How to talk about your mental illness

by Carla Kundert & Patrick W Corrigan: For Complete Post, Click Here…

Mental health conditions come with a double burden: on top of the sadness, the anxiety or other symptoms, there is the harm wrought by stigma. Although these conditions are very common – more than 970 million people worldwide are estimated to have one – the sense that there is something shameful about experiencing mental illness can make it daunting to open up about it. Sharing details about your mental health with family members, friends or people at work or in the community can bring a measure of relief and help you receive valuable support. But it can also expose you to the risk of discouraging, unsupportive reactions from others.

Many people with mental illness internalise stigma and might agree with stereotypes about their condition (eg, ‘I have depression, so I must be weak and incompetent’). Of course, these negative self-judgments do not reflect the truth; in fact, multiple studies show that people with even the most serious mental illness often recover and, with support, are able to pursue their dreams and accomplish their goals. Despite this, self-stigma can lead to a feeling that one is ‘broken’, that negative stereotypes are accurate, that one is ‘less than’ because of their condition. This sense of shame can tear down a person’s self-esteem and self-efficacy, and it can also make someone less inclined to talk about what they have been going through.

So what should you do if you have experience with mental illness? Should you talk about it with the people in your life? While it is understandable to be wary of disclosing any personal experience that has stigma attached to it – whether it’s past trouble with the law, struggles in school, or a hospitalisation for mental illness – feeling forced to keep a secret about oneself has its costs. Research has shown that people with mental illness who believe they need to keep it a secret report greater shame and sadness. In contrast, having the opportunity to talk about your experience with mental illness has the potential to deepen relationships with friends, family members or romantic partners. Those who share their experience sometimes feel less burdened by a sense of shame about having a ‘secret identity’ and feel that they get to live more authentically. The act of sharing can also lead to emotional or instrumental support from the person you disclose to: it might be a listening ear when you are feeling down or anxious, an accommodation at work, or a connection to other people or services that can provide help.

Finally, being ‘out’ about your mental health challenge could mean that you serve as living testimony against stigma. Consider the story of Linda, a young woman who decided to share details about her struggles with mental health and her recovery journey with her supervisor at work. Linda had experiences of dissociation, derealisation and hallucinations that impacted her studies and family life. Early in her recovery, she started a job at a handicraft shop – on her first day, she was nervous and restless, so her supervisor asked if she was sick and sent her home to recover. Linda decided she wanted to share her mental health challenges to explain her behaviour to her supervisor, but she did not come to the decision lightly. After she disclosed, her supervisor showed understanding and support. The supervisor even expressed surprise that Linda had a mental health condition – suggesting that Linda was challenging stereotypes the supervisor held about mental illness just by being herself.

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