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6 Tips To Keep In Mind When Telling Your Mental Health Story

Editor's Note

If you’re struggling with self-judgment, check out The Mighty’s No Shame group. It’s a safe space to share how you’re feeling with other people who get it.

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, so this time of year, many people choose to share their mental health stories to educate others and break the stigma surrounding mental illness.  Mental health facts, statistics and personal stories often flood our social media feeds all May, but some mental health experiences are discussed more responsibly and mindfully than others.  If you’re looking to share your mental health story or start a constructive discussion about mental illness this month, here are six ways to talk about mental health in a responsible, edifying way.

1. Be mindful of the language you use to frame mental health.

When you discuss mental health, the language you use matters tremendously.  Use diagnoses only to talk about mental health conditions themselves (The May weather is not “so bipolar”), and be careful not to “armchair diagnose” anyone in your life in a stigmatizing way.  Keep in mind that many people with mental illness prefer person-first language (“person with anorexia” instead of “anorexic person”) unless they specify otherwise.  Also, be sure to limit your use of words like “crazy,” “insane” and “psycho” when you discuss mental health conditions– these words have a long history of oppression against those living with mental illnesses.  When you speak in a respectful way, your words will resonate with others.

2. Include trigger warnings on posts about mental health.

Oftentimes, discussions of mental illness can be triggering for some people who live with it, even if you speak as generally as possible.  If you choose to write your story on a blog, make a YouTube video about your experiences or share a Facebook post about mental health, include a trigger warning specifying that your content can affect others’ mental state.  Be as specific as possible about which mental health topics you’re going to discuss, and include the trigger warning at the beginning of your content so that people are aware before they choose to read or watch.  Trigger warnings will help people with mental illness gauge whether or not they’re in the best mental state to take in what you have to say.

3. Avoid discussions of specific substances and medications.

Mentioning substances or medications you’ve used (either recreationally or as prescribed) can be extremely triggering to people recovering from substance use disorders or committing to sobriety.  Frame past experiences with addiction in general terms, focusing more on the mental state that led you to recovery than on the specific substances that caused you to seek sobriety or the medications that help you maintain your mental health now.  Sharing that you take medications to manage your mental health conditions can begin valuable discussions, but your specific medication regimen is less important than how medication affects you and why you’re choosing to speak about it.

4. Refrain from sharing sizes, calorie counts and full-body before-and-after photos.

Mental health recovery can be a true “glow-up” both physically and mentally, but if you’ve struggled with an eating disorder in the past, try not to share photos from times when your eating disorder was a significant struggle, especially if they include your entire body.  In our size-focused world, eating disorders can convince those who have them that they’re “unworthy” of help unless they look a certain way or reach a certain size, so those details can perpetuate eating disorder symptoms.  Including specific eating disorder behaviors can also cause people in recovery to backslide into the harmful eating disorder behaviors they’re trying to eliminate from their lives.  If you want to talk about your eating disorder this month, focus on the emotions you felt in your eating disorder and the positive ways recovery has changed your life.  If you’d like to include a photo that represents your progress, share a picture of your face or your “recovering” body instead of a “before-and-after” set of photos.

5. Avoid mentioning specific methods and behaviors when you talk about suicide and self-harm.

Suicide and self-harm can be some of the most triggering mental health topics, so if you want to share your experiences with either, be sure to handle them with care.  Past and current suicide and self-harm methods can be triggering to those who actively struggle with suicidal thoughts or self-harm, so don’t share specific details of your past suicide attempt or describe how you used to self-harm.  Instead, discuss the emotions that led you into those behaviors and how you’ve worked to change your mindset and eliminate harmful actions.  Validate that life can be extremely difficult while still providing hope for the future for people who experience suicidal thoughts or self-harm urges.

6. Ask for permission before sharing others’ mental health stories.

Speaking out about mental health is wonderful if you primarily focus on your own health– but sharing others’ stories can be risky.  Mental health is highly personal, and some people prefer to keep their experiences fairly private, so don’t share someone else’s experiences with mental illness without their consent.  If you do want to discuss someone else’s health, reach out to them and collaborate on how to share their story in an edifying way.  Be sure to only include details they approve, don’t get too personal or specific and don’t ascribe motives to or judge the things they may have said or done when they were struggling.  It’s typically most effective for people to share their own mental health stories, but if a relative or friend asks for your help with relating their experiences, make sure that you put their needs and desires first– it’s their story, not yours.

Lead image courtesy of Getty Images

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