Why Some People Struggle to Talk About Mental Illness
Have you ever shared your story with someone and been rejected?
You know those times when you open up a piece of your soul to admit your struggles with depression, anxiety or some other mental health condition, and the person on the other end of that message is obviously terrified of what is coming out of your mouth? All it takes is one or two times of that scenario before you quickly learn to not do that anymore.
What does it look like to be heard?
We all want to be heard, listened to, accepted for who we are. I treasure the moments when I share a part of my story and the other person is willing to look me in the eye, not interrupt, and acknowledge that they understood me. I don’t expect people to be able to relate. I don’t need a pep talk, quick change of subject or completely unrelated story attempting to somehow discredit or diminish what I shared.
Here’s a scenario from my life that has played out too many times to count.
I honestly share what it feels like to be clinically depressed, maybe even suicidal, and the first thing out of that person’s mouth is how they once experienced something that would more correctly be defined as sadness or grief. What it shows me is that I wasn’t understood at all. I usually then default to feeling shame and make a mental note to not do that again with this individual.
I used to be incredibly let down by these exchanges, but I’ve started to be able to re-frame them by putting myself in their shoes.
A counselor once explained this phenomenon to me via the analogy of swimming in a pool or lake. Everyday conversation is like the shallow end of the pool or beach area of a lake. It’s easy, relaxing and doesn’t take much effort. It allows you to function and communicate without revealing much of yourself. Talking about the deeper issues like mental health, as the analogy goes, is like swimming in the deep end of the pool or out in the middle of the lake. There’s much more work required, it can be very stressful, and requires more of your mental capacity as well. To break it all down, that terrified look you received when you shared your story is the unwillingness of that person to swim out in the deep end with you. People don’t like being pulled out to the deep end, especially if all they wanted to do was relax on the beach.
Have you ever found yourself being pulled out into the deep waters? Your first instinct (like many people) might be to share a story of your own, thinking this will show that person you can relate to them in some way. I want you to know that however well-meaning your intentions might be, there’s a good chance the other person will see that response as rejection.
If you feel like you just have to say something, please consider these two options:
“I have no idea what that feels like, but I want you to know that I love you and support you.”
“Is there anything I can do to help and support you?”
In my role as a husband and father, I’m a fixer. It’s my default mode. If one of my family comes to me with a problem, I want to jump in and fix things. It has been a learned skill to not immediately respond. Instead, I listen, affirm and then (and only then) I engage on how I can help if needed. After all of these years, I’m still not very good at it. But I’m trying, and you can too.
What do you do if you don’t have a friend who wants to know the real you? If you don’t have a friend who will swim in the deep end with you?
No matter how much we might pretend, none of us can live in isolation and remain healthy. We need each other. We’re social animals. We need to have people who love and support us, who genuinely care about us and are engaged in our life. You might feel like no one would possibly understand you or be your friend if they knew what you were dealing with. If that’s the case, please know you aren’t alone.
If you’ve been rejected in the past, it can be excruciatingly difficult to open back up again and make yourself vulnerable. Please hear me out, it’s worth the risk. A true friend is better than a thousand acquaintances. Find that person or group, and treasure them.
If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386 or reach the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741.
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Photo by Ian Espinosa on Unsplash