November 29, 2012

Baby sat by pond | Sepia photo | Time to ChangeBrosandi is a guest blogger from the Siblings Network, Rethink Mental Illness’ information and support network for the brothers and sisters of people affected by mental illness.

If you have a brother or sister with experience of mental illness, you can sign up for Siblings Network free events and workshops or visit the Siblings Network website for more information on how you can get involved.

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Now, I think anyone would agree that broaching the subject of mental health is a daunting task. It can feel like you might kill a conversation or make someone uncomfortable.

I myself have had 'the conversation' several times, and although it does get easier, I still get extremely apprehensive about telling people that my sister and mother have experience of mental illness.

For example, I recently started a new relationship; I've known him for 2 years, we've been together for a little over a month, and still I have not sat him down and explained 'my family situation'. He knows that I have family concerns in in general, as I have made many references to difficulties I’ve had with my parents and a long history of family related ‘stuff’, but we have never spoken about mental health.

I know the conversation will happen soon, but I have two main concerns

I know the conversation will happen soon, but I have two main concerns. Firstly, my sister is coming up for my birthday, and I want him to meet her without any preconceptions. Even the best of us have them, and I have taken the personal choice not to tell him before they meet for this reason. Secondly, a more irrational worry – that he'll think about me differently. He is entirely not the kind of guy to do this, and I know my fear is uncalled for, but it is a concern nonetheless. I think a lot of people must go through this. However, I will tell him soon, in spite of my irrationality, and I would urge you to be similarly brave.

Indeed, one of the first times I sat down with people to talk about my sister's illness - and my mother's, for that matter - was at school. My system of dealing with things involves excessive formality; I find it far easier to get my head around life by first detaching myself from the issues emotionally and making formalised plans. This has the benefit of functionality, but I have to be careful that I don't get too distant – one thing to remember when you have a loved one with a mental illness is to make sure you are looking after your own as well as other people's needs!

I organised a meeting with the school counsellor, my sister, and a handful of our closest friends

Anyway, at school, I organised a meeting with the school counsellor, my sister, and a handful of our closest friends. Obviously, this was with the full permission of my sister. It was just to create an arena of trust and disclosure, where we could inform them of what was going on. Also, to reassure them that though they were useful as social support, that outside organisations were keeping matters in hand and my sister was relatively 'OK'.

I think they found this very helpful. All they really wanted was to know that both of us were alright and if they could help us with anything. The issue of how I was coping also came up and again served as a reminder that one needs to put oneself first – otherwise, what use are you to other people? I won't say that this meeting was perfect, it was slightly uncomfortable, particularly at the beginning. But I in no way regret it. Everyone left happier and more informed than when they arrived and that's all I could have asked for really.

here are a few tips that have worked for me

So, if you find yourself in a situation where you wish/need to discuss your mental health, or the mental health of those around you, here are a few tips that have worked for me:

  • Become at ease with it yourself - if you aren't ready to tell anyone, you don't have to. There are certain exceptions, such as job applications where full disclosure is occasionally necessary, but it's your life and your personal information. You should feel in control of it. 
  • Get any necessary permission – as I am not the person affected by mental illness, it was important that I sought the consent of my family members before I spoke to anyone about them. I advise that you do the same, empathising with their right to control their information. 
  • Work out practicalities – know what you want to say, why you want to say it, and organise a time and place if possible. I know how easy it is to use the excuse 'it was never a good time', but trust me, you can create the right time with a little planning. 
  • Choose the listener carefully – I'm sure you're very capable of choosing appropriate friends for yourself, but if you are not happy for your entire workplace/social network to know what can be very sensitive information, then it is likely that telling a massive gossip is a bad idea. Equally though, do make sure you give people a chance; people will often be more understanding than you originally gave them credit for. 
  • Be clear about parameters – if you do tell someone and don't want it to go any further, tell them. People will not necessarily assume confidentiality, so if that's what you're aiming for, be explicit! 
  • Be prepared for questions – it is your right to refuse to answer, but it is their right to be curious. Many people are unfortunately ignorant to these issues, and you can consider it a public service if you manage to educate someone. You may have experienced difficult challenges which led you to find out more about mental illness, but I believe you can use this knowledge to talk about mental health in an informed way which can have genuinely positive consequences.

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