I first started seeking help for my mental health conditions as a teenager in the mid 2000s. Mental health then was not the ‘hot topic’ that it has become in recent years (although admittedly we still have a way to go even now). Very few people understood it, and even less wanted to take the time to learn. As I began to receive diagnoses, I became very aware that this was something I wanted to be a strict secret. I did not want anyone to know. I did not want to talk about it – I didn’t know how to, I didn’t know that I could. My health felt like a dark secret. I was paralysed by my inability to talk, out of fear for how people would respond. I was in secondary school – ignorance (and therefore stigma) was rife. I had already heard rumours of the things that were being said behind my back, I had no intention of stoking the fire.
It was around this time that I had one of the most important epiphanies of my young adult life. Hate doesn’t just appear. It grows from ignorance, a lack of education and compassion and understanding. But you can’t fight hate with hate, and you can’t ignore it either. I felt a duty to start speaking out. I never wanted anyone else to experience the same crippling fear of stigma and judgment like I did.
Beyond this, I quickly realised that I personally couldn’t get better until I started talking about my mental health. I felt trapped by my ‘secret’, like I was invalidating my experience and failing to empower myself by keeping quiet. After some thought, I knew that my fear of people’s reactions could not match up to my need to be true to myself. (I’d like to take this opportunity to say that this was my experience. Mental health is conditional, therefore recovery and treatment is not prescriptive – I personally failed to begin recovery until I started speaking up, but everyone’s experience is valid regardless of what shape it takes).
I’m not going to lie to you. Talking about your mental health can be scary. You are opening up about something that is quite personal and in doing so you can feel vulnerable. Plus between the potential stigma, people using slurs without realising, the relentless romanticising of mental health in the media, the likes of Urban Outfitters using your condition to make a quick buck and being presented as a Halloween costume every October, it can be hard to figure out how your friends will react. But the truth, as cliché as it is, is that your real friends will either understand or take the time to learn to understand.
My advice for telling a friend about your mental health:
– Make sure you’re ready to talk. Think about how you feel.
– Take some time to plan out what you might say, and don’t rush it. Practice it on your own or with someone you trust beforehand.
– Make sure you’re somewhere where you’re comfortable talking. A lot of people choose somewhere quiet and that is neutral ground so you can leave if things go badly.
– Prepare yourself for all possible initial reactions – and remember these might not last. Someone may be surprised or shocked at first but soon come round.
– Be as honest as possible, but don’t feel you have to share everything if you don’t want to.
– Think about what you might do if they react badly. It is important to remember that their reaction is a reflection on them and their attitudes – it is not a reflection of you and your illness. If they don’t take it well, encourage them to do some research and give them some time. They probably just don’t understand it properly. Have someone you trust that can talk to or somewhere safe to go after.
– Prepare some information in case they have any questions (they might not have any at first). Equally, remember that you are in charge of this conversation and that you don’t have to answer anything you don’t want to.
– A benefit of sharing your situation is that you can increase your support network. Think about how your friend might be able to support you. Share this with them.
– Remember that 1 in 4 of us will be affected by mental illness at some point in time; you are most definitely not alone. There’s a good chance that your friend already knows someone who has been affected, even if they don’t realise it. I find facts like this really helpful when talking to people who don’t really ‘get’ it.
– Plan something nice to do after. Talking about your health isn’t straightforward and you deserve nice things!
When I first started talking about my mental health I was very anxious, but now it’s hard to get me to shut up about it! I frequently blog, speak on television and do pieces for national newspapers. Spreading the word, breaking stigma and educating people feels amazing as you are making a difference and helping others. I have also found that sharing my story has inspired others to do so. Without talking, I would never have known that my friends accepted and supported me. I really recommend opening up to someone you trust. The support I have now is much greater than the initial fear I felt about opening up.
Nobody should have to experience mental illness alone.