Communication is one of the toughest barriers I’ve had to deal with during my illness. When I’m having an episode I find it incredibly hard to communicate how I feel in a way that doesn’t involve (a) crying hysterically/hyperventilating/ruining my mascara or (b) sounding like a petulant teenager: “It’s so unfair, I spend my life waiting for the next episode”.
I’ve also been on the other side trying to support friends who are experiencing mental health problems. You’d think my insider experience would help me communicate better but there are so many times when I feel like I’ve lodged my foot well and truly in my mouth.
Here are my top tips for communicating about mental health:
- Reach out and accept you may not get the response that you want. Sharing the problem and telling someone that you are feeling low period is nerve wracking. Choose wisely. If there’s someone who has supported you before then reach out to them again. Remember though, you don’t need to tell everyone in the pub what’s bothering you. Although you might feel like you’re wearing a badge with “I’m Depressed” in neon lights, people are generally too wrapped up in their own lives to think “Wow, she looks shit, clearly she’s depressed.” Accept that if you text a friend who is depressed, right now they might not be able to face texting you back. Yes, sending a simple text is outwith the capability of someone experiencing a serious episode of mental illness. (And don’t even get me started on the anxiety of answering the phone….)
- Empathise but don’t make it all about you. Don’t let empathy become competitive misery. Trying to out-do each other about who has been most depressed is not going to help anyone. I don’t pretend to understand what every anxious or depressed person is thinking or feeling. Sure, I relate to what they are going through but hearing about my 15 years of mental illness isn’t going to make them feel any better.
- Ask yourself if it’s a helpful thing to say and if it isn’t, don’t say it! A colleague once told me that people in our workplace were complaining I was off sick again. Did I immediately get my shit together and return to work that very day? No I did not. Instead I sat in my car in the car park of the coffee shop, cried and felt like a huge failure. It hurt that people I spent 8 hours a day with and counted as friends were talking about me behind my back. I even contemplated telling my workmates my diagnosis so they would believe I really was unwell. My colleague didn’t mean to make me feel bad, but it would’ve been much easier if she hadn’t said anything. Then I’d have been blissfully unaware that some people are arseholes.
- Ask the person what they want. They might want to talk about their feelings. Others might want to talk about trivial things like the weather to take the spotlight off their feelings. Sometimes you just want everyone to go away for a few hours so you can lie on the sofa and stare into space. And that’s okay. It’s also okay to ask your loved one what they would prefer. Do they want to talk about how they feel today? If they don’t feel like talking, is text message an easier way to communicate. I’ve had some of my most supportive conversations in silence by the medium of text.
- Keep the sarcasm in check. Ah sarcasm, my second language. Sometimes I am so sarcastic people don’t know whether I’m kidding or not. Here’s a tip: Sarcasm is not helpful in a crisis. Sarcastically telling me I should just get on with killing myself is not helpful. The humor will be lost on me in that particular moment. Follow my lead. If I’m not being my usual sarcastic self then the chances are I won’t appreciate your sarcasm either.
Hope my list has proved helpful! Do you have any advice about how to communicate with someone experiencing mental illness? What do you find helpful when you talk to loved ones about your illness? I look forward to hearing from you.