How to Talk About Your Mental Illness

It’s important for everyone to talk about mental health. Discussing mental illness without shame is vital if we are to break down the stigma. The trouble is, talking about mental health problems is difficult – especially if it seems you are the only one talking. Here are some tips to help your conversations flow a little more easily:

  • Choose the right audience. Some people don’t want to listen to you and aren’t worth the effort. They have their reasons for not wanting to hear about your mental illness – they might be scared of what they will hear (i.e. that they could easily become mentally ill, too) or they could just be selfish and nasty. These are not good reasons, but don’t bother wasting your breath by telling them so. Unless you enjoy arguments, in which case go ahead!
  • Be honest but don’t reveal more than you are comfortable revealing. You have a right to privacy and can talk about your mental health without going into all the gory details. You don’t need to explain your issues and it probably isn’t appropriate to, unless you are talking to close friends.
  • Take your time. Such an important topic deserves to have time taken over it, so don’t rush. Give yourself time to think about what you want to say and how to express it in the right words.
  • Be open about your struggles. It doesn’t mean you are seeking pity or attention. Be matter of fact about the worst times, if it helps, but don’t keep quiet about them just because people might think you are looking for sympathy.
  • Don’t be afraid to have a sense of humour. Laughing about the awful things in life can be empowering. I once read (sorry, but I can’t remember where) that Mel Brooks thought he had a duty to make fun of subjects like racism and Nazism because it diminished them and took away their power. Let’s do the same with mental illness: you can still acknowledge its devastating effects while poking fun at the ridiculous aspects. I do.
  • Use analogies and metaphors to describe, explain and illustrate your points. Writers use devices like simile, imagery and metaphor to help people relate to what they are talking about. You can help people relate to your experiences in similar ways. It’s useful to draw such comparisons when dealing with something as complex and variable as mental illness.
  • Don’t stereotype yourself or others. Laugh at yourself by all means, but you do nobody any favours if you constantly refer to yourself as ‘crazy’ and use your mental illness as an excuse to behave however you wish. It’s also unhelpful to rank mental illnesses or pit them against each other; unfortunately, I have heard people say things like ‘at least I don’t have schizophrenia – those people are really mental’ and ‘she only has depression, not something serious like a personality disorder.’ Talking in such a way does not break down the stigma surrounding mental illness: it strengthens it.