Talking With Others About Mental Illness

By May 9, 2018Blog

My housemates were all sports fans. One was a diehard baseball enthusiast, the other two were keen on basketball, and all three were fond of football. I’m a writer. It was all “sports ball” to me.

Recently, after he finished playing a round of golf, one of the guys and I had coffee together. We got into a good chat about sports and art. Although our buzzwords differ, our individual focuses do not: set a goal and follow through. There’s also dedication to one’s vocation, as well as the drive to always learn more. It takes practice to succeed on any level in any arena. Communication is key.

I felt comfortable talking with my housemates about mental illness, although at first I wasn’t sure how to approach the subject. When we’d talk about the arts, I’d draw parallels between those disciplines and a given sport. So when it came time to discuss mental health issues, I approached the topic in a similar fashion, drawing on mutual respect for one another’s interests.

My experience talking with others about mental illness started when I was first diagnosed with schizophrenia. I knew that I had to accept my disorder if I was going to live with it. Explaining to someone why I was out of work and on disability was often more difficult than describing the terror of psychosis, probably because everyone understands what it’s like to have a job, and maybe lose one, but almost no one understands schizophrenia.

I don’t want to give the impression that it’s always been easy to discuss mental illness with others. It hasn’t. When I first attempted to tell someone about my diagnosis, I was talking to friends and family, and it was harder than I expected. I was still learning about my disorder, researching as much as I could about it so that I could speak with confidence. Gradually, I became well versed enough in the mechanics of the symptoms that I could speak from knowledge gained through experience. It wasn’t always like that. For a time, I dealt with anosognosia, a symptom of the thought disordered mind which tells the person living with the diagnosis that they don’t have an illness. To outsiders it looks as if the person is in denial. Meds help clear the mental pathways and make it easier to accept one’s diagnosis. Looking at the situation from a third-person perspective is invaluable. Although it can be difficult, therapy can help with that. All of it takes time and patience.

So how do I talk with people about mental illness? I adapt. For the business minded, I quote statistics. I talk process with art-oriented folks. With my housemates I focused on goals, as in a game. I feel out the person I’m going to engage with and speak accordingly. It’s on me to do the work. Trouble is, I’m naturally shy, especially around strangers. Once I feel comfortable talking with someone, I find it easier to discuss mental health issues, and, if the situation warrants it, I’ll talk about my diagnosis, although that’s where things get tricky. I have to overcome self-stigma to go there. Then I have to watch for signs that the other person is receptive to what I’m sharing. It’s easier if they don’t come to the conversation loaded with misinformation, but I always need to be prepared for that. If they only know from stereotypes, then the conversation is going to focus on correcting those presuppositions first. It’s a challenge to discuss mental illness when stigma is in the way. Conviction and an even temper help.

I find that it’s best to approach the conversation with a focus on sharing information rather than appearing confrontational—that avenue is counterproductive. I don’t need to convince anyone of anything. I need to show by example that living with a mental illness is challenging in the face of stigma and discrimination.

The only enemy is ignorance, and that’s where knowing as much as I can about my diagnosis, medical options, the public health system, and current statistics, can really help me inform the person I’m talking with. I want them to see that I’m not scary and that the stigma against mental illness is real. I want them to understand that our conversation helps establish a compassionate connection, which in turn helps bolster hope. I speak honestly because authenticity makes all the difference. I talk about mental illness because I want to be a part of the solution. I might face a few hurdles along the way, but the result is worth it if I can help bring about change.

One Comment

  • Eric says:

    I admire your honesty and personal determination to deal with your illness as well as educate others and reduce stigma. I also admire your willingness to gloss over how difficult doing the latter sometimes is—and I don’t necessarily mean “gloss over” in a bad way, but the fact that, at least in this piece, you’re appearing to let it roll off you. My own experience in trying to educate others has revealed how incredibly difficult, frustrating, and at times, demeaning and counterproductive to my own mental health it can be when I’m confronted with insensitivity, invalidation, dismissal, and even disbelief, as well as stigmatizing cliche responses and advice, people who think they have the answer (fixers, instrumental “help”), and even out and out debate and argument. The amount of ignorance and insensitivity out there can be staggering, but understandable given our social stigmas and that we’re on a new frontier of understanding that the general public just hasn’t caught up with. But willful ignorance is another thing, especially when it comes from friends and family, whether it’s because they just don’t want to or know how to listen, are stuck in their own ideas and don’t want to budge, or it literally becomes a defensive Ego battle pissing contest—as in, they just can’t stand being explained something they don’t know no matter HOW you explain it.

    I’ve used some of the methods you describe—various kinds of analogies, putting it in terms maybe they can understand, or even their personal experiences with something similarly psychological, but not really the same—but then what sometimes happens is that then they only understand it relating it to their own experience, which can ultimately minimize it, and then from there they start advising you on how THEY deal with that, boy fully understanding that my anxiety, depression, dissociation, what have you, is of a completely different order than what they know.

    Long story short, it’s very difficult to ever explain something to other people that they do not experience and have them fully understand it. That kind of understanding will never really happen. Rather, a different kind of understanding is required, the kind that proceeds from compassion, in which the conceptual intellectualizing reaches its limit and finally ceases, and pure understanding and acceptance of what I’m saying is my experience takes its place. Understanding as in = standing under, rather than standing over, which is what happens when you try to fit it into another’s pigeonholes, comfortably customizing it, and ultimately altering it, just for them, and in so doing, their understanding is not stretched very far. This has led, in may cases, to worse misunderstandings ! Maybe, just maybe, people who care about you could stretch themselves and take the time to listen and learn some psychological and neurological concepts and terminology, read an article or two, watch a video—why is this so hard? I do this for friends who are sick. I had a friend who recently needed a heart operation and who I organized a GoFundMe for. Leading up to the operation he has various choices to make ans dent me some links, which I read right away and watched a video, then discussed it with him. Did he do the same for me when I sent him stuff about PTS last year? Um, I think we know the answer to that.

    Anyways, I digress, but not really. I appreciate your article and writing and suggestions, but I also feel it is incumbent upon friends and family, especially those more close to you (would not expect from a golf buddy, but hey, if he did, you might have a real friend there) to educate themselves more fully, and everything I’ve read and seen about successful support networks that aid a person’s coping, healing, and recovery, especially in families, has shown this to be true. Nobody can really be a vital support to you if they understand your illness in terms of a sports analogy rather than what it really is.

    Thanks again for your post, and now, for reading my soapbox rant. Peace.

Leave a Reply