Ideally, the people around you will understand your illness and encourage you. But the important people in your life might not know much about mental illness. They may want to help you, but not know how to help. You can give friends and family a better chance to help by thinking ahead about how to tell them about your mental illness.
One reason to tell family and friends about your mental illness is to receive encouragement. Simply talking to someone sympathetic can reduce your stress level and improve your mood. You may also want to ask for concrete support, like help finding treatment or rides to appointments. Or maybe you want to share your crisis plan with a trusted family member.
Maybe you have mixed feelings. You might be afraid loved ones will judge you or feel uncomfortable around you. It can be very stressful if you’re afraid to tell people but feel pressure to do so.
There’s no right or wrong number of people to tell. Some people will benefit from telling many family and friends. Others may benefit by telling a couple of close friends and waiting to tell others. You are an expert on your own mental illness and can decide for yourself.
If you’re stressed about whether to tell other people, you might feel better if you write down a list of pros and cons. Maybe some people won’t understand. But maybe you can also see benefits to telling the people who will understand. If you’re afraid, the list of pros can remind you of the rewards of overcoming your fear.
Joining a support group such as NAMI Connection can help you understand your own experiences through hearing others’ stories. This support can also provide you with insights and tips for relationships of your own.
If you are compelled to disclose during a period where you are unwell, try to locate the most supportive person in your life. This person can help you through telling everyone else. Otherwise, the time to tell someone is going to depend on several things:
Talking about mental illness can be risky. When thinking over the pros and cons of telling someone, also consider the pros and cons of not telling them. The positives and negatives are different for everyone and thinking them through can help you decide what’s right for you.
Being able to offer emotional support is not something that everyone knows how to do. It’s a skill that takes practice. Some people may not be able to offer emotional support. If you have relatives or friends who lack this skill, that doesn’t mean they don’t love you.
You might want to make a list of the people you’re considering telling. Include the people you feel closest to. Also list the most emotionally skilled people you know, even if you don’t know them as well.
Consider the names. Which of your close friends and family are most skillful at offering understanding? Which ones are best at listening or giving a hug when you’re down? What about the people who are good listeners? Which of these “A grade” people could you talk to?
In a job, you have to weigh the advantages against the disadvantages of being open. Consider the potential negative impact on things like stigma from coworkers against your need for special accommodations, which are considered part of your civil rights. Before you share information about your condition, you should learn about your legal rights and also take into consideration your work environment.
In friendships or romantic relationships, generally, the consequences of being open about mental illness take one of three paths:
Once you’ve told someone, you’ll understandably be concerned about their reaction. One sign they can handle it is if they treat you the same during or after the disclosure. Friends stay friends. Colleagues stay polite and interested. If you continue to get the same “vibes” from people, you can be pretty sure that your disclosure has not changed the relationship for worse. And that is the best outcome of all.
Knowing that certain people are aware of an important part of your life and that they accept you and support you can be incredibly helpful and liberating. While some people may disappear, it’s better to have strong social supports around you.
You can get the best support possible by planning the conversation. Consider including three items:
“Process” talk means “talking about talking,” rather than talking to share information. Prepare your listener for an important conversation by using “process” talk. Here are some ways to begin a process talk:
Concrete examples of what you mean by “mental illness.” Every case of mental illness is different. To get the best support possible, share one or two examples of what’s causing you stress:
Suggest ways to support you. Family and friends may not know what they can do to help. You can get the best support by asking for specific types of help:
By telling the right people and suggesting ways for loved ones to help, you can start building a strong social support network. At first, you might be afraid to talk about your experiences. But don’t give up looking for support and encouragement from others. You’ll discover that many people want to help you.