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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Keep it casual. I’m pretty sure some of my friends found out about my anxiety disorder because I casually dropped the phrase, “My psychologist said” into conversation. I used to think it was a big deal to tell someone I have an anxiety disorder, but I eventually realized that it doesn’t have to be. I have a tendency to dramatize things (it took me a year to admit I wore glasses), but that only heightened my anxiety. Keeping it casual it not only helps me feel more comfortable, but it makes it easier for my friends. If you make it a big deal, they might think they need to worry about you.
- Explain why you’re telling them. I’ve had various reasons for telling my friends about my mental health struggles. Helping someone is just one reason. The main reason I tell my friends is because I want to make sure I have people looking out for me. By opening up about my anxiety disorder, my friends understand I can internalize fear and stress until it starts taking over. They know to check on me when I go to parties and to encourage study breaks. They understand my need for alone time and they know how to help me. I tell my friends because I want their support.
If you have a friend who struggles with mental illness, just let them know you love them. Don’t judge them, and follow their lead. If they tell jokes about it, it’s okay to laugh, but it’s probably not okay to repeat the joke. (For instance, if I joke that I’m mentally unstable, you can laugh. If you tell that joke, I won’t laugh.) And from then on, be careful with your comments about mental illness. If your friend suffers from depression and you say something disparaging about bipolar disorder, your friend will probably be upset because it all boils down to mental health. For most of us, we just don’t want people thinking we’re crazy, so as long as you support your friend, you’re doing the right thing.
A lot of people will suffer from mental illness at some point, but for some of us, it’s a lifelong struggle. Even after we’ve been healthy for years, that illness is still part of us, and we have to work hard to keep it away. Because of that, we’ll always be explaining the extent of it to friends and family. It’s important to remember that there’s always someone out there who will support you.
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