January 9, 2012

Shea blogs on talking about mental healthI can still remember the silverware sitting on my plate as I fidgeted with my napkin, before turning to my three dear friends sat at the table with me. 

“I went to the doctor this week.  I have something to tell you...”  my voice croaked. 

And with that, I began the long process of informing and educating my friends about my bipolar. It's been eight years since that first dinner, but I still feel a twinge of trepidation when meeting new people and explaining myself to them, and I know my friends can still feel a bit unsure as to when they should approach me concerning my illness. That's the thing with 'invisible' illnesses, people never know when they can and cannot ask questions, for fear of harming you on a bad day, or alienating you on a good one. And unlike a broken leg, some peoples' struggle with mental illness isn't a temporary issue; rather, it is a chronic condition with many ups and downs, that all have to be carefully navigated on a daily, and sometimes hourly, basis.  It can make even the most open person afraid to ask or answer questions about their feelings. 

My goal is not to scare you with these thoughts, but to simply make you aware of some of the pitfalls that can occur when people aren't open about mental illness. The more times that all of us, those not currently dealing with mental issues and those who are, talk about it in an open and accepting manner, the easier it is for everyone. Here then are my top tips for people who would like to start a conversation with a person in their life who is dealing with mental illness, but who needs a helping hand to start: 

  1. Whether your friend is 20 minutes or 20 years into their diagnosis, the best way to start any conversation is the very simple “How are you feeling?”.  Some people may tell you how they are doing, and some people may not, but all will appreciate that you cared enough to ask.
  2. Don't worry about treating me differently.   I am the same friend/sister/wife/cousin/partner/niece/aunt/coworker that you hang out with every day. I haven't lost my sense of humour, or silliness, or even my sense of calm.  I just happen to have this extra little thing about me, my mental illness. Just as you wouldn't feel weird asking a friend who has a lupus, or asthma, or diabetes how they are handling themselves on any given day, you don't need to feel weird talking to me.
  3. You do not have to save me.  I (hopefully) have a doctor and a plan of action concerning my illness. I just need you to be the same great friend you always have – to shop with me, watch movies with me, do whatever it is we do together.
  4. If I call you and want to chat, don't assume I want to talk about my mental illness.  I might just want to gossip about the latest celebrity, or moan about my job. Then again, I may want to talk about a problem I may be having with my illness, and that's okay too. 
  5. The best time to talk about a crisis is when I'm not in one.  That is to say, please feel free to talk to me when I am feeling good about contingency plans should I start to feel not 100%. I love that my friends and family look out for any warning signs, and know what to do if I am in a bad place, but when I am having issues, that's not always the best time to broach the subject. 

And a bonus tip for my fellow compatriots who are currently dealing with mental illness: Although it may be weird for you to talk about what you are going through, if you have people in your life who care enough to ask you about it, please do make the best of those wonderful folks. They ask not because they are nosy, or want to judge you – most people honestly want to be as helpful as possible, and the only way they can start the conversation is by asking you how you are. Please take that opportunity to open yourself up about any struggle you may be having, or any triumph you may have recently experienced. Every one of us needs all the help we can get in this world – take it!

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Too many people are made to feel ashamed. By sharing your story, you can help spread knowledge and perspective about mental illness that could change the way people think about it.