Mental illness is a daunting subject matter for anyone. Thinking of how to approach a conversation about bipolar disorder would scare the pants off of the most politically correct of animals.
And yet conversations about mental illness must be had if we are to propagate understanding among those with a mental illness and among those who don’t. And it’s brave of someone, anyone, to want to start the conversation about bipolar disorder or another mental illness, knowing how much stigma is out there.
But is there a “right” way to handle talking about mental illness?
I’ve talked about this seemingly ad nauseam, but I shall say up front: while I have no trouble saying “I’m bipolar” many people are offended by this and prefer to be referred to as “a person with bipolar disorder.”
If you don’t know what a person prefers, go with the latter, it’s safer.
If You Don’t Have a Mental Illness
If you don’t have a mental illness you might feel like you have no business starting a conversation on such a tough subject, but that just isn’t true! I, for one, applaud the fact that you want to talk about the tough stuff. It’s brave of you to tackle what so many run away from.
But there are a few things to keep in mind when you’re talking to a person with a mental illness:
- The person with the mental illness is the expert in his or her own disorder – don’t try to act like you know more than he does because no one knows more about what he experiences than him
- Let the person with the mental illness lead – let him set the boundaries of the conversation so you don’t accidentally hit a topic that’s really painful for him
- Don’t judge the person with the mental illness, their illness or how they handle it – he’s doing the best he can
- Tell the person with the mental illness that you love him and you’re not judging him – you might think this is implicit, but it isn’t. Say it. It’ll make you both feel better.
- Be prepared to learn – hopefully you’re opening up this conversation because you want to learn something. Try to be open-minded about it; there is lots to learn from everyone involved.
Ways of Starting a Conversation on Mental Illness
Here are some ways you might start talking about mental illness:
- “I’m a bit uncomfortable talking about this, but I’d like to ask you a few questions about your bipolar. . .” (It’s okay to admit you’re uncomfortable. Everyone appreciates honesty.)
- “I don’t want to make you uncomfortable but I was hoping we could talk a bit about how you experience depression. . .”
Talking about Bipolar Disorder
And even if you do everything right, the person still might not want to talk about his mental illness. This is okay. This is not your fault. Maybe he needs some time to adjust. Maybe you can say, “We can talk about it when you’re ready,” or, “I understand your reluctance to talk about this, but there are some important things I need to ask (or say).”
But don’t worry, the conversations will come if you just try to be respectful and caring. And maybe in the meantime, you can learn a bit about the disorder while you’re waiting. You’d be amazed at how many people have no idea what bipolar disorder really is. So do a bit of reading. It’ll help the conversation go more smoothly when you do have it.
And pat yourself on the back. You did what I wish so many people would do: you opened up a conversation that can help eliminate stigma and discrimination. Because I firmly believe that it’s only by openly talking about the realities of mental illness that we can, as a society, accept it as the disease that it is, and not as some kind of perceived character flaw.
(You might also be interested in this followup story: Starting Conversations About Bipolar (When You Have Bipolar)