Mental illnesses are very complex. In fact, the Public Health Agency of Canada defines mental health as “the capacity to feel, think and act in ways that enhance our ability to enjoy life and deal with the challenges we face”. Knowing this, we can only imagine what the definition of mental illness encompasses. Mental illnesses result from a combination of genetics, biology, environment, and life experiences and are sometimes, but not always, triggered during one’s life.
As hard as it is to tell a loved one that you are sick, they can play a big part in your recovery journey. They can be a source of inspiration and support that helps you stay accountable as you work towards your goals. They can also help you feel hope at a time when you feel it the least.
The hardest part of explaining your diagnosis to your loved ones, such as family members or friends, surmounts because of the stigma and ignorance pertaining to mental illness. Some of our loved ones didn’t grow up in the same generation that we are in today; where mental illness is no longer a shameful thing to discuss. This is why it is important that you take the disclosure process seriously, in order to protect yourself.
Picking the right person to disclose your feelings, emotions and illness to, is vital. The person’s reaction can be either helpful or harmful to your progress. Remember, you are in control of whom you choose to tell and it’s best that the person you tell is someone that you trust so that he or she does not spread the news without first asking for your approval.
When I first learned of my illness, I mentally cycled between three stages as I decided how I was going to share my diagnosis with my loved ones. First I needed to know who I was going to tell, then I had to choose the right setting and prepare how I was going to explain the situation, and thirdly I tried to anticipate the person’s reaction to confirm whether they were indeed the right person to disclose my illness too. Being prepared for a positive and a negative answer helped ensure I wouldn’t be discouraged if they responded poorly. However, after considering what their reaction may be, I occasionally crossed people off my list.
- DECIDE WHO YOU WILL TELL
Mental illness is all around us and we should never feel as though we need to silence our struggles. In fact, the silence only helps maintain the ignorance about mental illness. However, don’t open up indiscriminately about your mental health, because it might be to your detriment. You're in charge, and should think about what the payoff is if you share information about your mental health. Disclosure doesn't have to be all or nothing. Not everyone in the world needs to know if you struggle. Weigh the risks and benefits involved with telling certain people.
There really isn’t a guide to picking who needs to know about your mental illness diagnosis, but sharing it with at least one person, is a great way to get support. Telling people is a very personal decision. I’ve always believed that asking for help is not easy, but that it is a brave thing to do. I often felt like a burden because I knew my care does take a lot of time and energy from others, but I’m now reassured that my loved ones can and always want to set aside that time for me. Your needs are important and you deserve a caring and helpful team that doesn’t just include specialists. Try and be sure that you tell someone whose wellbeing is in line because it’s hard to ask someone to sacrifice his or her own health for yours. The person should also be willing to learn more about your illnesses, and perhaps come with you to a few of your appointments. They may choose to seek out additional counseling to help them through the process of being a part of your care.
If you don’t feel a particular member is agreeing and understanding you correctly, it’s okay to find different supports, even if that means eliminating a doctor or family member. You want to feel comfortable talking about all of your thoughts, feelings, actions and behaviours.
- KNOW WHAT TO SAY
It’s imperative to communicate that mental illnesses are caused by many different factors that work together. I know that when my parents began to understand that my mental illnesses (Anorexia Nervosa, General Anxiety, (slight) Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and Severe Depression) weren’t a result of my upbringing, they were relieved. Knowing that they didn’t have to defend themselves, or feel ashamed or guilty because I developed such illnesses, allowed them to work with the doctors, instead of against them, to provide me with optimal care.
It’s important to practice telling people about your mental illness, ideally with your therapist if you have one. Otherwise try practicing in front of a mirror, recording yourself so that you can listen back on what you said, or in front of someone who already knows about your illness(es). This way you can anticipate some of the issues, questions, and comments that might arise. Practicing might also help you clarify your own thinking about mental illness as well as help confirm who to tell.
- ANTICIPATE WHAT THEIR REACTION WILL BE
Some people may not even believe mental illnesses exist. Even if they are receptive to your diagnosis, they may not support your decision to seek treatment for a mental illness. Others might express concerns about your condition, but you don’t need to take those remarks as an act of judgment or rejection.
When you tell someone that loves you that you have been diagnosed with a mental illness, you have to understand that he or she may feel a mixture of emotions. Perhaps the individual will respond in a compassionate and loving yet concerned manner, but the person may also experience anger, grief and guilt. Whomever you tell may be in disbelief or shock because they have been living with your illness for so long that they never recognized that your behaviour was out of character.
As someone who has suffered, and still suffers from mental illnesses, I realize that mental illness is not self-corrected. Psychiatrists agree with the preceding, but family members and friends don’t always. Some people will simply tell you that “your expectations in life are too high”, “medication isn’t necessary” or just to “get over it”. Be prepared to cope with bad reactions. As much as you can try to educate the person who is disproving your illness by showing them resources such as books, handouts and webpages, some people may not be willing to change their perception on what mental illness treatment entails. This person’s reaction does not mean that your illness is not severe enough to receive help. One negative remark isn’t a reflection of the type of response that you will get from others. Realizing before hand, that a loved one may not be supportive of what you are going through, can help determine whether you’d still like to tell that person or if you can find a more suitable being to help you through this tough time.
No matter what, it’ll never be easy to tell someone that you are suffering from a mental illness. Proper communication is the key. There is never a “right time” but trust me, telling someone is not as scary as you are building it up to be in your mind. Who knows, they might already have a suspicion or may have been through similar struggles to you?
Always remember that life is too short to waste time waiting for the approval of others. If someone judges you, it’s a reflection of their insecurities, not yours. Mental illness is not a light topic to bring up, but it doesn’t mean that you should disregard your situation. If verbal communication isn’t your thing, it’s totally acceptable to write a note, ask your doctor to talk to your loves ones for you, or lean on someone who already knows to help share the news with someone else. Let’s face is, there are many ways to communicate so as long as you share the news in a serious and direct manner, it should be well received.
I hope this helps you to ‘open up the dialogue’ and steer you clear of miscommunication barriers!
xo Molly, @mollyschoo