A support system is group of people and organizations who positively impact your life. Support can come in a variety of ways. It could look like an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, a peer, friend, or even a pet. Research shows that having a positive and understanding system of support is an essential piece of recovery. Unfortunately, it is all too common for people to avoid talking about their mental health challenges with their loved ones.
It’s not easy to do. Many people are fearful to admit that they’re not feeling well or that something is “off.” This is often due to stigma. People may wonder if their friends and family will see them differently or judge them harshly for the challenges that they’re experiencing. Instead, they try to mask what is going on, causing isolation and making the individual feel even worse.
If you are having trouble talking about mental health with the people in your life, you may be wondering how you could possibly tell someone. This is completely understandable. How can you put how you’re feeling into words? How will this person respond? If this is the case, these tips might help you to feel more confident and prepared to have this conversation.
Review Your Current Family and Friends
Taking the time to evaluate the people in your life can be helpful in deciding who may be supportive. Consider in which ways these people help you now. Think about your relationship with them. Is your relationship strained? Do you feel that they will accept and love you no matter what? Maybe you have someone in your life who struggles with mental health challenges as well – a peer. If you are a visual person, it may help you to write it down or map it out. The people that you think will be most supportive are the ones that you may want to open up to first. Although it gets much easier the more you do it, your first time talking about mental health with someone will likely be hard. By choosing to talk with the people you feel most comfortable with first, you are more likely to have a positive interaction. This gives you at least one person you can confide in and helps to build up your confidence to start talking with others.
What Do You Say and How Do You Say It?
Take your time thinking about what you want to say. What information will you share? If you aren’t sure which words to use, do some research. Talk to your mental health care provider(s) or read about mental health challenges to identify your symptoms and how you can describe what you’re feeling.
If you’re too nervous to start the conversation right away, you may want to start slow. Telling someone “I have some important things on my mind and need to make time to talk about them with you. Could we set aside some time this week to chat?” will start you off. This could even be done through text or online private message.
A good way to start out the conversation is by talking about the emotions you’ve been having (words like overwhelmed, sad, angry, or just plain unlike yourself). Next, discuss with the person about some of the problems you’ve been struggling with (things like seeing or hearing things that weren’t really there, uncontrollable thoughts, deep sadness, or panic attacks). Let the person know why you’re telling them. Is it because you trust them? Because you are afraid? That you’re worried about yourself? And finally, tell them what kind of support you need. Do you want this person to go with you to get help? Perhaps you just want them to listen. Be as specific as you can without being demanding. This will help that person better understand your needs and will be willing to listen.
What to Expect
Make the time. Your conversation will require enough time, attention, and privacy for you to express yourself to the best of your ability. And the person you’re speaking with will likely have questions to better understand where you’re coming from. Set aside 30 minutes to an hour to chat in a place where you feel comfortable. Avoid having this conversation in a place that has a lot of distractions or lacks the privacy you need to feel safe.
It may be difficult. Oftentimes people know exactly what they want to say, but in the thick of a conversation, they veer off track. You may become nervous, upset, or unprepared for the way the other person responds. Writing down the things that you need to say ahead of time and using those notes as reference may be helpful. Think about the things that you’re not yet ready to talk about and use healthy boundaries if those topics come up. For example, you might say “I’m not sure if I’m prepared to talk about that right now.”
Their response might not be what you hoped for. Those who haven’t experienced mental health challenges might not understand what it’s like to struggle with symptoms. They may be unsure of how to support you and may say something that makes you feel like they don’t understand or are minimizing the struggles you are feeling. Try to remember that their response may be a misguided attempt to cheer you up or give you encouragement. Other times, it may be due to their misunderstanding or discomfort in talking about mental health. If you encounter this, you may want to discuss with that person how your mental health symptoms negatively affect your life or make it difficult to live your life to the fullest.
Find someone to help. If you feel like you need someone to help you explain your perspective or be present while you have this conversation with a friend or loved one, you may want to reach out to a professional supporter. A therapist, peer, or family group may make this interaction a bit easier. Remember that while it’s great to have a support person with you, it’s up to you to speak on your own behalf.
Supports come in all shapes and sizes. If you notice that, despite all your effort, someone can’t seem to understand or support you in the way you might like, try thinking about ways that they can support you. Do they enjoy going for walks? Build your relationship with them by joining. Are they great cooks? Maybe they can teach you a thing or two. Sometimes you have to get creative when thinking about how the people in your life support you.
Peer support may be helpful. If the individuals you have opened up to don’t seem to be “getting it,” you may want to seek out someone else who knows what it’s like to live with a mental health challenge. Peers can be supportive in ways other can’t because they have similar lived experience. Together, you can focus on recovery! It’s likely that you already know someone who has this experience. But if you’re unsure, you could try a support group or reach out to a professional Peer Support Specialist.
Talking about mental health challenges can be incredibly difficult. Especially if you feel ashamed or embarrassed. But by speaking up, you can get the support that you need. As a person with mental illnesses, I know the discomfort that comes with sharing. Even now, with years of practice and even sharing my story as a Certified Peer Support Specialist and Youth Peer Support Lead Trainer, it can be difficult to open up when my symptoms get bad. But continually pushing myself to have honest conversations with the people I care about and mental health professional has dramatically enhanced my treatment, recovery, and quality of life.
Sara Reynolds is a Certified Peer Support Specialist living with mental health challenges.