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Telling People about your Mental Illness

Whether we suffer from depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, an eating disorder or one of the many anxiety disorders, there comes a time when decisions have to be made as to who and what to tell about your condition.

Sometimes that decision is taken away from us, as when we suffer a psychotic episode, a suicide attempt, or our eating disorder has become obvious even to the most casual observer.

I am often asked by clients how they should go about telling people about their illness and who they should tell. It can be quite a challenge to tell others about the emotional pain you are experiencing. Sufferers often “look” normal, yet suffer terribly, often on a daily basis. Yet it is the absence of obvious physical cues that cause others to minimize or even disbelieve the full extent of the pain and misery that accompanies all forms of mental illness.

For this reason, it can be prudent to decide carefully about who you tell about your disorder. Despite numerous campaigns to raise awareness of mental illness in the community, there are always going to be people in your life who cannot and will not understand your dilemma. These people are also capable of inflicting further pain and suffering, not to mention create shame and stigmatization in the sufferer.

The following is a guideline to help you make the task of telling others about your illness easier and more empowering for you:

  1. Write your thoughts down on paper. This is a useful practice for clarifying your thoughts and reasons for telling a particular person.
  2. Be clear as to why you are telling this person. It may be that this person is your boss and you need to explain absences or lowered job performance. On the other hand, you may be telling a friend because you want assistance from them. Be clear what it is that you hope to achieve by telling an individual.
    Knowing this will assist you in coping with negative reactions that you may receive. Sometimes we are unclear as to why we are disclosing personal information about ourselves to others until after the deed is done, and then it may become obvious that we were disclosing for all the wrong reasons. Be very clear about your motives for revealing your illness.
  3. Find a good source of information about your illness and have it on hand to give to the person should they require further information. Most people are poorly informed about mental illness in general and providing them with excellent sources of information can only benefit you in the long run. Skeptical people in particular are more likely to react more favorably to well-informed documentation than a personal, unfocussed and emotional monologue delivered by you.
  4. Prepare yourself for all possible reactions from the individual. Remember that you cannot control other people’s reactions or belief systems, but you can be prepared for what to say in response to any questions you may encounter.
  5. If you would like help from the person you are disclosing to, be clear about what form that help should take. Many people are more than willing to help, but do not have the faintest idea what to do. This is where you need to be specific about your needs according to the condition from which you suffer.
  6. Because this issue is important to you, you might like to consider making an appointment time to speak with the person about your illness. You will find a more receptive audience when you have taken the time and effort to set up a meeting time, than when the other person is being constantly beset by interruptions.

It is important for your own mental health to share your condition with others. Many will be willing to assist you. Others will walk out of your life once they are aware of the true nature and chronicity of your illness. Expect this. Expect to be hurt by some of your friends and acquaintances. It was a long time ago when the quote “a friend in need is a friend indeed” came into being and human nature has not changed in the interim. But do not let this aspect of some people’s characters put you off telling significant others.

Telling people, regardless of their reactions, can be a truly empowering experience.


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