How to Explain Your Mental Illness and Share Your Mental Health Story
I posed a couple questions recently to my Twitter followers:
If I were to write a how-to guide for mental health, what would you most want to read? What is the number one problem you need help with?
I got a variety of responses, and the response volume blew me away. It speaks to the need for mental health topics to be made more accessible.
That's what I try to do with my mental health writing on Nerve 10.
One response came up a few times and had, by far, the great number of engagements from others. It was this:
How can I explain to my family and friends what I'm going through? They just don't understand, and I'm struggling to explain what I'm experiencing.
I'm going to do my best to answer this question here.
First, this dilemma has no easy answer.
Mental health issues are common, but that doesn't mean that they are well understood.
I think it stems from the fact that, with mental illness, it is often behaviors that are symptoms.
And in my experience, people have a hard time dealing with shocking, odd, or erratic behaviors.
When it's cancer, or bone disease, or something else that manifests as bodily symptoms, it's easy for an outside observer to place the issue in a neat, tiny box.
Even if the physical illness, at its core, is unbelievably complex, people tend to have a mental image for physical issues.
They construct this mental imagery from socially acceptable ideas and words--and the image remains in their mind largely untouched because there is hardly ever a need to edit the imagery.
And here's a big part of it: physical issues don't tend to threaten people.
I know that sounds harsh and unfair to people who live with mental health issues, so let me explain.
Sure, physical issues may produce an emotional response in the loved ones, friends, coworkers, and other involved parties who come in contact with them, but physical issues stay in their place--and hardly ever encroach upon others' lives. With mental health issues, it's an entirely different story.
As a family member told me once in a mental health class I was teaching,
Mental illness isn't convenient.
This was shared within the context of a conversation we were having about behavioral symptoms, the constellation of behaviors that can be possible symptoms of mental illness.
When we see a loved one with cancer, or the flu--or even dementia--we find it easy to rationalize what's going on.
Even with dementia, which affects a person's mind and behaviors, we have no trouble saying, "It's OK. They can't control it."
But why can't we do that for mental illness?
Here's my guess.
When someone deals with a mental illness in the prime of their life, it's really hard for a loved one to depersonalize behaviors from the person experiencing them.
It's tempting to think that, once we've gotten to know someone else, we know who that person is from that point forward--in other words, for good.
It's easy for the mind to handle a fixed image of someone rather than a constantly evolving one.
So when we experience strange, intrusive, or disturbing behaviors from that person, it's hard to separate the behaviors from the person.
Our minds can't comprehend why a loved one might be acting in new and shocking ways, so we assume that the person is acting out to give us trouble and cause us pain.
But let me tell you something.
I have worked with a lot of people who have lived through mental health challenges, and I assure you that almost none of these people wake up in the morning and think, "How can I ruin someone's day today?"
It just doesn't happen. The reality is murkier.
Mental health issues make it difficult to manage mood and behavior--and that sometimes collides with other people's mood and behavior.
It's complex and it's messy and it's a collision point that can easily become a catalyst for misunderstandings and hurt feelings.
It's one thing to think through these ideas and scenarios when away from the symptoms of a mental illness, but what is a person to do if they are the one struggling with mental issues?
Specifically, what should my Twitter followers do when they express a very real concern that their loved ones just don't get it--and treat them badly as a result of the misunderstandings?
It starts and ends with sharing your mental health / mental illness truth
You know what's normal for you, and you know when your mood, thoughts, and behaviors are starting to change.
It is up to the people who live with mental health issues to share their stories.
That's what I do here and on social media. I talk about my experience living with anxiety and OCD.
I'll admit, this approach can put a lot of pressure on the person who may be in the middle of a mental health crisis.
In fact, the middle of a crisis may not be a time to explain your mental health to others.
The middle of a crisis is a time to focus on yourself.
But once you've gotten through the crisis, and you've found some steady ground, here are some options to try.
Much of this list comes from my own experience.
1. Be honest. Don't wear a mask.
Now, this doesn't mean that you have to open yourself up like a book and share absolutely anything that comes to mind.
What you decide to share is up to you. But taking off the mask is an act of liberation. I've found that pretending to be OK when I'm really not only exacerbates any issues I might have with others.
Wearing a mask is draining, and trying to maintain that facade leads to increased tension and potential for misunderstanding.
2. Start with the safe ones first
Let me explain. You probably don't want to bear your soul to someone who is persistently critical of you and your mental health issues. Instead, start with someone who will be more likely to give you the benefit of the doubt.
This will allow you to score some quick wins and build up your confidence. It also provides the added benefit of bringing in partners to support you as you go and educate others.
3. Talk about yourself
I don't mean this in a narcissistic sense. I mean that you should only share what you have experienced, detailing your behaviors, your thoughts, and your feelings.
Now is not the time to convince others why they are wrong and why they should immediately shape up and become better, more compassionate people. That all might be true, but humans have a funny habit of not taking in and integrating new information when they feel that they are under attack.
So don't attack your fellow humans. Talk in the first person. Say things like, "Sometimes my mind starts to race, and it scares me. Then, I do things that I don't fully understand."
4. Know when to stop talking
If you are on shaky footing with your mental health, you probably don't want to put yourself in interminable verbal battles with people who are most likely to get where you are coming from any time soon.
If this is the case, if you feel like you are talking to a brick wall who also happens to exchange verbal jabs with you, it's probably best to walk away and let things cool off.
Remember, your mental health has to come first. Don't force something that isn't there. Don't put yourself in situations that will most likely serve to agitate you and trigger negative behaviors and poor coping skills.
5. Remember this one thing.
This is advice that is going to sound trite, and you may roll your eyes. Ready?
You can only control what you do; you can't control anything anyone else does or says. It's eye-rolling wisdom for a reason.
It's always the basic stuff that we think we don't need to be told because we should have learned these simple lessons by now.
I have news for you. It's always worth reviewing the simple lessons.
The simple lessons are your time-tested tools of the trade. Carry them with you everywhere.
You may devised the perfect mental health lesson plan for all of your loved ones. You may have donned your snazziest outfit and plastered an angelic expression on your face. And you may have done everything in your power to approach your intended targets with grace and compassion. But guess what?
The universe doesn't care.
In the end, you are the universe that matters. Put all of your energy into what you can control. Give your attention to things that you can immediately impact and that energize you.
That's what matters. If others don't get where you are coming from right now, there are plenty of people who do. Keep going. Keep talking. It does get easier over time.
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And thank you for reading!