Mental Illness and Dating

Dr Richard Schweizer Blog - February 2024

Mental Illness and Dating

We all know what dating is. If you are looking for a relationship, outside random hook-ups, it’s a process we all have to go through. It can be easy and it can be hard. You are taking a risk. You are presenting the best version of yourselves. You are putting yourself out on the line. You are taking a risk than can cause serious emotional pain.

Now imagine how much harder this can be if you have a mental illness; let alone a serious mental illness. I would like to write a little about mental illness and dating. But first, our discussion can be informed by a common practice applied to people with medium-to-severe mental illness. The practice is called recovery-oriented practice (or ROP for short). ROP encourages the support worker to work with a consumer to identify their main goals and make plans on how to achieve these goals, based on the consumer’s strengths and abilities. It is a service philosophy that emphasizes autonomy.

I have heard that one of the questions often involved in ROP is:

What do you most want in your life?

And more often than not the same response arises:

Someone to partner with. Physical affection. Someone to share life with.

And here is the problem. Generally people receiving recovery-oriented services have some degree of lived experience of mental health issues. Put simply, they have been diagnosed or are experiencing a mental illness. And mental illness is still highly stigmatized.

To illustrate, I once connected with a person who, like me, acknowledged her lived experience and said “schizophrenia is anathema to dating; it was date repellent”. I couldn’t agree more.

We have this stigma to get around. To get around it we are faced by many choices: what to put in your dating profile, when to lie about life details that might “give you away” – especially explaining away side effects without mentioning the medication that cause them, whether to disclose gradually, or even deciding whether to disclose you have a mental illness at all.

This may be less of a problem for people with less serious or less visible illness, but there will always be the inevitable point of disclosure, and the risk of ending a relationship hanging over your head. And for serious mental illness such as bipolar, borderline personality disorder or schizophrenia risk is more significant.

How to proceed?

My personal strategy is to write in my profile that I have been diagnosed with a mental illness, and to openly acknowledge that this may be a red flag for some people. My belief is that any people who could not accept who I am not get in contact with me; they are people who could not build a connection with me in the long term anyway, and I might as well get them out of the equation as soon as possible. People who respond are people who can understand and accept my condition.

So far one person who has read my profile has gotten in contact with me. To tell you the truth, that is one more than I expected! But it shows that the strategy might be working.

I do not acknowledge this strategy for everyone; each person must choose their own path. Perhaps attending a CMO support place may provide opportunities to meet with people who are prepared to go out with someone who has acknowledged lived experience. Either way, when hope seems bereft, I believe there are opportunities.