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.