Is It OK to Break Up With Someone Struggling With Mental Health?

Clinically Reviewed by Rachel O'Neill, Ph.D., LPCC-S
partners hugging under umbrella

A few years ago, my boyfriend broke up with me because of my mental illness. To be more specific, I was dumped because of the behavior my mental illness was causing, and the strain it took on our relationship. It was one of my biggest fears come true, to be “too much to handle” in a relationship.
I’d been struggling with depression for years prior to the relationship, but while we were together, I was going through one of my darkest and lowest points ever — having mood swings and sobbing at the snap of a finger. He had to deal with my crying spells, refusal to go out and socialize with his friends, and my late night anxiety attacks. I had zero control over my emotions.
So, my boyfriend sat me down and told me that my depression was bringing him down, and he couldn’t handle it anymore. He had depression, too, and my behavior was taking a toll on his own mental health. It was devastating, but I understood why he did it. It’s hard to “take care” of a depressed person when you’re depressed yourself.
I often ask myself if I would do the same thing if I were in his shoes. Honestly, I probably would.

How Mental Illness Can Make Breakups Trickier

Deciding whether or not to end a relationship is a hard decision. Yes, it sucks to get dumped, but it also sucks to be the one doing the dumping. Things can be even trickier when you’re contemplating breaking up with someone who has a mental illness. You might feel guilty or feel like you’re a bad person for breaking up with a partner due to something that’s out of their control and causes them to suffer. You might also be afraid that their condition will worsen if you leave.
Mental illness alone is no excuse to break up with someone. Loads of people with mental health conditions are able to enjoy long lasting, fulfilling, happy relationships. Just because someone is depressed, has anxiety, or [insert mental illness here], doesn’t mean you should write them off. A condition in and of itself is not a reason to break up with somebody.

When Should You Break Up With Someone With a Mental Illness?

It might be time to be concerned about your relationship, when mental illness symptoms are getting in the way of your day to day life, or your safety is being compromised. You can definitely be in a healthy relationship with someone who has a mental illness, but keep an eye out for when things get unhealthy.
Talkspace therapist Cynthia Catchings, LCSW-S, says “Some of the tell-tale signs we see in an unhealthy relationship where mental health issues are present are: Violence (verbal, physical, or sexual), inability to control emotions, hallucinations, disrespect, lack of remorse or empathy for people or animals, and narcissistic behaviors.”

Red flags

If any of these red flags come up, don’t ignore them. Violence or abuse of any capacity should not be tolerated, regardless of mental illness status. Your safety is important, and that comes first.
In general, having a mental illness is not an excuse to treat someone poorly, with disrespect, or lack of empathy, as Catchings said. People with mental illnesses are certainly able to treat others with respect and love, just as people without a mental illness may treat you poorly. Ultimately, whether or not your partner has a mental illness, you’re going to consider ending things if you’re not happy.

The Effect On Your Own Mental Health

Aside from these red flags, another reason that might cause you to end the relationship is if the relationship is damaging your own mental health — especially if you have a preexisting mental health condition.
If your condition isn’t stable, dealing with someone who is also not stable can be dangerous for both of you, like the situation I had with my boyfriend who also suffered from depression. Ultimately, there’s only so much that you can do as a partner (and not a mental health professional) to help somebody, and if trying to mitigate someone else’s depression or anxiety or diagnosis is making your own condition worse, you have to put yourself first.
Catchings says, “Keep in mind that your safety is important. You might love this person but you can help him/her/them more by allowing a mental health professional to work with them, instead of staying in the relationship and trying to become their own private counselor without the proper training.”

Tips To Go About Breaking Up

A breakup is a breakup, and you will likely handle it in many of the same ways you would handle breaking up with someone without a mental illness. Catchings suggests being “kind, empathetic, and firm.” You want to follow the general rules of breaking up without being a jerk: be completely open and honest, do it in person (don’t you dare think about doing it over text message), listen to what they have to say, and don’t give them mixed signals after the breakup.

Keep your safety in mind

However, there are some extra precautions you should take when breaking up with someone with certain types of mental illnesses or violent tendencies, to be extra safe. “In this case, time and mood is also important. We have to know or understand our partner enough to recognize if they are depressed, manic, or might be hallucinating due to schizophrenia [or another mental illness].” Catchings says. “We do not want to exacerbate their symptoms or cause stress, which could definitely make their symptoms worse. If possible, it is recommended to wait until your partner’s symptoms are more stable. Always protect your safety as well.”

Post Breakup Feelings

After a breakup, it’s normal to feel guilty, but you need to tell yourself that you’re doing the right thing for yourself, your mental health, and your safety. You may want to reach out to a close friend of your ex and tell them to keep a close eye on them and provide support for them as they go through the breakup, as well as make sure they’re keeping up with their treatment, whether it’s therapy, meds, or both.
Also, practice self care! Just because you weren’t the one who was broken up with, it doesn’t mean you won’t be in emotional pain. It’s not easy to get over a breakup. Give yourself time, open up to your trusted friends, let yourself cry, and please resist stalking your ex on social media!

Ultimately, you have to do what’s best for you. Of course, not every single relationship you’re in is going to work out. Things get in the way, and sometimes those things just so happen to be mental illness related. Every relationship we have teaches us a lesson, and in a case like this, the lesson is that we have to do what’s best for our own mental health and safety.

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