How to Talk About Mental Health

How to Talk About Mental Health


Sharing the story, “My Mental Health Struggles”, has opened a gateway for a variety of feedback.  I’ve I’ve read through comments, messages and texts atop of in-person feedback, which took a bit of energy on my part to go through them all. I have to say, so much of the feedback is positive and progressive, with many people either helping out friends or family in a similar position, or with other people sharing their stories. But on the flip-side, I’ve been asked one question that continually bothers me to answer. Ready for it?

Question–“Why didn’t you say something sooner?”

This question has been posed by friends, acquaintances and family alike. My answer has simply been, “It wasn’t the right time for me to share”. But there’s a little bit more to my answer that I want to add here.

A very important aspect in choosing when and who to share my struggles with, came down to choosing people who would see past the illness. 

When I first told people about my anxiety and depression I think their first reaction was, “Oh my gosh, I didn’t know”. And to be fair, most people with mental illnesses aren’t going to parade it around, carry banners or flashing signs that say:

Hey, I have something going down in my brain, and it’s messy!!! 

For lack of a better comparison, it’s like someone sharing that they have an STD. Is it important to tell people you have an STD? Absolutely–especially those who will be affected by it. But do you want to parade it around?

Well, that depends on who you are, because the thing is, once you tell people a secret about your inner-most self, it does change how they view you and how they treat you.

For me, the changes are both positive and negative. For example, when I let my two best friends know, they were initially quite worried about just how bad my depression was at the time, and they didn’t know how to approach it. With of bit of researching and talking between the three of us, their worries became a bit less, and they were more focused on how they could help. For the initial few months, although I didn’t fully recognize it then, they really did give me so much extra love and support. They would stop in everyday after school just to say hello. Some days, they’d even get flowers….err, pick flowers, on their walk over to my house.

But not all of the changes were as positive as that one.  For me, letting other people know feels like I have given permission to “Big Brother” me indefinitely.

As a general formality when you begin talking to someone, you ask the question, “How are you doing?”. But now, when someone asks me that same question, there’s a bit of an underlying tone. It’s not just a general question anymore, and it becomes somewhat directed at my mental health. While this doesn’t bother me much on a regular basis (I realize people are not mean-spirited to ask) it becomes a much more bothersome question when there are stressful events going on in my life. The thing is, everyone has stressful periods of time or emotional hardships, and I feel like other people are allowed to have time to deal with it before someone begins to question if they’re able to handle things.

What a lot of people don’t realize, is that someone who has been dealing with mental health problems for years, can usually figure out how to handle certain situations without the extra coddling and fuss from a bunch of people, especially, if they have kept their mental health a secret and have only just opened up about it (aka me, and a lot of other people).

For example, about two months ago, my Nana passed away after a few years of declining health. I have mostly made peace with her passing, and I do still have moments when I am overwhelmed with an empty and sad feeling. But having these feelings as someone with a mental illness, doesn’t mean I need to be extra coddled, or to be asked if I’m “actually okay”. Everyone is still dealing with the grief and sadness which is completely normal and expected, and I don’t believe that just because I have a mental illness, that I can’t have the chance to come to my own way of dealing with things before everyone jumps in with their two cents. If I showed signs of needing extra help, I would understand the need to be a little extra watchful or mindful of me, but overall, I don’t usually need a lot of people to make an extra ordeal.

Which brings me back to the main question, “Why didn’t you say something sooner about your mental health”.

The full reason is simple: I want to be treated the same way people have always treated me. 

I don’t want people to always be monitoring my actions and words. I don’t want people to think I can’t think for myself and come to my own resolutions. I don’t want people to feel like it’s their duty to “fix me”. At the end of the day, my mental health issues have been something I have successfully dealt with for many years, and I don’t see why there needs to be an extra layer of sympathy involved. I don’t need people to feel sorry for me, or to try and make things better. I don’t need to be shown the world with rosy-coloured glasses.

As grim as that sounds, I do want to re-emphasise, that people (for the most part) have good intentions in their means of checking-in and asking how I am. But keep in mind, anyone that deals with mental health problems on a daily basis, has a pretty good sense of knowing when they do need extra help and might get annoyed or offended when people push too much.

A good way to avoid this is just by asking if the person needs anything from you–whether it’s to talk with you, to seek further help from professionals, or for space–without asking if they’re “actually okay”. Wording is always key when you’re trying to broach the subject.

People with mental health issues have a lot of strength, perseverance and awareness. If someone trusts you enough to talk about their problems, or if someone opens up to you in hard times, please be sure not to change how you treat them completely. While doing a few extra special things for them can be nice, don’t treat them as though they live in a bubble, or that you have to “protect” them from the hardships or stresses in life that are inevitable. Dealing with the full range of emotions–good and bad–are part of what makes us human.

I hope this post leaves you with a bit of insight about why some people choose not to talk about their mental health problems, and gives an idea about how to help someone if they do choose to open up to you. Always try to treat the person the same as you always have! They may just need a little extra love some days or a little extra space on others.

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