Diagnosed and Dating: A Story of Love and Mental Illness
> 11/14/2006 2:09:39 PM

Writing in the Philadelphia Inquirer yesterday, writer Dawn Fallik addressed what can often be a difficult topic to broach: mental illness and sexuality. As she states:

For decades, family members, case workers and the medical community have encouraged people with severe mental health issues - bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and major depression, among others - to stay away from intimate relationships. Too much stress. Too much stigma. Too much risk.

But as her article points out, more and more doctors, therapists and researchers working in the mental health industry are taking the sexual needs and wants of their clients and patients into account. On one hand this is a response to a desperate need, as it is clear that those diagnosed with mental illness are sexually active and there are concerns about STDs and other problems (Fallik notes that the HIV infection rate among those with serious mental illness is nearly 7 times that of the general population).

On the other hand, however, this push can also be seen as a result of an increased understanding of mental illness and a more holistic approach to health and preventative care. Relationships, especially intimate ones, can be sources of high levels of stress, something that can be an big problem for those already dealing with a serious mental health issue. But these relationships can also be an important source of support and healing.

Fallik looks at a number of angles from community mental health centers teaching safe sex classes to relationship politics where someone is "diagnosed." Maybe most impressive though is her touching on the life of James Leftwich, who refused to let his diagnoses of schizophrenia and depression stop him from exploring relationships, falling in love and eventually getting married. Instead of let his differences hold him back, Mr. Leftwich founded a website, No Longer Lonely, to help those with mental illnesses meet others like themselves.

Operating now with over 5,000 users, No Longer Lonely is only for those with serious mental illness. The hope is that those who may have had trouble in the past explaining the chronic nature of their diagnosis or those who have encountered stigmatization in the dating world will feel more comfortable and have greater success with love when everyone is on the same page. If users can go there and find a greater comfort level, it will be a great resource for anyone who has ever felt lonely because of their diagnosis.

The lesson that we need to take away from this piece is that just because someone is dealing with mental illness, it doesn't mean that sexuality has been thrown out the window. Indeed, sexual side effects are often a major barrier to psychopharmacological treatments. Everyone involved in the treatment process, be they doctor, therapist, client or otherwise, can only benefit from increased dialogue. Open discussion about problems will help lead to solutions. And as we arrive at more and more solutions, those with diagnoses will be able to lead fuller and more satisfying lives.

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