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How to discuss mental health with your date

A recent study finds more people are prioritising their mental health in relationships. Experts share pointers on how to bring this up with a potential partner

Over half of single Indians surveyed said they would encourage someone they’re dating to be open about their mental health. Photo: Unsplash
Over half of single Indians surveyed said they would encourage someone they’re dating to be open about their mental health. Photo: Unsplash

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Few on-screen depictions of mental illness have turned out as powerfully as the third part of the anthology, Modern Love (Amazon Prime, 2019). The episode titled, Take Me As I Am, Whoever I Am, opens with a glowing Anne Hathaway, in a shimmering sequin top, hitting it off with an attractive man at the grocery store early one morning. She admits to not having slept in three days and yet is in ‘such a good mood’. She is quick-witted, charming and buzzing with energy. The man is blown away by her and is keen to get to know her better, but on their dinner date a couple of days later, she is a dreary mess in a grey hoodie and unbrushed hair, and doesn’t seem to have a single thing to say.

It turns out that Lexi struggles with bipolar disorder, a mental health condition that causes extreme mood swings. The audience watches her mood crash from 60 to 0 in a matter of moments and then pick up just as suddenly a week or so later. But her date is baffled by her behaviour and eventually gives up on her when she is unable to show up consistently or even clue him into what is going on. We’re with her at this point. How do you tell a guy you’re hoping to start a relationship with that there are days when you cannot bring yourself to get out of bed? Would he still stick around if you did?

The struggle is real. Mental health conditions and diagnoses are on the rise across the world. The good news is that there is a rising awareness among the masses today and it is becoming more acceptable to talk about one’s challenges in social settings—as Lexi herself finds out later in the episode.

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A recent study conducted by Bumble finds that an increasing number of people are prioritising their mental health in relationships. Over half (52%) of single Indians surveyed said they would encourage someone they’re dating to be open about their mental health, while over three quarters (77%) of single Indians find people who go to therapy, or are open to discussing therapy, attractive.

The research is encouraging, but the truth is that a lot of us are only beginning to understand ourselves and it can be quite unsettling to bare our vulnerabilities to a date or a potential partner. So, why go there at all?

Sarika Pandit, a Mumbai-based counselling psychologist says, “If one wants to show up authentically in a relationship, seek support from a partner or look for opportunities to deepen the relationship, it becomes important to talk about mental health at some point. It can take a toll on oneself and the relationship if one tries to hide that part of oneself for long.”

Mental health is a spectrum and one can experience issues at any point in life, so there is no reason to feel ashamed, she remarks. Challenging the notion of ‘normal’ and being our ‘real’ selves might encourage our partners to be real with us as well.

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Ruchika Kanwal, clinical psychologist and Bumble collaborator, agrees. “Talking about your mental health shouldn’t be the reason for someone to accept or reject you. It is essential to allow someone to see you as a complete person with your strengths and weaknesses, and make a compatible choice to be with you,” she says.

When to broach the subject?

Ideally, it’s best to test waters first and not trauma-dump on your partner on the first date. Giving the connection time to develop and deepen is a good way to ensure you’re not oversharing too soon. But there is no hard and fast rule.

“The right questions to ask are: do you feel comfortable and safe talking to this person? Have you built a level of trust and connection with them? Are you ready to deepen the connection and allow your partner to see other facets of you? Because with a supportive partner, talking about mental health can be an opportunity for bonding,” Pandit says.

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What not to do

Needless to say, this will be a difficult conversation and most likely the first of many conversations you might have with your partner on the subject. You might be tempted to do this over text messages or a phone call, just to avoid the tension or awkwardness. But the experts advise against it. “It is important to give this subject the time and the respect it deserves and have the conversation face to face,” Pandit advises.

If you are nervous about how your partner might respond, it might help to bring it up indirectly, by talking about a movie that depicts mental illness, perhaps, or something in the news that might involve mental health. How sensitively or otherwise your partner responds might give you an idea of how to proceed.

How to do it?

“Be open to having a dialogue,” Pandit says. “Your partner might want to know how long you have been struggling, what your symptoms are, what triggers you and what steps you are taking to cope with your condition.”

Kanwal suggests keeping some material (links to articles, research, etc) handy, so that your partner has sources they can access to educate themselves. This can save them the trouble of internet rabbit holes and misinformation.

“If you’re on the receiving end of this information, it is important to express compassion and sensitivity, and acknowledge your partner’s courage in opening up to you, irrespective of how you choose to take the relationship forward,” advises Pandit.

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