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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.

You can find Natasha Tracy on Facebook or @Natasha_Tracy on Twitter.

Author: Natasha Tracy

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17 thoughts on “Talking to Others About Your Mental Illness”

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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

  4. 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

  5. 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.

  6. 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

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