Telling People You Have Mental Illness
It is exhausting to keep up with the symptoms of anxiety and depression. But I feel at such a loss when I express these feelings and people refuse to try understand. It is even more exhausting to have someone tell me to ‘calm down’, ‘get over it’, ‘others have it worse’ or my personal favourite, ‘everyone has it, you’re not special’.
I was told by my family doctor I have Severe Generalized Anxiety Disorder and Mild Clinical Depression. This was later confirmed by a psychiatrist. I know I needed to calm down, but I didn’t have the tools. I knew that I needed to find a way to get through it; I wouldn’t really get over it. I knew that the people who said they had it worse, were only trying to make me feel like complete shit about myself (they succeeded for a while) AND those who said ‘everyone has it, get over it’ just dismissed my feelings and I learnt to never share much with them. Why share with people who only make you feel worse?
The thing is people fear what they don’t understand. Think about it. So many people use mental illness terminology to express how they feel but they're actually incorrect. If I am sad, I am sad. I’m not really depressed, am I? Your boss may be moody, but that doesn’t mean she is bipolar. So, when people like these come across someone who has these problems, they are quick to judge, quick to diagnose and quick to “treat it” or give their opinion on what will work best. An armchair psychiatrist or psychologist. Most people have the need to fix. Even when they aren’t asked to.
People get scared of mental illness because of the generalized and stereotypical scenarios we see on TV or in the movies. Think One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, that amazing movie with Jack Nicholson (I think, I have brain fog right now). “Crazy people” sitting in group therapy agitating the next person and someone inevitably must be temporarily detained or medicated to make sure they aren’t a danger to themselves or anyone else. It’s not always like that… I’m sure if you are reading this, you know this already!
Truth be told, sharing that you have a mental illness is scary. It should be empowering; it should take away stigma; it should educate. I am getting chest pain thinking of the number of people who judged me because of my anxiety and depression as I type this. I have been threatened with having to apply for disability and not work at a previous workplace. By the way, you get highly functional people with mental illness who work. The problem is working in a place that doesn’t nurture their employee’s mental well-being.
So, what should you do? In some situations, you must be honest, in others (if the people really don’t matter) you don’t.
When it comes to your workplace, you need to be. It’s not to get you in a place that makes you vulnerable or in trouble, the opposite. You should ask for a private meeting with you direct manager, boss, whoever it is you report to. You let them know what it is that you are going through. Now here’s the part you do need to be careful. You need to let them know that you are currently in or seeking treatment but will continue to work to the best of your ability. When this is stated, you have basically protected yourself. You have been honest and forthcoming. They know and should be as compassionate as possible, provided you continue to do your work and meet all the deadlines.
Next, a relationship. This could be romantic or a friendship. Why? These are the people who deal with the person that your colleagues don’t have to. That’s a whole different person. That conversation is a bit different. You sit them down in a casual setting and let them know what’s happening. This is not the same as a new relationship though. That you have to suss out and know if the person is worth telling. If they aren’t, why are you still entertaining them? Like the movie Frozen, let it go! If you are dating someone or have a friendship you love dearly that person should love and accept. They don’t need to give you answers but hopefully support. That part is important! If you re currently seeking help from a mental health care practitioner, then all you need from this or these people is support.
Family, these people NEED to know. They have been with you from the beginning. This is if you are close to, wanting to get close to your family or even trying to foster a strong support with family. If you come from a big family like mine, not everyone needs to know, the ones that are the top of your family list.
So, basically parents and siblings. Here’s the thing, some family WILL NOT UNDERSTAND. If they do, that’s a win. If they don’t, you need to try to educate them a little. Look up some information that makes it seem less scary and ask for their support. Make sure to look up information that helps family support family with mental illness.
Everyone outside of these circles, doesn’t need to know unless you want them to. In which case, prepare yourself for any reaction. Your colleagues don’t need to know, just your bosses. Your friend’s friends don’t need to know unless you want them to. Distant family who serve no real purpose (sorry to that aunt that isn’t really an aunt, but everyone says she is) don’t need to know.
But what happens when you tell the relevant people and they still show no support. Hopefully you can find and afford the support of a therapist, counsellor or someone qualified to help you. If not, this is the time to try find the support in yourself that others can not give you. Reach out to free support groups, online or physical. Make sure that YOU are your first priority. It is the time to be selfish with your mental health. If you can’t be, who else should be? If you are not your best self, then everyone gets the worst of you.
Go ahead and share how you have been able to share your mental illness with others and the responses you got.