If you are struggling with mental illness, it can be hard to open to others about it, perhaps out of fear of how they’ll respond or treat you. And even if you aren’t fearful, there is an idea of a “label” and how it can define you, so you might want to keep news of your illness to yourself to avoid such stereotyping and to be in control of your identity.
However, there’s nothing to feel bad about when it comes to having mental illness. It’s simply a part of who you are, and it’s OK to share that with others, especially those who are close to you and care about you, like family, a significant other, or a close friend.
That being said, it’s a good idea to have a clear direction as to how you wish to proceed with sharing the news. If you need a little help, don’t worry, you’re not alone—and here are some excellent tips from Ana Jovanovic, a licensed psychotherapist.
Be selective with sharing
Just like we don’t talk about our physical health with everyone, we need to be selective about whom we talk to regarding our mental health. Not out of embarrassment, but because it’s private and you want to make sure you can trust whomever you’re telling.
“For their own reasons, some people lack the capacity to really hear you out. In choosing who you talk to, focus on people who can understand you, take what you’re sharing seriously, and can do something to help you (for example give advice, practical help, or emotional support),” Jovanovic says. Share first with people you trust and feel comfortable around.
Allow them to speak too
“When sharing information about your mental illness, bear in mind that it’s not just about being listened to, but also active listening of others,” she says.
A person you talk to about this sensitive topic should not be a passive recipient. Invite them to share their questions and thoughts and even their own experiences, if applicable.
“Although some people share their problems with the intention to minimize yours, most people will share because they feel a connection with you and trust you with the content they are sharing,” Jovanovic says. This bridge created by common experiences helps build trust and provides foundation for emotional support.
Share your experience, not just the diagnosis
Focus on your experience, rather than a label.
“Some diagnostic labels are so widely used (for example, depression or anxiety) that many people will not fully understand how your life is affected until you go beyond the general labels,” Jovanovic explains. People with the same diagnosis often have individual experiences.
Try to help others understand what your experience is like. What’s it like to wake up with it or go through your day with it? What are usual reactions and how do they affect you? What steps are you taking to cope and what seems to be working? What hasn’t been working? Feel free to open up.
Let others help you
Most people will want to do something to help. When talking about your mental illness, think about actions you can suggest that would mean a lot to you personally or to the people who share the same diagnosis.
“One of my clients asked her friends not to use the phrase ‘I’m depressed’ when they were just a little sad. Whenever they would do that, she’d feel as if she could not talk to them about how harsh her depression is,” Jovanovic illustrates.
Another idea? You may ask them to help you get out more. Or, to understand that sometimes when you decline their invitation you’re not doing so because you do not want to hang out with them, but because it seems awfully hard to get yourself to go anywhere.
Prepare for a not ideal response
It takes a lot of effort and strength to talk openly about your struggles. However, there are still people who may not be able to respond in an understanding, supportive, or useful way.
“Even if they are one of the people you love and trust, they may lack the capacity at a given moment or the skill to show that they are truly there with you, ready to help out,” Jovanovic says.
It’s important to prepare yourself for not getting what you anticipated. Also, realize that one bad conversation doesn’t mean that nobody will ever understand you, or even that the person you chose to talk to won’t understand eventually.
“You may be the first person in their lives who approaches them with this topic. Some people genuinely don’t have a clue what to say or do once you’ve shared,” she says. Give them time to understand and be patient if you care.