What I Need When I Share My Mental Health Diagnosis With You
Over the past decade, I’ve been diagnosed with multiple illnesses including a personality disorder, a mood disorder and an eating disorder. But telling someone about my mental health is still a challenge.
I am careful about whom I share details with, only doing so when it’s relevant in the space between us. For instance, if I need them to support me through tough times, understand some seemingly irrational responses I have or if it affects the relationship we share, I believe they have a right to know. So far, this has been limited to romantic partners, potential partners and close friends.
While everyone I have shared my diagnoses with has been empathetic, not many have known what to do with the information. My response to this has varied from wishing they would ask me about it periodically, to growing despondent that my closest people don’t care enough about me, to sometimes even withdrawing from these relationships.
In hindsight, I understand what they were up against. There isn’t enough conversation about what to do when someone you love tells you about their mental health conditions. So in this piece, I’ve shared a few thoughts about how you can approach the situation:
1. Ask the questions that you have.
When I share my diagnosis with someone, it comes from a place of trust and security. I don’t expect them to know what the illness is like and would be comfortable with them asking me their doubts and questions. Being asked for more details about what I deal with also tells me that the person is curious, empathetic and wants to do better by me. And to begin with, that is everything.
2. Go back and read up.
After sharing my diagnosis and giving my friend or partner a brief idea of what it means, I send them a few links to read to understand my conditions better. This includes some basic medical information, along with more detailed and personal accounts about the illness from websites like The Mighty. The process of bringing someone up to speed about my conditions is intensive mental and emotional labour.
While some of it is inevitable, there are ways the person at the other end can make it better.
Read what we share and do some of your own reading around the illness. This shows us that you want to do a bit of the heavy lifting for us.
3. Ask questions again.
While there’s a lot you can learn from reading about an illness, every illness manifests differently in a different human. To understand our situation, avoid making assumptions and ask us about any doubts you have. We appreciate that. To me, it means that the person cares enough to think about my condition even when I don’t actively ask them to.
4. Ask us how you can show up for us.
Whether it’s checking up on us regularly, giving us space or reminding us certain things, there may be ways you can ease our pain. We don’t expect you to know exactly what you can do to help, so feel free to ask. Perhaps there is nothing you can do at the moment, but give us a chance to tell you that. When someone I love asks me how they can help, it eases the loneliness of the pain by tenfold.
5. Ask about our mental health periodically.
When my mental health plummets, I tend to think that I am too much and need too much, which makes me struggle to ask for help. So when a friend or partner proactively checks on me at such points, I’m reminded that I am allowed to not be OK.
Many of us are chronically ill and for us, it’s an ongoing battle. This means that while we may have months of wellness, we will suffer again. This means that we need to be checked on, specifically regarding our mental health, every once in a while. This stops us from closing in and shutting down, making it easier for us to share with you.
6. Educate people about what we deal with.
We’ve turned to you because we consider you our allies. So talk about our illness to people when you get the chance. We need more people talking about it so that someday, someone who deals with what we do will lives in a world with more acceptance and less stigma. So that someday, someone will have to exert less emotional and mental labor to explain their pain to those who don’t feel it. We need your kindness and your support to create a world where those who don’t struggle will treat us with empathy and respect.
7. Choose communication over fear.
Our illnesses are not an excuse, but they are a reason for some of our actions (or lack thereof). We know it can be confusing to understand this but don’t be afraid to hold us accountable. Share how you feel and where you draw a blank. Lay down your boundaries with kindness. You are not required to heal us. We understand that you cannot fix us. But just like you, we need to be told how you feel to understand.
Do not worry if we can handle it. Most of us deal with a ridiculous amount of mental and emotional distress on a regular basis. We are far stronger than you imagine. Tell us where you are at so we can create a space where both of us can do more than survive. We hope to build a world where together, each of us can thrive.
Photo by Khamkéo Vilaysing on Unsplash