Image: Silver Linings Playbook.
The early stages of a relationship are all about sharing information about one another’s lives. While many of these revelations are trivial — for example, where you stand on smooth vs crunchy peanut butter — others are a little more personal and significant. Take your mental health, for instance.
According to Dr Janine Clarke, psychologist at Mend Psychology and The Sydney ACT Centre, talking about mental illness with a new partner can be daunting for a number of reasons. Some people are wired to hold their cards close to their chest; for others, it might be the fear of being perceived as weak or a burden.
“We live in a society where we are supposed to be responsible and take care of ourselves; sometimes that’s the mentality behind not wanting to reveal,” Clarke, who is also a mental health researcher at The Black Dog Institute, says.
“But all of those reasons are why it’s so important to actually talk about it. It’s actually a sign of great strength when someone can talk openly about the struggles they might be having.”
Here are five important things to remember if you’re feeling unsure about opening up the conversation.
1. There’s no ‘ideal’ moment to talk about it
Because every individual and every relationship is unique, there’s no hard and fast rule for when the topic of mental health should arise. However, Clarke suggests that if you’re discussing other important life issues, you might find that’s an appropriate moment to talk about your mental health.
“It’s when you feel comfortable, and that level of comfort varies depending on the relationship. People shouldn’t feel under pressure to talk about their mental health issue if they’re not ready,” she explains.
"Some people find that they don’t reveal for a very long time but that’s just the way they're wired. This issue should be no different to how they deal with other aspects of their life."
2. Your mental health condition is not a 'skeleton in the closet'
If you're feeling anxious or uncertain about talking to your partner about your depression, for instance, Clarke says it's important to not view it as some deep, dark secret or an elephant in the room. It's simply one aspect of your life as a whole.
"People need to remember having a mental health issue is just only one part of a mosaic of things that make them unique, and that should be the context in which the discussion takes place," Dr Clarke says. "It shouldn’t be discussed as, 'This is what defines me'. It does not define them, it's just one of many things that defines them." (Post continues after gallery.)
3. Take your time
Although mental illness is an important issue, Clarke says the conversation doesn't have to be sombre or secretive in approach.
"The important thing is to make sure you are comfortable, relaxed, calm and that you've allowed enough time. This is not the conversation to have when you are walking to the car and you’re about to say goodbye — 'Goodbye, by the way I have ...'," she advises.
"Make sure the conversation takes place in the appropriate context, with a good frame of mind. But [remember] it's a conversation, not the revelation of some deep dark secret."
4. You might not get the exact response you expect
"My advice is to prepare for all possible scenarios, like you would prepare for anything else, but that stands for every conversation in every context, not just in this one," Clarke says.
Being prepared can help you manage any unexpected or even negative outcomes, Clarke adds. "They need to be prepared to be asked lots of questions or to be asked no questions, because sometimes it will take a partner some time to process the information." (Post continues after video.)
5. There are many potential positive outcomes
Clarke says while it can be daunting to disclose your mental health condition with a new partner, research suggests the majority of people find the conversation is a lot easier and more positive than they anticipated.
"Even if the reaction isn’t necessarily what they want, they often find it quite relieving to be open and honest about whatever it is they’re experiencing. In a close relationship it can be more beneficial to open up [and] seek support, rather then shield their partner from it," she explains. (Post continues after gallery.)
"It doesn’t always work well for everybody, but I have heard from many people that they would rather know if someone didn’t want to be with them, then invest a lot of time in relationship and all of a sudden someone leaves because they find out they have a mental illness."
The conversation can also present an opportunity to break down some of the stigma and misconceptions surrounding mental health conditions, and to educate loved ones about what it's like to live with one.
Supporting a partner
If your partner or someone else in your life opens up to you about their mental health condition, Clarke says it's important to listen and be supportive rather than trying to fix the problem or offer support.
"Simply listen and reflect back on what they're telling you, seek clarification if necessary. Ask questions, because when you ask questions what you are demonstrating is that you are actually interested in learning more, which can be very supportive for someone with a mental health issue," she suggests.
Have you ever felt daunted about disclosing a mental health condition to a loved one? Was the conversation easier than you expected?