on medication yet, so my anxiety would come out full force. I'd feel like he didn't love or care about me if he didn't feel like going to a concert I was looking forward to, and he didn't understand where that was coming from. Also, I pick at my nails when I'm anxious. When I'd do it around Michael, he'd just be like, "Stop it!" and knock my hands away. He couldn't understand that these are things I can't control; my brain does them without me even knowing. In January, he broke up with me. He said I was too dependent on him; I became so depressed that I finally went to the doctor.
What's your love life like now?
I recently started dating this guy Charlie*. While for the most part he's handled things well, I'm still figuring out how to do things like drink while I'm on klonopin, so I don't get fucked up beyond functionality anymore. He's also been triggering anxiety attacks in me, so I've realized that I have to break up with him. I need to be alone and figure my shit out for myself before I can date.
Nicholas, 29, Brooklyn, NY
"My mother had schizophrenia. She was always in and out of mental hospitals; she had breakdowns, would attempt suicide, underwent electroshock therapy. As I started to grow up, I realized I had some problems of my own. Right now, I'm dealing with depression and anxiety."
When have you felt someone didn't understand your situation?
I was going over to my ex-partner's house after work, which sometimes is when anxiety strikes and it's hard to be on the same page as everyone. They had a bunch of friends over, which I wasn't expecting. One person was talking about how awesome their mom was. They were going on and on with all these examples, and this particular subject is really triggering for me in terms of the PTSD I have.
I was trying to explain in a calm way that this is why I wasn't engaging, but that I didn't wanna blame the person because maybe they didn't understand. They started crying and freaking out and said I came out of nowhere, ruining the night, and making it about me. It was hard to explain that I wasn't in control, and at the same time I felt guilty and blamed myself. I didn't wanna be the center of attention; I don't wanna be shitty at social interactions.
Alessandra, 24, Atlanta, GA
"I was diagnosed with major depression and anxiety six years ago, in my freshman year of college. I started feeling really apathetic, and would cry for no reason. I realized something was wrong, and I took a medical leave of absence from school."
How has that influenced your relationships?
Well, when I was 20, I got my first boyfriend. It was the end of my sophomore year of college, and I was in his car and I kept my antidepressants in this little bag in my backpack. I was on, like, two different kinds and I had some Advil and Midol in there, too. It fell onto the floor, and he totally freaked. His first question was if I was a drug dealer—I was like, really? I have five pills in this bag. I decided to open up to him because, well, I lost my virginity to him and thought I could trust him. He got really weird after that. He thought anything he did or said would make me slit my wrists. I wouldn't even be upset, and he'd still be so uncomfortable around me. We broke up later that week—for other reasons—but him finding out about my depression was definitely the catalyst. Our relationship had lasted three weeks.
Stephenie, 24, Queens, NY
"I have borderline personality disorder (BPD), obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), and a panic disorder. My BPD is the main reason my relationships fail; it's the worst part. People understand OCD—some even find it quirky—but BPD? No one understands. Everything just feels like the end of the world to me, and I just feel things so much more."
When has that affected one of your relationships?
My first love's best friend felt threatened by me for whatever reason. At my girlfriend's birthday party, the friend tried to throw out my stuff—including my laptop—and I grabbed her wrist to stop her. My girlfriend walked in and immediately called me abusive, without even asking what was going on. I began to panic and cry, and my girlfriend started spitting out textbook symptoms of BPD. She called me an abuser, manipulative, and crazy. She wasn't understanding the complexities of my mental illness. Then she kicked me out without anything—including my jacket and shoes, and it was winter. I kept knocking on the door, because I needed at least my phone and my stuff to get home, and her mom called the police. They weren't understanding, but at least they gave me a quarter to call my best friend to pick me up.
What happened after that?
Her mother gave me my stuff a few days later, and I was fired from work—we were coworkers. They told their version of the story and our boss considered me a threat. Her friend started making cutting motions at her neck and wrist and laughing, implying that I should just kill myself. When another coworker told her to stop—while smiling—the friend said I was going to kill myself anyway, because I'm a "psycho" and had nothing to live for. My ex didn't talk to me for two months after that, and I was left rethinking my entire life. I was left by the girl I loved over something I didn't do, and I was attacked and judged and mistreated. I hated myself, and I actually did consider killing myself because every relationship before that I was also left for being too clingy and crazy, so I blamed myself. I went to therapy, and it took me so long to realize I wasn't what she said I was. It took me another three years after that to even start dating again.
Ula, 28, Brooklyn, NY
"I have depression and severe anxiety, panic attacks, things like that. I also have Aspergers; I'm on the Autism spectrum. I'm on meds now, but I still get anxious. It's just a thing I have to deal with; it's a daily struggle. I'm also demisexual, so I only have desire towards people that I'm emotionally bonded with."
What's your dating life been like?
When I was like 23, I met my ex. Until then, I kind of thought I'd never date anyone. I thought it was just not for me and no one will ever understand me. I don't like sex, I'm not into it, I don't even like the idea of it, and that's that. But he said he was cool with that; he liked me just the way I was. I fell in love really deeply and quickly. After about two and a half years together, things fell apart and he broke up with me. I later realized that he was emotionally abusive.
Did the emotional abuse have to do with your mental illness?
Yes, I'd say so. Even when we were breaking up, he said things like "I can't deal with your depression, I'm not your therapist." And with my disability and my sexuality. Even before I was diagnosed, he'd say, "You're so Aspy, you're so cute." Kind of infantilizing me, and looking from a very ableist perspective. Even though I have people around me now who love and care about me, that feeling comes back again and again, because that's the way depression is—that feeling of abandonment and desperation. I want this to be visible. I don't want to hide this.
Alex, 21, Manhattan, NY
"I have a history of depression and anxiety. I've seen psychiatrists, but I've never made the choice to start meds. I find it pretty manageable on my own with coping mechanisms, wellness strategies, and the like."
Can you tell me about a negative experience you've had with a partner?
A couple of years ago, there was this night where my anxiety and depression were hitting me super hard. My typical response is to shut down and be in my own head and not really respond to other people. My partner backed off and gave me distance, which was the opposite of what I needed. He had good intentions, but I think he handled it the way he did because of the idea that when people shut off, they have to be left alone. It made the situation so much worse; I was trying to indicate to him that I really needed to be cared for, but he wasn't getting it. There just wasn't a direct line of communication.
How have your experiences changed your views on dating?
People seem to think that those who have mental health issues are irreparable, and that it's on them to fix themselves. I can see where people come from with that, because of the division of emotional labor and all that. But I've come to learn that, with intimate relationships, you need to work with each other to learn about your mutual needs, desires, and issues. You have to create a system of accountability. I think it's all about building better relationships through radical honesty and transparency. And it's not just about being empathetic—you have to be super compassionate and sensitive, too.
Ying Ying, 22, Queens, NY
"I've struggled with depression for a very long time, since I was like 15. I couldn't handle it because I didn't know how. I couldn't understand what the fuck was going on with me and my body at times, so I started seeing a counselor at school."
How have your feelings influenced how you approach dating?
I usually feel so fucked up in the head that I convince myself that I can't open up to people, because there's definitely a stigma surrounding that. There's also this fear that the issues you're working through are too much for people to handle.
What was your last relationship like?
The last guy I dated was pretty depressed and projected his fears of abandonment onto me. I realized that I've done that before, too. I think this is really common, actually. I think everyone should see a therapist and talk about these fears—then maybe we won't all run away from each other. He definitely internalized the stigma surrounding depression just like I tend to.
What needs to change?
We have to make this conversation more prevalent. I feel like we CAN never nurture relationships if we continue to perpetuate these stigmas around mental illnesses; relationships end up getting cut short. It's just not right. I really want to figure it out, this whole dating thing. It sucks—I feel lonely as fuck.
*names have been changed