'Story Time' Article: Louise Martins (Heads Up eMag WIN17)

*This article was originally published in headspace Chatswood's Heads Up eMagazine Winter '17 edition. If you'd like to receive the Heads Up eMag free and straight to your email every quarter, simply subscribe here.

By Louise Martins

You can find heaps of information about talking to a friend or family member about their mental health (which is great!), but it seems harder to find advice on how to talk to a friend or family member about your mental health. As someone who lives with a mental illness, this is something that I've been learning to do for the past 19 years.

These days, talking about my mental health with family and friends is something I feel comfortable doing. But it wasn't always that way. For many years, I didn't tell anyone because I was afraid of what their reaction might be. What will they think of me? Will they treat me differently? Will they put a label on me? Will they reject me? These were scary questions to deal with, especially as I was already feeling vulnerable. 

I remember that even after I'd finally told my partner, it took me another couple of years to tell my mum. For me this was a big deal, but my mum just wanted to help. It was a bit of an anti-climax really – I'd been so worried and nervous beforehand, but once I told her I realised that she didn't think of me any differently. In fact, I wished I'd told her much earlier, as she would've been there to support me through some difficult times. 

Choosing your allies is an important part of managing your mental health long term and it's a personal choice who you choose to talk to and when. But even when you've chosen carefully and you're ready to have a conversation, it's important to recognise that not everyone is going to have a helpful or constructive response. The stigma surrounding mental illness still exists in society and it's possible that you might tell someone who is judgemental, dismissive, critical, or who simply doesn't understand. This has happened to me a couple of times and it can be hurtful.

But the many, many positive and supportive responses that I've received make me realise that these are isolated incidents and don't reflect how most people view mental illness or view me as a person. In fact, by talking about our mental health, we are giving mental illness a face and a story – we're fighting the stigma every time we're brave enough to tell someone what it's like to walk in our shoes.

So what advice would I give you about talking about your mental health? 

  1. Just start talking. The more you overthink what you are going to say, the more nervous you are going to get, and the harder it's going to be to start the conversation. 
  2. Be genuine. It's okay to not know exactly how you're feeling. Just be honest and try to describe how you're feeling in a way that the other person can relate to. 
  3. Give the other person time. You just told someone something that was emotionally intense and possibly unexpected. Give them some time to process what you've said. 
  4. Don't expect too much. If the other person offers to provide you with emotional or practical help and support then that is great, but they might not feel that's something they can provide. That's okay, everyone has a different capacity to help and support. If they do ask how they can help, it is useful to give them some ideas of constructive ways they can do so.
  5. Don't ask for secrecy. There might come a time when the person you have told about your mental health needs to tell someone else to keep you safe, even if you do not want them to. Make sure that they know that this is okay. You can even give them some phone numbers of people and services that can help in a crisis, or share your safety plan, if you have one.
  6. Encourage questions. This sounds confronting at first, but it helps to establish an ongoing conversation about your mental health which is really useful in the long term. Educating your family and friends about what is going on in your head and what it feels like to be you is one of the best ways to help them understand what you're going through and support you.