“I am a project manager. I am a mentor. I am an entrepreneur. And as a person with a mental illness, I can say that I tend to live my life in duality. On one hand, I wake up, get dressed, go to work, mentor and am very sociable. But on the other hand, something happens to trigger an emotion and causes me to withdraw. Whether I am alone or in public, I am alone in my thoughts. And in those moments, all I want to do is stay isolated. Now, for those that don’t understand these feelings, one cannot explain why one feels bad, it’s just there; menial tasks become much harder and can be a mission for us.”
Dr. Whitley, Principal Investigator of the Social Psychiatry Research and Interest Group, and his graduate student, Marie Eve-Boucher, conducted a series of interviews with individuals with a range of mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia, major depression, and bipolar disorder. The purpose of their research was to learn more about the dating and romantic experiences of individuals living with mental illness.
The study revealed that only 15 percent of participants were currently involved in a romantic relationship. The rest almost unanimously stated that they strongly desired a satisfying and rewarding romantic relationship.
Will shared insight into the trials of living with a mental health diagnosis and maintaining his love life.
“The hardest and yet rewarding part of being in a mental illness is trying to maintain your own mental health while trying to be in a relationship. It can serve to be difficult because of several reasons. For me, what has made it difficult is trying to gauge how your partner will react when you 1) inform them you have a mental illness and 2) have a mood swing or a depressive bout. Not only is it difficult, you possess a fear of even sharing or being vulnerable BECAUSE of what you perceive to be their reaction based on the story in your head. You have the feeling that you already have to face others that don’t know you well and are misunderstood about mental illnesses and you don’t want to have to face that with someone that you are trying to build with. When I was trying to find a partner, I have tried being completely open about my mental illness. For most, that was where the conversation ended. For some, they were willing to deal with it, only to realize that they didn’t know what dealing with it meant, which caused the relationship to end or become toxic.”
What’s the biggest barrier to dating? The pervasive stigma around mental health in the black community. I have been working as a social worker for 7 years, and all of my clients diagnosed with a mental illness are overwhelmingly Black and Latino. Still, the shame of seeking out help and talking about our suffering as a community is still a struggle. I’ve done extensive work serving mentally ill adults in the NYC area, and the sentiment surrounding dating and relationships has been the same. Humans are meant to have a companion, regardless of their brain chemistry. Breaking down the stigma and creating more dialogue around mental health will help all of us as a community to support each other, and in some cases, find love.
Will discusses finding love and the benefits of having a supportive partner.
“Currently, I have been in my current relationship for over two years. I have learned to take the mistakes of my past and use them as a learning experience. But learning has been two-fold. Relating to someone you love who has a mental illness can be difficult and frustrating, but there are strategies you can use to improve your communication with them. There may be a lot you don’t know about how your lover sees things when they’re symptomatic. My girlfriend has learned, although not easy, what it means to deal with someone with a mental illness, and what steps to take so that it is a bearable experience. Most important, she has learned to love the whole me and vice versa. She has learned to love my flaws as I have learned to love hers but still help me see opportunities for improvement. She has taught me that a shared joy is a double joy and a shared sorrow is a half sorrow. When I hurt, she does and vice versa. Every diamond has imperfections and it takes a special person to see the beauty within it.”
Dr. Whitley remarks that “romance and dating are an integral part of our culture, as witnessed by the ever-expanding array of dating apps. But people with mental illness often report considerable discrimination in the dating market.”
Will offers some advice for those hesitant to date due to a mental health diagnosis.
“For those in relationships or seeking a relationship, I implore you to be vulnerable. I implore to seek therapy. It is okay to not be okay. Those that will stay, are worth staying with. Mental illnesses are just as real an illness as diabetes or heart disease. It must be treated with care, because there can be serious side effects. Depression and other mental illnesses don’t have a ‘look’. It isn’t always suicide notes, pills and therapy. Sometimes, it’s all smiles and fake laughter as a façade to hide the pain. Depression is like an onion. Allow yourself to have someone peel each layer away and you will learn a lot about yourself. Sometimes people can’t just pick themselves up — they need patience, communication, love and most of all understanding.”