Mental health challenges are exceedingly common: In a given year, roughly 1 in 4 adults experience a diagnosable mental health disorder.
Yet, the most powerful effects of mental health disorders often play out on a personal scale, particularly with those we love. How do people living with mental health issues rely on their partners for understanding and encouragement? Are their romantic relationships sources of strength and acceptance, or do their significant others struggle to support them?
In this project, we studied how people with mental health disorders confide in their partners and how their decisions about disclosure affect their relationships. Drawing respondents from both the U.K. and the U.S., we surveyed nearly 1,000 individuals who had a diagnosed mental health disorder or were romantically involved with someone who had one.
Our findings underscore the difficulty of broaching the subject with a partner, but also the benefits of communicating about mental health issues openly. To see what we uncovered, keep reading.
Disclosing a Disorder
Among respondents with mental health disorders, all but 4% had discussed their challenges with their significant others. In fact, more than half did so within the first two months of their relationship. This approach resonates with the recommendations of some mental health professionals, who advise that bringing the subject up early can help your partner support you (as opposed to causing them to feel excluded from an important piece of your life).
However, many individuals held off on discussing their mental health disorders, often for over a year. Indeed, respondents waited an average of nine months before discussing their challenges, indicating just how much courage these conversations can require.
Perhaps as perceptions of mental health issues shift across the broader culture, it might be possible for more couples to have these discussions sooner. For the time being, however, it seems that many people must build up the necessary trust over several months. For this reason, it’s important to respect individuals’ preferences about how and when to discuss their challenges: Pressuring someone to open up about mental health can be counterproductive.
Anxieties vs. Reality
What sorts of fears or worries cause people with mental health disorders to hold off on discussing their diagnoses with a partner? Anxieties about being misconstrued or judged were common. Roughly 3 in 10 people with mental health disorders said they were worried about what their partner might think, and a similar percentage were concerned that their significant other would not understand.
Unfortunately, some research indicates these concerns could be valid. For example, one recent analysis of attitudes across the U.K. showed persistent bias against those with mental illness, especially in certain regions.
However, many people also had hope that their partners would understand and support them and even that the conversation might bring them closer together. And in most cases, these optimistic expectations were fulfilled. Eighty-three percent of respondents with mental health disorders said their partner responded positively when they shared their struggles. Moreover, just 5% said their significant other had a negative reaction.
Our respondents took a variety of approaches to broaching the subject: Some stuck to straightforward, factual conversations, while others explored the impact of their disorders on their relationships. Yet, however they decided to have the talk, it seems most were happy to have done so.
Implications for Intimacy
Mental health disorders can particularly affect one dimension of a relationship: physical intimacy. Decreased libido is symptomatic of many mental health issues, including depression and anxiety. In addition to a lowered sex drive, many people with mental health disorders experience related physical barriers, such as erectile dysfunction and vaginal dryness.
Among our respondents, nearly two-thirds said they or their partner had experienced problems related to sex drive. Similarly, 68% said mental health issues had a negative effect on their sex life more generally. Interestingly, women were significantly more likely than men to report their sex life had suffered. This finding could reflect that women are at a greater risk for certain mental health conditions, or that depression can make it especially difficult for women to achieve an orgasm.
Nevertheless, more than half of respondents reported they and their partner had sex at least once a week. And although some said they never or rarely get intimate, this result could have little to do with diagnosed mental health problems. As our past research makes abundantly clear, people in all kinds of relationships sometimes go for extended periods without having sex with their partners.
Obstacles and Opportunities
While most romantic relationships include challenges, mental health issues can certainly present distinct and recurring difficulties. Among our respondents, just 7% said their mental health concerns had never impacted their relationships negatively. Moreover, 31% said mental health disorders adversely affected their relationships at least weekly, and 34% said they encountered such problems at least once a month.
Clearly, the frequency and severity of these challenges depend on the particular disorder in question, and individuals’ symptoms and experiences can differ dramatically. But many of our respondents questioned their relationships on this basis, including 49% of men and 58% of women. Faced with mental health challenges, perhaps many couples wonder if their relationship is the right fit – and if it can endure the likely obstacles ahead.
While these doubts and concerns are certainly understandable, there’s reason for hope as well. As experts assure us, many individuals living with mental health disorders maintain strong and supportive relationships.
For our respondents, communication was a crucial tool, with 75% stating it helped them navigate challenges with their partners. Additionally, 74% said communicating with their partners about mental health actually brought them closer. Similarly, 38% said educating their significant others about mental health issues helped resolve or avoid relationship challenges. Simply talking with someone you love, it seems, can go a long way.
Finding Support, Fighting Stigmas
For individuals living with mental health challenges, our results offer a hopeful view of what is possible with a loving partner. Although disclosing a mental health disorder to a significant other can require true courage, the majority who do so receive a positive response.
And while mental health disorders can create additional challenges (especially where sex is concerned), communication usually helps to resolve recurring obstacles. In fact, most respondents felt their relationships were strengthened by honest communication about mental health issues. By consistently sharing their experiences, couples navigating mental health challenges may actually achieve an admirable degree of emotional intimacy.
At Superdrug Online Doctor, we understand the value of open communication – and the destructive power of stigmatisation. That’s why we make it easy for you to discuss your physical and sexual health with a physician through the privacy and convenience of a digital consultation. No matter what you need help with, we believe you should have more support. Cut out the hassle and embarrassment, and get the help you need today from a qualified professional.
Methodology and Limitations
For this project, we surveyed 991 people in relationships where at least one person had a diagnosed mental health disorder. Forty-four percent of respondents had a mental health disorder, 33% had a partner with a mental health disorder, and 23% said both they and their partner had a mental health disorder. Survey respondents were aged 18 to 73, with a mean age of 33 and a standard deviation of 10.2. 505 survey respondents were from the U.S., and 486 were from the UK.
There are issues with self-reported surveys that include but are not limited to lying, telescoping, and exaggeration. To help prevent this, an attention-check question was added to the survey. If missed, respondents were excluded from our survey and the results. In addition, outliers and anyone falsely entering answers were excluded from the final results.
Fair Use Statement
We hope this project empowers readers to confide in and communicate with their partners about mental health challenges. We hope you’ll support that goal by sharing this content with anyone who might find it encouraging or informative. If you do, please link back to this page so that others can explore this project in its entirety. Additionally, we kindly request that you use our information and images strictly for noncommercial purposes. If you have any questions about this project, please contact [email protected]