When you begin experiencing symptoms of a mental health issue, one of the first things on your mind could be: “How should I tell my family and friends?” Many of us find it easy to talk to loved ones when times are good – but may falter when the going gets tough.
It doesn’t help that, although mental health awareness has come a long way in recent years, there is often a fear of judgment associated with talking about mental health concerns.
However, social support is one of the most important things to consider when it comes to managing symptoms of mental illness. Although it’s up to you when and if to disclose the specifics, it’s helpful to have at least some people who know what’s going on and can support you through it.
Here are some important things to consider when communicating with loved ones you live with a mental illness.
You don’t need to talk to everyone about it
First of all, be aware you are not obligated to tell anyone at all about having a mental illness. This includes family members, friends, and colleagues or bosses. It’s 100% up to you who you decide to tell and when.
There is no right or wrong answer regarding who you tell, how many people you tell, and when you tell them. Some people feel good just telling one close person, while others want many to know and support them. You might decide to tell one family member but not others. You might have reasons to disclose at work rather than in personal settings.
If you feel nervous about telling a particular person about living with mental illness, pause to reflect on why. Is it just general anxiety? Or has this person behaved in ways in the past that have made you feel emotionally unsafe with them?
It’s essential to have social support as you navigate mental health problems, but it’s even more critical this support comes from the right people. Anyone who may make you feel ashamed for living with a mental illness may not be the support system you need right now.
Choose who you communicate with wisely, and remember you don’t need to feel guilty about deciding not to share things with some people.
Plan ahead of time
For many people, it’s a challenge to think about what to say in these important conversations in the moment. You may know you want to explain what’s going on with your mental health, but how do you describe those feelings to someone who may have never experienced them?
Because of this, it can be helpful to be prepared for having these conversations. Think about what you want to communicate to your support people. You should reflect on how mental health concerns affect your day-to-day life and how you can describe the experience to someone else.
Many benefit from writing down what they want to say before conversing.
Planning can also mean you set aside time to talk to your loved ones. Try to choose a time when neither of you will be distracted and you can speak to them in a calm environment.
Talk to them when you’re well
It’s common for people to disclose they live with mental illness when they’re struggling. It makes sense; you feel bad and need support to get through it.
There’s nothing wrong with telling people you’re having a hard time. But if you’re in the middle of a mental health crisis, loved ones may be alarmed and worried. Unfortunately, you might not get the response you’re hoping for.
It can also be helpful to talk to loved ones about your mental health when you’re doing well because it can help give others a more balanced perspective of what your experience is like. It helps them understand you still experience – and deserve to experience – joy and happiness despite any mental health challenges you’re going through.
If you do want or need to broach the topic when you’re feeling low, try to tell the most supportive person in your life. That person can support you through whether or not you want to tell anyone else.
Use specific examples
People have varied experiences with mental health. Some people you talk to about your experience could have gone through mental health struggles of their own and know exactly how you feel intuitively. Others may have limited experience with mental health and need more examples to understand what you mean.
Either way, use specific examples to help people understand what your experience has been like.
- Instead of simply stating, “I have depression,” say: “I have days where I feel so sad and low I don’t even want to get out of bed.”
- Instead of just saying, “I have social anxiety,” expand: “When I’m in social situations, I can’t enjoy myself because I’m terrified of what people are thinking of me. It feels like any moment, I will make a fool of myself. That makes me not want to go out at all.”
If you choose to, you might also talk about specific triggers that make you feel worse. You should teach people terminology like your diagnosis (if you are diagnosed) and symptoms.
You can browse books or the internet for other examples that can help you describe what it feels like. Sometimes, others can put words to experiences when we can’t. Your therapist and other supportive professionals can also help you define the experience.
Tell people how to support you
If you’d like someone’s support, be specific about how you’d like them to help you. Don’t expect them to read your mind – asking for the support you need is okay. For example, you might need help finding a therapist or caring for pets or a child. At work, you might need to ask for accommodations. You may just need someone to listen to you without judgment.
Whatever it is, be specific and ask. You might say, “It would be helpful if you could sit with me while I call some therapists. I get overwhelmed, and it calms me down to have you there. Would you be willing to do that with me?”
If you don’t need anything in particular from them, you can tell them that, too. For example: “My symptoms are managed now, and I’m doing well. I just wanted you to know because it’s been important in my life, and I trust you. I’ll let you know if I need more tangible support in the future, but for now, your presence in my life is appreciated.”
What if I don’t get the support I need?
Most people – especially people who have supported you through difficult things in the past – are open, supportive, and caring when you tell them about your mental health experiences.
Unfortunately, some people may not be as supportive. They could have a deeply-seated stigma or prejudice against mental illness. They may not believe in receiving treatment for mental illness or not believe that mental illness exists at all. They may give you unsolicited advice or make it all about themselves.
If you don’t get the support you’re hoping for when you tell someone about your mental health experiences, you may need to draw clear boundaries to prevent yourself from getting hurt. This is a vulnerable time for you, and you must have supportive people around you.
For example, let’s say you tell someone you live with depression, and they respond, “It’s all in your head. Just cheer up!”
You can draw a clear boundary with them by saying, “That kind of advice is not helpful to me right now, and I’d appreciate it if you just listened to me instead.”
At The Center • A Place of HOPE, we understand how difficult it can be to have these vulnerable conversations, and we want to help.
Our specialized mental health treatment programs will holistically address every part of your well-being to help you emerge as your truest, best self. That includes social or relational health, and we’ll walk with you as you build up a support network that will be there for you in good times and in bad.
Reach out for more information about our programs and how we can help you.