Tips for Talking about Mental Illness

Oct 7
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Mental Illness awareness means, at least to me, a quest to understand people, human beings who are living with a particular illness (or illnesses) of the brain. For various reasons (genetics, chemistry, trauma, abuse, etc.), sometimes the brain doesn’t function the same as other brains. (Really, though, does any brain function exactly like any other?)

When we understand what happens during a given mental illness, we have more insight into noticeable things like thoughts, displayed emotions, and behaviors. When we go beyond this and apply our new knowledge directly to a person, seeking to understand them on a deeper level, we are doing what humans are hard-wired to do: bond and empathize.

Sometimes people don’t want to understand. Sometimes people do want to understand. Sometimes talking about mental illness turns people’s insides into jellyfish: undulating, camouflaged, masses of goo. That’s a much-worse feeling in your stomach than butterflies, so who wants to purposely create it by talking about mental illness?

I get it. Believe me, I really get it. I’m credentialed as a nationally certified counselor. I am one of the writers of the Anxiety-Schmanxiety blog on HealthyPlace.com, and I write other articles on the site, too. I write novels whose characters (and, by extension, their loved ones) live with mental illness. I’ve given presentations and speeches nationwide about mental illness. I’ve been interviewed on online radio shows and for print magazines. And I live with bipolar 1 disorder and anxiety. I write and talk freely about mental illness and what it’s like for me. I write and talk freely, but when I have to talk to family and friends, my insides turn into that undulating jellyfish.

Of course I want friends and family to know who I am, what makes me tick, and why my ticking goes haywire from time to time. Just like I want to know these things about them. But let’s face it, it can just be awkward and weird to be open about it to people whom you have to look in the eye and interact with on a daily basis.

To refrain from openness, though, is to risk forever facing a lack of understanding. It’s to risk a lessened degree of closeness. Of course, how open you want to be is a personal decision.

talking about mental illness

If you think you’d like to begin (or increase) discussions about mental illness with those in your life, there are definitely ways to do it. Perhaps it doesn’t have to be such a formal, intimidating thing.  Here are some things to consider when trying to decide if/when/how to talk:

  • Who do you want to talk to – and why this person? What do you want him/her to understand?
  • What will get better for you by talking?
  • Do you like sit-down, serious discussions over a meal or a cup of coffee?
  • Do you prefer to write and would rather write a letter about what you’re dealing with, even if the recipient lives in the same house as you?
  • Or are you an artist and prefer to draw what you have to say?
  • Perhaps interpretive dance? (Okay, that was kind of a joke, but maybe not!)
  • How much or how little do you want to reveal? Decide this ahead of time.

Perhaps the most important thing of all to mention in any conversation about mental illness is that you are still you. You have all of the strengths and delightful characteristics you’ve always had. The challenges of the illness simply mean that you need support—as does everyone.

Raising awareness about mental illness is a very personal thing. What would you like people to know, and what support could you use from those around you? And always be aware that mental illness isn’t who you are. It’s something you live with. You are multi-faceted, wonderful, you.

 

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