The Communication Problem with Mental Ilness

There is a communication barrier when it comes to discussing mental illness. 

“The stigma against mental illness has really improved it seems”

Said me not only a few weeks ago. In a way yes, I am right to say that. In another way though, people just don’t talk about mental illness all that well.

People can offer so much empathy, kindness and understanding. 

When I say people don’t talk about mental illness I certainly don’t mean everybody, when I hit a deep depression a couple weeks ago and reached out about it I received an overwhelming amount of kindness and support offered to me from numerous people from friends to family, loved ones to co-workers to strangers. People understood what I was going through in depression, people knew ways they could help and people would willingly offer up that support.

People just don’t know what to say.

When my experiences shift towards mania or a mixed episode, with or without psychosis, people just don’t know what to say. They either freeze up or say the completely wrong thing, like my counsellor telling me I was possessed! I have tried to explain the racing thoughts of mania as if it is a beehive with each bee buzzing around representing a single thought and how it is impossible to focus on just the one, but they still don’t understand.

Some people will try to understand, and I am so grateful to these people. If you are somebody with the patience to try to understand mental illness, I thank you and will return that patience to you.

Return that patience?! You may wonder. You see whilst it is so refreshing that you are trying to connect with us, it is so frustrating to us that you aren’t already on that level. It is not your fault, we blame ourselves not you, but this increases the frustration.

Combatting the Problem

I don’t blame people for saying the wrong thing, or nothing at all. I don’t think society teaches us what to say. If you are someone with mental illness who feels these frustrations, please try to be patient, especially if you are lucky enough to have loved ones who are trying. If you are trying to communicate with somebody who has a mental illness, please be patient with us, we are so grateful to you.

This dialogue is so important, the more each side attempts to communicate the closer we will get to reaching an understanding. The road there however, is painful. Often innocently the wrong thing can be said, causing an undesirable reaction.

Communication Advice

Whilst I am no therapist, I can offer my perspective as a suffer of bipolar disorder for a few simple tweaks that may really help you communicate:

  1. You do not understand. It is far more validating to hear ‘that must be difficult to handle’ or ‘you should be proud of what you can manage’ or ‘I can never understand but I support you’ than something like ‘I experience that too’ or ‘that is normal’ whilst you are trying to help, you are invalidating our feelings.
  2. Communicate simply. If you suffer from mental illness understand that the words do not exist to explain certain feelings and experiences. You need to find ways to communicate these simply to loved ones, and settle for this. For example, I often feel guilt, loneliness, anxiousness, low self-esteem, to my partner I tell him I am feeling sad. This is not to keep him out of the loop or invalidate myself, but to keep the communication simple so we can work on a result. He will know instantly how to react to ‘sad’ whereas 5+ symptoms can just overwhelm anyone.
  3. Seek Professional Help. Reaching out to a friend or loved one is fine, in fact it is great. It is a healthy step in recovery that should be praised. However if you find that you rely on that support on a daily or more basis then you need to seek professional support. This behaviour amongst loved ones risks co-dependency or pushing the other person away. It is very emotionally exhausting to support someone with a mental illness alone

Photo by Marco Michelini from FreeImages

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