Although awareness about depression is increasing, the condition is still misunderstood by some. Depression manifests differently in different people, but symptoms may include prolonged and pervasive feelings of sadness and hopelessness, a loss of interest in once-enjoyable activities, a lack of energy that makes even small tasks seem impossible and sleep issues, like insomnia or sleeping too much. Some people also deal with angry outbursts, frustration and agitation.
Explaining all of this to a person you’re still getting to know can be nerve-wracking because you never know how they might react.
Christie M. from Littleton, Colorado, experienced depression for the first time after she got married and moved to a new city. It was difficult, at first, for her to describe what she was going through to her husband; it can be even harder to open up to a person you don’t know as well. She told HuffPost she would encourage people with depression to bring it up when they feel ready. Allow this person to understand and support you.
“If it’s someone who has never seen depression before, they might need a guide because nothing about depression makes much sense on the outside,” Christie said. “And a depressed person absolutely does need help from people on the outside.”
We asked therapists to share some of their recommendations about when and how to discuss your depression with the person you’re dating.
Why people with depression may be hesitant to open up about it:
One in six people will deal with depression at some point in their life. That means it’s likely that you or someone you know has gone through it. And yet a lingering stigma about this rather common mental illness remains.
Zainab Delawalla, a clinical psychologist in Atlanta, said that just as you’re not to blame for a physical health condition, you’re not to blame for a mental health condition either.
“People erroneously think having depression means they lack strength of character when, in fact, it is no more your fault for having depression than having seasonal allergies,” Delawalla said. “People feel far more ashamed of having a mental illness than they do physical illnesses, and it leads them to isolate or suffer in silence.”
The good news? While misconceptions about depression still exist, the public understanding of the disorder is improving, Chicago-based therapist Anna Poss said.
“There is more information about depression available than ever before,” she said. “We have more people speaking openly and candidly about their mental health struggles. It is becoming more and more likely that people will have had some education about or exposure to mental health treatment.”
When to tell someone you’re dating:
As you might expect, there is no “right time” across the board — for one person it might be six weeks into dating, for another it might be six months. It really depends on when you feel ready to do so. No one can determine that but you.
“Many people think that there has to be a ‘perfect’ moment to disclose their mental health struggles,” Poss said. “Wait, instead, for the moment where you feel safe and comfortable sharing with this new person. There is no timeline and you are under no obligation to share if you do not feel comfortable.”
“Depression is one part of your story, but it does not define you.”
One factor that may make a big difference is how well you know the person you’re dating. Is it someone you just met on Tinder two weeks ago or someone you’ve known in a different capacity (maybe as a friend or co-worker) for a while?
“If so, you may know them much better or feel more comfortable with them by the third date than someone you met at a bar and have been out with only two to three times,” said Delawalla.
If you’re feeling nervous about bringing up the subject, keep in mind there’s a fair chance this person already has some firsthand or secondhand experience with depression.
“Whenever you feel ready to disclose this part of yourself, chances are your partner will already know someone else who has struggled with depression and likely will not react with shock or confusion,” Delawalla said.
Signs it might be a good time to mention it:
There may not be a precise “right” time, but experts say there are some signs to look out for that could help determine the right time for you.
“Listen to how they talk about other people,” Poss said. “Do they show compassion, maturity and understanding when they talk about others? This can be a clue to how they will react to you sharing your experience with depression.”
Also, ask yourself if you (A) see some type of future with this person and (B) have been building emotional intimacy with each other in other ways — e.g. sharing personal details, like your weird quirks, an embarrassing story from your childhood or a tough time you went through with a friend.
“When you feel comfortable opening up about your extensive comic-book collection or your need to have your bathroom counter arranged just so, you can start to share ways in which depression affects you,” Delawalla said. “Maybe you tend to have insomnia and go on Netflix binges or that you find it difficult to socialize and therefore isolate.”
Signs you might want to hold off for a bit:
On the contrary, if you observe the person you’re dating acting insensitively in other ways — making judgmental comments about someone who struggles with addiction, for instance — you may decide this isn’t the right time or person to open up to.
“You may want to think carefully about sharing with someone who enjoys making jokes at the expense of others, has difficulty showing compassion or can be critical,” Poss said.
Think back about how this person has reacted when you’ve disclosed other personal information about yourself. If they clammed up, changed the subject or acted in ways that felt dismissive or belittling, this might mean they don’t have the emotional capacity to handle vulnerable conversations. And if that’s the case, is this really someone you want to be with long-term?
“When people are building or expanding on an emotional connection, they tend to reciprocate sharing of personal information,” Delawalla said. “For example, if you share your pipe dream of opening your own bakery one day, it should prompt your partner to share something similar, perhaps his or her own vision for the future. If you sense that your partner does not respond in kind when you share personal quirks, ambitions or vulnerabilities, it may be a sign that your partner is not ready to hear or process such personal information.”
How to broach the subject:
You can always talk to your partner about your depression without scheduling a super-serious sit-down conversation dedicated solely to the topic of your mental health. (But, hey, if that’s how you want to approach it, go for it!)
“A conversation about depression does not have to be a formal discussion that leads to awkwardness,” Delawalla said. “Depression is one part of your story, but it does not define you.”
Ideally, you want to have the conversation when you’re feeling good and things are generally calm between you two.
“Important conversations like this one shouldn’t happen when emotions are running high or either person is in a vulnerable position,” Poss said. “This is a recipe for hurt feelings and miscommunication.”
Christie agreed: It’s probably easiest to explain what depression looks like for you when you’re feeling mentally and emotionally capable of having that conversation. If that’s not possible, then you can rely on the many online resources out there to do some of the heavy lifting for you.
“If you don’t have it in you to explain to your S.O. because you are currently depressed, don’t be too shy to send links and information that they can read on their own time,” she said. “Give them a way to help you. Depression can manifest as aggressive behavior in some people and can involve a depressed person lashing out at those who love them. For someone who doesn’t understand what depression looks like, this behavior can hurt. It helps everyone to understand what’s going on before it happens.”
If you or someone you know needs help, call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also text HOME to 741-741 for free, 24-hour support from the Crisis Text Line. Outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of resources.