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Talking to Others About Your Mental Illness

This week one of my Twitter followers asked me for advice on communicating with her friends and family about her mental illness. She has only recently started telling people of her illness and she wasn’t sure on how to express her needs around her mental illness.

This is a great question and one I think every person with a mental illness faces. How do you tell people about your mental illness needs?

Coming Out As Mentally Ill

In this person’s case she had already told some of her close friends and family about her mental illness, but if you are just starting to tell people, or are in the process, here are some things to consider:

  • Start with the most supportive person in your life. The one who you think will most love and accept you no matter what. This person can help you through telling everyone else.
  • Slowly tell one person at a time. This information is big for you and it’s big for them. Take it slowly.
  • Understand that people are going to have their own feelings around your diagnosis. They might be angry, sad, upset or feel nothing at all. Be prepared for their reactions.
  • Understand that not everyone is going to support you. Sorry, but they just won’t.
  • Put a “safety plan” place so that if people don’t react as expected you have someone to turn to about it, like a friend or therapist.

CB047995Mental Illness Needs

As a mentally ill person I need all sorts of things. I need help. I need doctors. I need medication. I need love. I need support. And depending on the specifics of my mood, I may need other things as well.

But coming up with a specific list of needs from other people isn’t as easy as it sounds. Do you know what you need? Are you OK with having that need? Are you OK with asking for help?

In my case I despise admitting to having bipolar-related needs because I consider myself self-reliant and don’t like to depend on anyone.

But that’s kind of selfish of me.

Expressing what you need from a person can actually help them come to terms with your mental illness because it makes them feel like they can do something specific to help and support you. People who love you will want to do that.

Mental Illness Needs Checklist

Double-check your needs before communicating them to others. Try considering this:

  • Is what I’m asking reasonable?
  • Is asking this person reasonable?
  • Can more than one person share this job?
  • Does this ask have a time limit?
  • Is there background information the person needs in order to understand what I’m asking?

Expressing Mental Health Needs

It is OK to express your needs. It’s brave. It means you’ve recognized you have an illness and you’re working to keep your life going. This is a positive sign. But remember, just because it’s good that doesn’t mean everyone will like it.

Much like telling people you are mentally ill, when you start talking about needs; start with the most supportive person you know. Start with the person who has already asked how they can help you. Start with the easiest person to talk to.

When expressing your needs to others consider:

  • Can this person give me what I’m asking?
  • Is this the best time to ask the person?
  • Does this person have enough information to know why I’m asking?
  • Is there a website/book/other that would help this person understand what I’m going through?
  • Should I write down my need and reason ahead of time in case I get nervous in the moment?
  • Do I need support in asking for this need? Should someone be with me when I ask?
  • How will I handle it if this person says no?

Asking for Help for a Mental Illness is Hard

Telling someone what you need can be a tough thing. Some people find it much easier to print something off the computer that expresses what they’re trying to say. You might get really upset in the moment. The other person might get upset in the moment. That’s OK. If you have something on paper, the benefit is the other person can take it and read it on their own time, when they’re ready.

As much as adjusting to a mental illness is a process for you, it’s also a process for the people around you. Hopefully people will help, support, love you and meet your needs, but remember, that just might not happen immediately.

Check out Natasha Tracy’s book: Lost Marbles: Insights into My Life with Depression & Bipolar and connect with her on FacebookGoogle+ or Twitter or at Bipolar Burble, her blog.

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17 Responses to Talking to Others About Your Mental Illness

  1. Natasha Tracy says:

    Thanks Meredith. Glad I could help.

    - Natasha

  2. Matthew says:

    I don’t like to use “Mentally Ill” due to the stigma. There is nearly zero public education regarding mental illness. Saying “I have an mental illness”" to most people is like saying “i’m CRAZY so you better watch out for me”.

    I hate to play it down but I will when only absolutely necessary tell someone I am “Bipolar” and ask them to forgive/tolerate my “mood swings” and overlook my apparent lack of typical social behavior.

    I’ve accepted my Illness but the general public has not.

  3. Ellery says:

    I agree that telling others about a mental illness diagnosis is hard to do and takes a ton of courage. I am impressed by people who do it. Still, it’s a step I’ve never been able to take. I have lived with a Bipolar II diagnosis for over six years now and in all that time have shared my situation with a grand total (other than my doctors) of four people. Only two of those are family members, the other two . . . well, they were accidental. I agree with Matthew–unfortunately mental illness diagnosis continues to come with a stigma that causes society to be wary at best. All too often, it’s simply a situation of avoidance, like crossing the street when you see a homeless person up ahead.

  4. Natasha Tracy says:

    Hi Matthew,

    I don’t like the term “mentally ill” either. I mentioned in a early piece that I think it sounds like my brain is leaking out my ears. It isn’t, in case you were wondering.

    There is no doubt that there is a lot of stigma and many people are ignorant and small-minded. I respect your decision not to tell a lot of people. I do it more frequently, but that’s just because I have a truth-telling problem. (I overshare. Not surprisingly.)

    - Natasha

  5. Natasha Tracy says:

    Hi Ellery,

    Again, I respect your choice in choosing carefully who you tell. That’s self-preservation at work and completely understandable.

    I would challenge everyone with this – do you think the unfair stigma placed on the mentally ill by others becomes internalized? By being so protective, do you let their fear become yours?

    Just a thought. Remember, there are lots of people who will accept you. We’re out here.

    - Natasha

  6. Lizzie says:

    It is in no way necessary to tell all the people in your life. Alot of my friends don’t know about my diagnosis of bipolar disorder because it doesn’t matter if they do. A handful of my most trusted family and friends are aware. I resent the insinuation that upon diagnosis, one must ‘come out’ as ‘mentally ill’ (by the way…I have a mental illness but I am not mentally ill. I am not ‘ill’ all the time).

    Bipolar disorder is a medical condition, not a personality trait or a badge of honour. There are people in my life that I think are fantastic but I don’t want them to know me as Lizzie who has bipolar. Even people who are loving and close to you may relate to you differently merely because they are ignorant of this…it’s common.

    Diclose if you think it helps you but remember not to confuse yourself or others into thinking bipolar disorder is part of your identity. It affects you greatly when you are ill but it is essential a medical condition that you are unlucky enough to have. As my shrink pointed out to me, diagnosis is only relevant in a medical context – it’s how doctors define and treat symptoms. In the real world diagnosis is just meaningless, confusing and possibly stigmatising.

  7. Natasha Tracy says:

    Hi Lizzie,

    As I said, I respect people’s choice to select to whom they disclose. I do. Everyone does. No one wears a “I am bipolar” sign around their neck.

    You are correct, bipolar is a medical condition. For many of us that medical condition greatly affects our everyday lives. There are gradations of everything and there are many severities of illness. Many people simply too impacted to not say something about it.

    This article was about asking for your needs about your illness. This is something that all people who are ill face. When you are too ill to do something, you need help. That’s all this is about.

    (I wrote another article about internalizing other’s fear and hatred: http://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/breakingbipolar/2011/01/internalizing-fear-and-hatred-of-mental-illness/#div-comment-2583)

    You could tell no one and ask for nothing if you wanted to, but I wouldn’t call that a very useful support network.

    - Natasha

  8. Adam says:

    What a great article. I wish I had seen this when I was first telling people about my depression.

  9. Natasha Tracy says:

    Hi Adam,

    Thanks. Better late than never?

    - Natasha

  10. jo allebach says:

    “Natasha Tracy says:
    January 24, 2011 at 1:20 pm

    Hi Matthew,

    I don’t like the term “mentally ill” either. I mentioned in a early piece that I think it sounds like my brain is leaking out my ears. It isn’t, in case you were wondering.”
    I’d rather mental illness than as the say around health “behavioral health” problems.

  11. Hi Jo,

    Yes, “behavioural health” is all the rage. I’d say that’s even more insulting.

    Luckily for me, I don’t care. Calling it “Sally” still doesn’t change what it is.

    - Natasha

  12. Norm Miner says:

    Aren’t these all questions of learning to love ones self? I need to form alliances in the persuit of this love. Isn’t that what love is all about? I am beginning to recognize that I prefer life that way. The bonus is that I like, even love myself. What a beautiful validation it is to get the like and even love I have chosen to get from those I have selected. Thanks for your comments Natasha!

  13. sherry says:

    My mother refused to read a book I wanted to lend her about bipolars. she won’t even google it. She now has dementia!

  14. Charissa says:

    Lol. For some reason people tend to poor their heart’s out to me even people I hardly know and I’m not even a hairdresser.
    The only time I will tell anybody that I’ve been diagnosed with bipolar is when someone who I’ve been listening to for a long time about how messed up they are hoping it will make them feel more at ease with themselves… Silly me but hay ‘join the club, ya nutter’ lol I say be proud of who we are not what we are! And I selfishly take comfort in that although I have the bipolar diagnosis I’m the strong one in our network and the go to person for every one else’s problems. Oh what a strange situation I’m in….no time to become unwell here just keep on top of it always.

  15. Avolitionist says:

    Natasha,
    just found this writing you shared – very valuable info.
    I have only recently told my daughters and 2 close friends about having Asergers.
    Prior to my discovery of Aserger’s about a year ago, I shared the fact that I have depressions with ONE trusted friend. Up to that point, at 52 years old, I had NEVER vocalized it to another human … in fact … it has only been in the last few years that I accepted the word for my feelings … and fully realized … well, actually how darn resilient, and strong I have been to even have kept it from both daughters now grown.
    Interesting, the self-reliant impetus to hide it – wanting to hide it was the obvious clue that the behaviour was unacceptable. Also, I could’nt stand the thought of being pitied, patted, or pampered. I also just as strongly could not handle being told to suck-it-up or snap-out-of-it, or any other cliche thing people say – I do not have the mental energy to be gracious and appreciative even knowing they certainly mean well.
    Best for me to avoid such hazardous conversations by avoiding the admittance of depression.

    I did have a brief conversation with one very dear friend explaining my depressions – how I hide them. Thankfully, this person fully understood, without judgement, and with remaining friendship, and understanding.
    One of my daughters (the younger) has witnessed some of my immobility – but at 20, she is too young & too busy to notice or grasp the intesity which I will not allow her to see. We discuss it on a rather superficial level. But I’m ok with that for now.
    I never wanted my teens to immerse themselves in common adolescent moods. I wanted them to experience their normal feelings in normal ways and not feel any … well, self-indulgence. IF they indeed inherited any manic-depressive traits, I wanted them to be adults and prepared to make their own decisions regarding how to deal with it. I was prepared only to identify and understand, but thankfully, neither one has shown my symptoms.
    It would be an interesting scientific question: How much does a parents behaviour become a child’s behaviour AND then become falsely ID’d as ‘hereditary’ vs what are genuine hereditary traits??

    Well, anyway, to this day, my extremely productive periods remain under the protective realm of this statement said to me or about me for many years “… One of the hardest working people I know.”

    They have no idea.
    For even in depression, I am struggling to get out, or working very, very hard to function and do anything.
    Even jotting a note for a job requires tremendous effort, or making one extremley important phone call – feels like the phone reciever weighs 50lbs.

    When I am in a depression, I feel as if I am.encased in a thick soft glue. Every muscle I move requires tremendous effort … breathing is not a natural physical action – I must think to do it. Taking deep, purposeful breaths.
    The will to survive IS hereditary. It has been passed down from the first human being.
    I will continue to work thru it with every ounce of survival instinct I have.
    And knowledge … understanding these things is a tool that helps.
    Consuming much more totally fresh & natural foods & beverages is very helpful.
    My next endeavour is to study herbal & natural ancedotes more intensely.

    If I do decide to have a deeper ‘pow-wow’ with my daughters, I want them to see that I am learning AND doing all that is within my ability to help myself.

  16. Avolitionist says:

    Oh, Im sorry, but I must add …
    the term ‘mentally ill’ does indeed ‘suck’ … it sucks the life right out of any dignity and humanity you have …

    HOWEVER … we are discussing things of the mind, and our mental state.

    Maybe we could call it … mental diversity?
    … nah its that word ‘mental’ which carries the off-putting weight… ‘ill’ people understand.

    Perhaps I will always refer to it as my current state of mind, which I do in my writings.

    Btw – writing has been an excellent therapy as I feel a depression comng on. I dare say, the release has thwarted a few … I am not off topic here …
    what I am saying is, someday maybe even when I’m gone, my daughters will go into my documents and be able to understand in a completely revealing way how I’ve thought, coped, even suffered, but most of all really loved them.

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