If your mental health is going through the ringer, you’re not alone. Approximately one in four people in the UK will experience a mental health problem of some kind each year. But how does that factor into sex and relationships? At what point in the dating process do you start talking about what’s going on in your head? Is it OK to date when you’re in therapy? Should you stop dating entirely? How do you, as a partner, support someone else when they’re struggling?
In this week’s column for VICE, Megan Barton-Hanson looks at some of those questions. “This topic is very relevant for me, because I’m constantly dealing with my mental health and I’m constantly dating,” says Megan. “Of course everybody is different and it ultimately depends on the situation, but I’ve found there are generally some things that you can do to go about things the right way.”
You can find Megan’s advice on navigating dating while working on yourself below. And afterwards if you find yourself thinking ‘I’m good to go, actually, but how do I create the ultimate, life-ruining thirst trap?’, then you can read her previous column here.
Learn to be patient and understanding
The first thing to consider is how to be a supportive partner yourself, because everyone experiences periods of poor mental health. You could get with someone when they’re stable, and something might happen – to do with family or work maybe – and they’ll have a blip. Educate yourself on your partner’s mental illness. Promote stability and routine, encourage them to see a therapist, or do something mindful like meditation together. It can be easy to just say, “ah come on, let’s go and have a drink”, but that can often make things worse. Even though it's tempting to deal with things by chasing distractions, it’s much healthier to invest in each other.
Don’t feel obligated to share your ‘damage’ upfront
Mental health isn’t something that can be “overcome”. You can learn how to manage it, but it’s never going to go away completely. Things will come up all the time, whether it’s daily, monthly or twice a year. There’s still so much stigma around mental health because we think of it as a burden, so when you’re dating it can be tempting to overshare straight away. I met a stunning guy recently and he immediately said, “I’m emotionally unavailable because my parents didn’t love me.” I was like… OK, good for you that you’ve been able to recognise that, but it’s quite heavy for a first date! You don’t owe people a disclaimer and, equally, your mental health isn’t your personality. It’s just something that happens to you, and that we’re all on the spectrum of learning to deal with.
Try sober dating
A lot of adult socialising revolves around drinking. Dating especially tends to involve a lot of restaurants and bars, but I’ve found that, whatever mental health issues or worries I have, drinking always makes them worse. I know this is a harrowing suggestion for British people, because we’re so awkward we have to be hammered before we can even go in for a kiss, but if you know that you and/or your partner are having a rough time then do something different. Go to a gig, go to an art gallery, go to a market and walk around. Think outside the box and try to do things that will make you feel good, rather than feeling bad and numbing it by going to the pub. If you’re keen on finding someone then you’ll inevitably end up on a number of bad dates. No one likes waking up the next day having spent all that money on overpriced cocktails, and all you’re left with is a hangover, a shit date and your mental health in tatters. Better to just go bowling or something.
Do self-care activities together
Sometimes people (men) feel embarrassed to do these things by themselves, but meditation or yoga – fuck it, even a gong bath, if you’re feeling adventurous! – can make for a great date. It’s a nice shared experience, especially if neither of you have done it before. A quiet night in never goes amiss either. Get candles involved, run a bath, have an edible. There’s a whole world of relaxation out there.
Don’t try to ‘fix’ someone
A huge part of the process of dealing with things is talking about them. When someone is opening up to us, it’s natural to want to respond with fixes, or advice, or cures, when often the best thing to do is listen without judgment. You have to give people the room to feel like shit, navigate things on their own, and just be there to pick up the pieces or offer support.
Recognise when you’re dating as a distraction
Everyone’s been guilty of feeling shitty about themselves and looking to change that through dating. Often when I’ve been dating and I’m not in the best place mentally, the people that I feel that I’m worthy of are very toxic. So if you’re not in the best mental state, try to avoid the lure of “oh this person’s got terrible mental health as well – great! We can fix each other!”, because that almost always ends terribly.
Also: Don’t go for someone you can tell is just going to be really beggy to you because the attention is flattering, and it feels safe to date someone you’re not that arsed about. That’s bad form on your side. Instead, try to go for someone that you inspire to be, or who has healthy traits, or who’s putting their wellbeing first. You don’t want someone who’s super career driven and barely has any time for you, you want someone who’s going to match the amount of energy that you’re putting into them.
Don’t be afraid to say ‘I feel like shit’
If you see a relationship going somewhere – even if it's just a friends with benefits vibe – be open about your feelings. You know when you first start seeing someone and you’re texting every single day asking “hey babe what are you up to”? Be honest. Put it out there that “today’s a bit shit, but I’m working on it”. People, especially men, are very scared of feeling like a burden. But we’re human and we need to understand that happiness isn’t a constant state. I don't know why it’s been drilled into us from such a young age that you're supposed to be happy all the time. No one is. To me it’s more powerful if someone is just like, “to be honest, I’m suffering today” so we can talk about it, rather than lying to themselves and to me.
Help out with the small things
When you're in more of an established relationship and you can recognise when someone’s having a wobble, little things can go a long way. For some people, bad mental health days mean they can’t even get out of bed. So rather than being the nagging partner like “oh my god, what are you doing, there’s a whole day ahead of you!”, let them have their time, let them go through their own process – but do things to make them feel comforted around the house. It could be making them dinner, lighting some candles, or tidying up a few things from the floor of the famous ‘depression bedroom’.
Obviously there’s some give and take here depending on the situation, because you also don’t want to end up as someone’s live-in maid and taken completely for granted to the point where every time you go over they’re like, “I’m just so overwhelmed, Meg… it’s the plates for me!” But you know… judge it for yourself.
Don’t write yourself off
The messaging around dating and mental health is very, “don’t do anything until you’re ready”, “work on yourself first”, “don’t date for X amount of time”. I’ve had so many therapists tell me not to date for a year, but that seems so unrealistic because dating is such an important part of my life. We’re not bad or broken people just because we’re suffering. I think the main thing is people are very reluctant to give themselves time to feel shit and actually process things. They’d rather avoid it by throwing themselves into other people, or drinking, or other distractions, and that’s when it becomes problematic.
As long as you don’t stop working on yourself the minute you start dating, then why not go for it? You could spend your entire life working on yourself, but if you close yourself off to experience then you’re not going to grow. You’ll end up becoming a hermit, surrounded by books and thinking “yes, in this scenario I’ll do this…” but never actually doing it.
I think it’s important for people to remember that you can still be a really good and supportive partner, and you are worthy of being loved even when your mental health isn’t A-OK. You don't have to be this ideal person before you put yourself out there. You’re not “broken”, you’re just living.