Navigating a relationship is hard enough as it is – but it has the potential to be even harder if you’re on antidepressants. One writer investigates the truth about dating on antidepressants, from reduced libidos to the importance of honesty with your partner.
Welcome to Women On Antidepressants, a new series exploring the issues young women face around getting prescribed, experiencing side effects, dealing with relationships while on medication, and life after antidepressants.
Last July, 24-year-old Mared was suffering with anxiety so severe that she was left bed bound. “It was paralysing me,” she says. “I’m such a sociable person and always out doing things, so for me to be stuck in bed, cancelling plans, and airing close friends for days at a time… I was like, ‘Fuck, I need to do something about it now.’”
After speaking to her GP and then a psychiatrist, Mared was diagnosed with PTSD, anxiety disorder, and ADHD. She was initially prescribed sertraline for her anxiety – which she says left her feeling “erratic, numb, and suicidal” – before switching to citalopram in September. “That was much better,” she says, adding that she still takes citalopram now.
Rosie, 26, also struggles with her mental health. For Rosie, everything came to a head about two years ago: “I opened up to my family and my partner about needing some help as I was really struggling with depression,” she says. Rosie then went to her GP who prescribed her antidepressants: “I haven’t looked back since – they really changed things for me,” she says.
36-year-old Anna first experienced issues with her mental health during her second year of university, but found that everything worsened after she had children seven years ago. “Lockdown definitely didn’t help,” she adds. “Not being able to escape to a coffee shop and just have time to myself was a huge deal.”
Anna then began to feel suicidal in December 2020. “It was kind of the last straw. I just realised that actually, I needed help. No matter how much my husband was helping out with the kids and giving me space, no matter how much painting or things to boost my mental health I did, I was still feeling down.” On Boxing Day, Anna started taking antidepressants. And she wasn’t the only woman who struggled to deal with lockdown – statistics show that 76 million antidepressants were dispensed in the period 2019-2020, with the majority of these prescriptions dispensed to women.
Starting antidepressants is an intensely personal decision. But when you’re in a relationship – like Mared, Rosie, and Anna are – it’s important to keep the other person in the loop about your feelings, even if it feels difficult to open up about your mental health.
Dating expert Sarah Louise Ryan says that it’s possible for a mental illness like depression can have a detrimental impact on a romantic relationship. “Depression can interfere with how we normally communicate, verbally and non-verbally, in romantic relationships. Depression can affect and report to lower libido, confidence, self-esteem and skew the perception of the world around us,” she explains.
But it’s not all doom and gloom. Ultimately, reaching out for help and being prescribed antidepressants can be the first step to actually improving your relationship. As Anna says: “I didn’t feel like antidepressants were going to negatively impact my relationship – if anything, they were going to positively impact things, because I would hopefully go back to being the me that I was before.”
After all, it’s much easier to put time and effort into your relationship if you’re feeling much more emotionally stable in yourself. Ryan also adds that having difficult conversations can actually bring you and your partner closer together: “Being vulnerable in conversation is actually you being your most true and authentic self – it can be hard but it can be liberating.”
Rosie found this out first hand. She started taking antidepressants two years into her relationship, and so having a conversation with her partner about her decision was necessary. “I had to open up about wanting to start them,” she says. “I remember being at the bottom of my girlfriend’s garden – we were just talking about stuff and I said ‘I think I’m going to go to the doctor’s on Monday because I really need to get some help, I’m not coping, and I’m just really depressed all the time.’”
“She was amazing,” Rosie continues. “She helped me write down everything that I wanted to tell the doctors, she was really supportive in looking up the side effects. Even now, two years down the line, she’ll still say ‘Have you remembered your meds?’ if we’re going away for the night anywhere.”
Anna’s husband was less enthusiastic about her decision – but clear communication between the two of them helped him empathise with her. “He was unsure but supportive,” Anna recalls. “He was less supportive when I realised a couple of months in that I needed to increase the dose because I still wasn’t feeling great, but I think that’s partly because he didn’t know how antidepressants work. He just didn’t want me to be addicted to them.” Once Anna explained to him that that wouldn’t be an issue, he offered her his unbridled support.
Unlike Rosie and Anna, Mared started antidepressants before getting into a relationship with her current partner. So instead of having a ‘big chat’ with her partner about her mental health, she just mentioned it in passing one day early on in their relationship. “I just openly speak about these things anyway, so it was never a secret,” she says. “He was just like, ‘Yeah, okay, cool.’ He’s asked a few questions here and there and we do speak about it, but it was never an issue or weird thing.”
As her relationship is still relatively new, Mared does still wonder if her mental health issues have the potential to negatively affect things with her partner. “My mood can still be quite up and down,” she says. “And the decreased sex drive is so annoying – I’m scared that that will impact things.”
But she goes on to say that as her partner has family members with mental health issues, he’s naturally compassionate when it comes to her own struggles. “He reminds me to take my meds every morning and helps me with small things,” she says. “Like, he’ll go out of his way to make me decaf stuff as I’m not allowed any caffeine with my meds.”
Ryan says that it’s important that both those who suffer from depression and their partners are able to understand that depression is an illness just like other illnesses. “Working through issues that arise in a relationship due to depression requires a whole lot of love, patience, strong and consistent communication and, most importantly, respect between two people who are romantically coupled,” she says.
Ultimately, there’s no reason why navigating a relationship on antidepressants should be harder to navigate than any other relationship. Naturally it’s something you’ll need to talk to your partner about, but communication is required in any relationship, no matter the circumstances. “We should always be partnered romantically with someone who we see as our best friend and so speaking to them in such a way is key to connecting on such a sensitive issue,” Ryan says. “Be friends first and foremost and all the romantic stuff can re-emerge from that space.”
Which, really, is good advice for anyone in a relationship, regardless of whether they’re on antidepressants or not.
If you, or someone you know, is struggling with their mental health, you can find support and resources on the mental health charity Mind’s website and NHS Every Mind Matters or access the NHS list of mental health helplines and organisations here.
If you are struggling with your mental health, you can also ask your GP for a referral to NHS Talking Therapies, or you can self-refer.
You can also call the Samaritans in the UK on 116 123 or email email@example.com for confidential support.
In Stylist’s new digital series Women On Antidepressants we investigate the myriad of issues that surround women being prescribed, taking and coming off antidepressants. For news, first-person essays and features check the dedicated hub daily. If you have a story about antidepressants to share email firstname.lastname@example.org with ‘antidepressants’ in the subject line.