Dealing with a mental illness, for many of us, means going through a period of growth and acceptance within oneself. As we work on overcoming our own negative feelings about how we process things and react to the world, we start to feel more comfortable sharing our mental states with our loved ones (or even strangers). This is an extremely vulnerable and sensitive experience, one that can be trigger different emotions for both people involved. Here are some ways people may react to your openness, as well as options for how to respond.
Disbelief / Confusion
In our current social climate, many people still are not aware of or do not understand mental health/ illness. They remain uninformed to the reality of its presence for most people off and on in their lives. Many individuals have not been exposed to those who suffer from mental illness, and so they have no frame of reference to understand it. Others may have formed and sustained an incorrect understanding. Either way, you may hear phrases such as these:
- “I think you are having issues because you are dealing with a spiritual crisis. You need to create a relationship with God.”
- “It’s just in your head, it’s not real.”
- “You bring it on yourself. Stop being dramatic.”
How to respond
In this case, you may offer to give them more information if that is available. If they seem unable to budge, you can only let them know how you feel when they express those sentiments. And, if that is not comfortable, you are always welcome to leave the situation to get to a more accepting environment.
- “That’s actually not very helpful for me personally, but I appreciate the suggestion.”
- “Mental illness is in fact a difficulty in brain function. So while it is literally “in my head”, it also creates real struggle in my experience and behavior in the world.”
- “Mental illness is not a choice I make. It hurts my feelings when you make those assumptions.”
- “I don’t feel comfortable around you right now. I’m going to head out.”
You may also come across someone who knows about mental illness, but who is visibly uncomfortable with the prospect of discussing it. They may kind of shrug it off when you want to share, or make certain uncomfortable body movements (lack of eye contact, playing with something with their hands). They are likely to change the subject away from the discussion quickly, and may often respond with little invalidating statements to de-escalate the situation for themselves.
- “Oh that sucks….. I just got a new dress! Do you want to see it?”
- “Yeah, but everyone deals with that symptom.”
- “You’ll figure it out.”
How to respond
This can be frustrating and difficult to encounter, as you have worked hard to move past that feeling within yourself. That being said, it’s important to remember that you don’t know what is going on for that individual. They may not be in a place to continue the discussion emotionally, as they may be dealing with their own mental/physical struggles. While you can’t make them emotionally available for the conversation, you can let them know where you are at.
- “I feel unheard when you change the subject, is there a better time we can talk about it?”
- “Is this conversation triggering for you?”
- “That really invalidates my struggles with mental illness. Everyone may deal with a similar symptom but it is difficult for me either way. Does that make sense?”
Curiosity (Respectful and Disrespectful)
In some cases, an individual might be really interested in the conversation on mental illness. This is a good thing, and can really strengthen your bond and help bash the stigma. They may want to know more about your day to day, or specifically about symptoms and how you cope. They can also verge into uncomfortable territory, places you aren’t ready to divulge.
- “That sounds awful. Do you feel comfortable telling me more about that?”
- “If you don’t mind my asking, what do you normally do to deal with your symptoms?
- Potentially Disrespectful
- “Do you hear voices? What do they say to you?”
- “Are you like, suicidal?”
- “My friend is mentally ill and they_______. Does that happen to you too?”
- “Have you tried deep breathing?”
How to respond
Some questions you might feel comfortable answering. Others may make you feel uncomfortable. It’s perfectly okay to express when you are not ready to share that part of your experience. Just remember, it’s good to encourage curiosity about mental illness as it helps dismantle stigma.
- “I really appreciate your question. I experience things like this_____”
- “Thanks for checking in. I’m okay with any questions!”
- “I’m not really ready to talk about that. But I hope to feel more comfortable in the future.”
- “I’m sorry your friend is struggling. But, not everyone experiences mental illness in the same way.”
Last, but absolutely not least, you run into individuals who are in a place to offer you whatever support you need. They can listen and absorb what you are sharing with them, and feel comfortable to bridge that gap and become part of your team when things get rough. They create space for you to exist, struggles and all. This is the best case scenario, and as we continue to initiate conversation on mental health, more and more people are likely to find themselves in this position. And most importantly, it’s possible for any of the people in the last three categories to end up in this place.
- “That sounds really hard. Let me know if there is anything I can do to help you.”
- “Thank you for sharing that, that must have been difficult for you. I appreciate it.”
- “I don’t have a lot of experience with this, but I want to be there for you. Can you let me know when/ what you need from me?
- “I love you no matter what.”
How to respond
Remember to show appreciation for your friends who are there to support you. They need to be reminded that you want their support.
- “Thank you for listening. I’ll try to communicate when I need something.”
- “It’s okay. Just listening has been really helpful for me.”
- “I appreciate you being open to this, even when it’s hard to understand.”
References: Natalie Pelayo
This post was written by Lia Freitas. Please send any questions or concerns to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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