Updated: Jan 31, 2022
Share your mental health struggles early and often; compassion and support will follow.
I watched the new movie Encanto recently. Like all great Disney stories, this film carried several important messages. One was the need to share our internal struggles with those that we love. It really struck a chord.
I’ve written about this before, and I’ll do it again. We’ll all be touched by mental illness at some point in our lives. It’s far too common to avoid. More than 20% of us will suffer a mental health challenge—and, on average, each of us has 8-10 very close friends. Do the math. If you don’t think this applies to you, it’s only because your friends aren’t comfortable being honest.
In fact, either you or someone you know is struggling right now, as you read this sentence.
From experience, let me assure you that the most effective way of addressing mental illness is to be honest about it, especially with those close to you. But this isn’t our first instinct. On the contrary, it takes tremendous courage to share with others our private battles. We feel weak, embarrassed, and inadequate. The stigma lurks around every corner; the fear of being "found out" governs our every action.
If you aren't the one suffering, it's imperative that your friends feel comfortable opening up to you. For that reason, you should talk freely and approvingly about mental health treatments, even if you don't think you need them. Someone you love might be in dire need of help. If they see you as a safe harbor, they'll be more apt to solicit your support. And that's when the real healing can begin. But they probably won't risk it if they have any inkling that ridicule or rejection might follow.
When my wife was sick, I desperately tried to keep her illness a secret. I was scared her reputation might be damaged. The disease might affect how people viewed her; it might cause her to lose her job. When I became sick myself, I desperately tried to ignore it. I naively believed my issues would just go away with time, that my brain could somehow heal itself.
Without question, the stigma has power. Employers do discriminate. Others do treat us differently. We fool ourselves into thinking that we can handle it on our own. These are the inevitable burdens of mental illness. And until we recognize and address them, they will remain roadblocks on our path to recovery.
Sharing comes with a cost, and it’s a scary price to pay, but the benefits are so worthwhile. Once you open up, compassion comes flooding in. So many others have dealt with similar issues and are quick to offer their support and understanding. You realize that you are not alone, a powerful discovery given that most mental illnesses carry with them a profound feeling of solitude.
Additionally, just talking about your challenges can help. When I was diagnosed with PTSD, I found tremendous relief in recounting the stressful memories that were haunting me. Most importantly, you can find the best treatment for your situation, whether that be therapy, medication, or some other effective protocol.
When my family finally opened up, I was astounded by the support. I wasted so much time and energy, not to mention stress, in trying to keep our experience a secret. And all it did was prolong the empathy that poured in from our extended community. If I could go back, this is the one thing that I would change: I would be honest from the start.
Don’t make this same mistake. Don’t hide your problems away in fear. If you're reading this and you feel anxious, depressed, lonely and isolated, or disconnected from reality, it's time to open up. And if you're reading this and no one close to you has ever shared a mental health struggle--well, then you need to make yourself more approachable. As Lady Gaga so perfectly put it in her Grammy acceptance speech a few years ago: