Any relationship can feel strains when one of the partners has a bad day. For folks struggling with mental illness, letting their partner know they’re having a bad day is made significantly more difficult due to the stigma of their struggles and the complexity of disclosure of a mental illness to an intimate partner. Mental illnesses affecting college students vary and may include disorders related to anxiety (e.g. generalized anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, etc.), mood (e.g. depression, bipolar disorder, etc.), or eating (e.g. bulimia or anorexia nervosa).
Before we get into the reality of dating relationships wherein one or both partners has a mental illness, I’d like to toss out some myths about folks with mental illness. Contrary to what recent media coverage of the Sandy Hook tragedy may be implying, having a mental illness does not make you a violent and/or dangerous person. Studies actually show that folks with mental illness are more likely to be victims of violence than to perpetrate it[iii], and are even more likely to be victims of violent crime than those without a mental illness[iv]. While mental illness may be portrayed in television and movies as something that leads folks to an inevitable life spent in hospitals or prisons, folks with mental illness often lead typical lives going to college, working, and dating, just like anyone else.
Here are some tips for folks navigating that (it turns out, not so unique) situation!
Let’s start with some tips for partners of folks with mental illness:
- Use Person-First Language and Behavior
Your partner is a person, individual, and a bunch of wonderful things other than their illness. Don’t refer to them in a way that categorizes them as a disorder, and instead reflect in your language what you know to be true: that your partner is a devoted fan of How I Met Your Mother, a hardworking Russian Language and English Lit double major, a lover of sweet frog and Carolina basketball, a supportive friend, and a super-hot and hilarious individual, who happens to have a mental illness. e.g. Your partner is not “anorexic”, your partner is “a person with anorexia”.
- Respect Your Partner’s Privacy
Mental health is a really private thing for most folks, so even if your partner is open about their struggles to others, don’t take it upon yourself to share their story or press for details or feel entitled to know everything about the origin, onset, or current treatment of their illness.
- Be Flexible
Be understanding and patient with your partner surrounding things that may be particularly difficult for them as a result of their illness. Depending on their particular struggles, this may involve not eating out for dates, hanging out in small groups rather than going to huge parties when you spend time together, avoiding certain sexual activities, or various other things. How do you find out how you can support your partner and not unknowingly agitate their symptoms? Communicate with your partner and ask, instead of assuming.
- Play Fair
Don’t throw a diagnosis into an argument where it doesn’t belong, or use your partner’s illness as an excuse to treat them unfairly.
- Remember Self-Care, and Seek Out Support for Yourself
Although you may care very much about your partner and it may be understandably frustrating to watch someone you care about struggle with a mental illness, it is not your job as their partner to “fix it”. You can however, be a resource for your partner. Just as you would recommend the Learning Center for a friend who is struggling with classes, you can let your partner know about the resources available at CAPS at UNC Campus Health. You may want to seek out support for yourself, by joining UNC’s campus chapter of NAMI or perusing NAMI’s website for local support groups available for partners and family members of people with a mental illness.
If you’re interested in learning more about mental illness and college students, check out National Alliance on Mental Illness’ 2011 survey report College Students Speak.
[iii] Appleby, L., Mortensen, P. B., Dunn, G., & Hiroeh, U. (2001). Death by homicide, suicide, and other unnatural causes in people with mental illness: a population-based study. The Lancet, 358, 2110-2112.
[iv] Hiday, V. A. (2006). Putting Community Risk in Perspective: a Look at Correlations, Causes and Controls. International Journal of Law and Psychiatry, 29, 316-331.