Raise your hand if you’ve ever suffered from any type of anxiety or depression. (You can’t see me, but I’m raising my hand right now.) Now raise your hand if you’ve ever suffered from an episode of anxiety or depression that has interfered with your ability to perform your daily activities. (Still raising my hand, in case you’re wondering.) The truth is, even if we don’t talk about it, many of us have struggled with mental health at one time or another. For some, these experiences are fleeting, but for others, it goes far beyond simply having a “bad day” or experiencing an occasional mood swing. These experiences can be frequent, long term, and/or chronic, and they can affect our everyday lives in debilitating ways.
We often think the term “mental illness” refers only to extreme disorders, perhaps involving some sort of psychosis or detachment from reality. But the umbrella of mental illness covers a wide spectrum of conditions. In addition to anxiety and depression, other common mental health conditions include attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and eating disorders. Many of us have experienced bouts of these conditions at some time in our lives—or know someone else who has—but most of us suffer in silence or barely make mention of it in passing.
So, why don’t we talk about it? Perhaps it’s the stigma attached to mental health conditions, often connected to feelings of shame or perceived weakness. We often have no problem discussing our physical ailments and how we attempt to remedy them (medical treatment, diet, exercise, etc.), but when it comes to discussing mental health, we often fall silent.
And it’s quite easy to do. Just like certain medical conditions, mental health disorders are invisible. Many of us learn to hide our symptoms, forcing a smile and pretending “everything is okay” even when it’s not. This makes it particularly difficult to know who among us might be struggling. Unfortunately, suffering in silence can perpetuate the symptoms, and it can also compound the condition by adding feelings of loneliness, despair, and isolation. This makes it even more important to initiate dialogue about mental health.
As we close out May, which is Mental Health Awareness Month, it’s a good time to think about the people in our lives who might be in need of someone to talk to right now. If you suspect someone you know is struggling, here are some suggestions for having a conversation about mental health:
- If you’re not sure how to initiate the conversation, simply ask how your loved one is doing. And not just a polite, “How are you?” but a meaningful, “How are you really doing?”
- Try to be a good listener. Be understanding, maybe even while offering some of your own experience, but remember to keep the focus on your loved one and avoid placing judgment.
- If needed, follow up. One conversation may be a good start, but some situations will require an ongoing dialogue. Offer to make yourself available for further conversation (and then actually do it).
- Be discreet (i.e. it’s not your place to reveal their business to any outside party), but if you really feel your loved one is in trouble, don’t be afraid to seek additional help from appropriate outside sources.
- Give your loved one the space they need, but also try to recognize when they shouldn’t be left alone or need immediate professional attention.
- Remember to also check in on the “strong” people in your life. Sometimes they are the ones most likely to suffer in silence.
Finally, if you are the one struggling, please remember you are not alone. In fact, there are probably more people to whom you can relate than you realize. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. And while reaching out to friends, family, and other confidantes might be enough for some people, some of us will require further help, therapy, and/or professional treatment. For further information, here are a few places to start: nami.org, nimh.nih.gov, psychologytoday.com/us.
This information is not meant to replace the advice your doctor or mental health practitioner.