Life with any invisible illness can often feel incredibly isolating and lonely, and mental illnesses are no exception. Their nature means that it’s impossible for anyone else to experience them exactly the way you do. This can be made worse when your loved ones and the people around you frequently misunderstand your mental illnesses, either on purpose or by accident. Not only can this strain your relationships but it can increase your unhappiness to feel misunderstood, ignored, or belittled. Since May is Mental Health Awareness Month, here are some tips that you can use to help cope with these feelings and try to communicate better about your mental health.
Remember Your Feelings are Valid
If your struggles are constantly being belittled or shoved aside, it can be incredibly hurtful, and you might end up feeling that you don’t deserve to be listened to or taken seriously, which only makes the situation worse. Remember that your experiences and the emotions around them are valid, and even if someone misunderstands you or chooses not to believe you or listen, it doesn’t mean you’re wrong or bad for feeling the way you do!
Seek Out Communities of People That Get It
One of the most helpful and validating things you can do as a person who struggles with their mental health is to talk to other people who are in a similar situation or have the same disorder. While someone in your life who’s never had a panic attack might brush your concerns aside, for instance, someone else with a panic disorder will know exactly what you’re going through, and just talking with someone who gets it can make you feel much better. The internet is full of communities, forums, and other virtual gathering places for people who struggle with certain aspects of their mental health, and getting involved in one has the potential to be very helpful.
Hotlines and, if you have access to them, therapists and other mental health professionals, can make a big difference in how you approach and cope with your mental health. Don’t hesitate to reach out to them– remember, they do this for a living! Many national and local hotlines are available 24/7, and there are lots of resources that make therapy more accessible, like mental health services through your school if you’re a student.
Try to Talk When You’re Feeling Well
This is important for trying to have a productive conversation with someone about your mental health, whether you’re trying to talk to your mom, your friend, or your boss. You’re going to have the clearest head and be able to express yourself best when you’re feeling alright, so the middle of a bad depressive episode, for example, or a time when you’re feeling overstimulated or having a meltdown, is not the best moment for this discussion. Try to choose a time to talk when you’re feeling your best, whatever that looks like for you!
Ask for Understanding
Setting the tone of the conversation by asking the person to keep an open mind isn’t a total guarantee that they will treat you with respect and understanding, but it can certainly help. Beginning with something like, “I’ve been struggling with my mental health a lot lately and I wanted to talk to you about it. I know this is uncomfortable but it’s really important to me, so can you please try to be patient and understanding?” can help someone who means well to adjust their mindset, and if the person isn’t you seriously on purpose, it at least helps set some rules of engagement for the conversation.
Setting boundaries is an important part of any relationship, and you can do it when you have these conversations about your mental health. Setting a boundary is about dictating the way you’re willing to be treated, and finding something that’s in your control that you can do to help yourself if you are treated that way. Saying “please don’t laugh at me when I talk about my ADHD,” for instance, isn’t a boundary, because there’s nothing actionable in that request. Setting a boundary would sound more like this: “Please don’t laugh at me when I talk about my ADHD. If you keep making fun of me, I’m going to walk away from the table.” Removing yourself from the situation where you’re being hurt is generally a good action to take in boundary-setting!
Ask for Specific Supports
Especially if you know that the person you’re talking to doesn’t have a very good understanding of what your experience of your mental illness is like, it can be helpful to have specific things to ask them for that would help you. For instance, you could talk to your boss about allowing you to keep fidget items at your desk to help with ADHD or autism, or you could ask your friend to help leave a social setting and get you some water if you have a panic attack. Having a specific and concrete way that the person can help support you will make it easier for them to help, even if they don’t fully understand yet.
Discussing mental health problems with the people in your life might be something you dread, but even though it’s uncomfortable and every conversation might not go totally smoothly, it’s still worth trying to communicate with your loved ones and seeking out other forms of support!