Anxiety Girl: Life with the World's Worst SuperpowerExplaining Your Mental Health Issues To FriendsChelsey Falco

The numbers on how many Americans suffer from mental illness are fuzzy. Most sources claim it’s around 20-25%, but the latest Diagnostic and Statistical Manual claims nearly 50% of American adults will suffer from a diagnosable mental illness at some point in their life. That isn’t to say that half of Americans will eventually fall into a deep depression or suffer a nervous breakdown. It means that, at some point, many of us will go through a tough time that could be diagnosed as a mental disorder. It might be a period of depression following a death, or maybe it’s an anxiety disorder stemming from months of stress, but it won’t necessarily be a lifelong struggle with mental illness. I didn’t find similar studies for other countries, but I imagine this statistic is not unique to America.

Even though many of us will struggle with our mental health at some point in our lives, there is still a huge stigma attached to having a diagnosed mental illness. There are still people who will label someone suffering from mental illness as “crazy,” which can make it difficult for those suffering to open up to others about their mental health. I used to struggle with how much I wanted to reveal to others about my anxiety disorder. That probably seems strange since I’ve been openly discussing it with the entire internet, but it took me a long time to get to this point because there is nothing more personal than what is going on inside your brain. And the idea that someone could call you “crazy” for talking about any of that is terrifying. I’m so grateful that more celebrities are opening up about their struggles with eating disorders, depression, addiction and other mental health issues. Not only is it comforting to know there are other people out there battling the same issues, but it helps remove any stigma attached to mental illness.

In eighth grade, I missed nearly a month of school because of anxiety. When I got back, I told most people I was sick, and if they pressed for more details, I told them it was a thyroid issue (which was a little bit true). It took a lot of time for me to admit, “Oh yeah, I have an anxiety disorder and OCD. I missed school because I was going through intensive therapy.”

I’ve spent about nine years explaining my mental health struggles to family and friends. Most people have been extremely supportive, but I have dealt with people who were quick to judge me. If you’re feeling ready to open up to others about your mental health issues, here are my tips:

  1. Make sure you’re ready. Like I said, there’s nothing more personal than what’s going on inside your brain. Telling someone about your mental illness will reveal a major part of yourself, so don’t do it if you’re not ready for them to know that much about you. One time I left my bottle of Zoloft on my nightstand, and a friend found it. I’ll admit, I’ve read the name of a friend’s prescription and Googled it before (who hasn’t?), but I have never forced a friend to admit why they were taking medication. But my friend did that to me, in front of our other friends, and that stung. I loved and trusted them, but I wasn’t ready to reveal that I was taking drugs to help with my anxiety. It’s hard to feel supported when someone forces information out of you. I felt targeted, and, if anything, that added to my anxiety.
  2. Answer their questions. Chances are your friend will have some understanding of whatever mental illness you have, but they might not. If they ask questions, it’s not prodding or being nosy or judging. They probably care about you and just want to understand what’s going on in that brain of yours. As long as you’re comfortable with their questions, answer them.
  3. Can you help someone? One of the first times I explained the extent of my anxiety disorder wasn’t because I totally trusted my friend or was ready to admit it. I told her because I knew she was experiencing something similar and that I could help her. She was feeling scared, and as far as I knew, I was her only friend who could understand what she was going through. I owed it to her to tell her, and it really helped her out. Eventually we were seeing the same psychiatrist, and that made for a very fun bond.
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  1. I struggle with bipolar disorder and, perhaps its my issue with boundaries, but I’m not ashamed to tell people because it explains my “uniqueness”. My big dilemma is what to do about telling people in a work environment. I suffer panic attacks and bouts of agoraphobia and this, along with depression, can cause me problems at work. I feel like if I came clean, perhaps people would be more understanding. But then again, I must admit to my naïveté because that would happen every time only in a perfect world. Most people, I’ve found, who haven’t experienced mental health issues themselves, have little understanding, patience or sympathy for those who struggle with it. It is a dagger in my side and I’m tired of feeling handicapped,. Does anyone have any advice on telling your boss and/or coworkers about mental illness? Thanks!

    • Thank you for reading, Lauren! I don’t have any experience telling a boss/coworkers about mental illness, but. I guess I would first tell a coworker that I felt comfortable with (or your boss, if you have a good relationship with them) and see what they would suggest. Or, if there’s ever an incident at work relating to your mental health, ask your boss to talk in private (or send an email if it makes you more comfortable). Make sure you explain to them what they can do to help when necessary.
      You don’t have to tell them everything, but explain, “I struggle with mental health issues, and sometimes that can lead to [insert problems at the office here]. While I won’t let this effect my work performance, I want you to be aware of the situation and understanding if I ever need a short break or [whatever you need].”
      I hope that helps! If you have any more questions, feel free to hunt me down on Twitter/Tumblr/all over the internet!

      Chelsey Falco | 1/28/2014 05:01 pm
  2. Great advice and very beautifully written, personal piece.

  3. Thanks for this great post. I totally cringed when I read about what your “friend” did to you. Shitty move! That was classless and tacky and said a lot more about your friend than you. So s/he rifled through your personal stuff and then called you out on your medical conditions in front of a large group of people? That’s way crazier than just having anxiety or depression! S/he is the only one who should be embarrassed. Anyway, if more people bravely share their experiences the way you are, society’s perceptions of mental illnesses will continue to shift to a place of reason and understanding.

    • Amen, sista’!

    • Thanks for reading, Annalisa! And thanks for the support! The situation with my friend happened years ago, so I’m hoping she has learned more about reason and understanding by now.

      Chelsey Falco | 1/25/2014 08:01 am
  4. It took me about a year after being diagnosed (I was 12, now 21) before I told my friends. When I was being tested for a learning disorder I would lie about what my appointments were about because I was scared about how they would treat me, and that they would tell everyone. I was bullied prior, so I was scared of being different. I still don’t even bring it up very often, and don’t tell people until I know them fairly well and it comes up. Now I know what to say when the topic comes up (I agree, staying casual is the way to go!), and am helping another friend who was just diagnosed with ADHD. I am much more comfortable with ADHD being a part of me. I really LOVE this article because so many people don’t know how to be a good supporter, and they don’t even realize that their offhand response to something actually hurts and isn’t ok. Thank you.

    • Thanks for reading, Veronika, and thank you for sharing your story. I’m glad you loved this. I would lie about appointments, too! People must have thought I had some deadly illness with how many “check-ups” I went to when I really went to therapy sessions.

      Chelsey Falco | 1/25/2014 08:01 am
  5. This is a great article. My anxiety disorder made me miss a lot of school and come in late all the time. I was constantly thinking of excuses to tell my classmates, and it was really stressful. On top of that, the staff at my school didn’t know anything about anxiety disorders, so they thought I was just being lazy and didn’t want to go to school. It took me 9 years to finally be okay with people knowing about my anxiety. If someone doesn’t want to be my friend because of an illness I can’t control, then I don’t want them in my life.

    • Thanks for reading, Brittany! In middle school, the administrators also thought I was just lazy and didn’t want to go to school, and that was the worst! But you’re right, it’s not worth having someone in your life if they can’t accept something you can’t control.

      Chelsey Falco | 1/23/2014 06:01 pm