Communicating mental health needs can be an incredibly difficult and frustrating thing to try to do. I recently wrote a post about the problem with communication with mental illness explaining why this is the case, in this post I offered a little bit of advice on how to communicate your mental health needs which I will expand on further.
Why it is difficult.
As I wrote previously I find the main problem is that people just don’t understand, those who are lucky enough not to experience mental health issues in their life just cannot comprehend how it feels to someone who is suffering. This lack of awareness and understanding often leads to them saying the wrong thing which can be incredibly invalidating and frustrating. Despite the best intentions, and I truly believe most people to have these, this can happen on an unbelievable level. I have had people tell me I am not bipolar, that I am possessed, etc.
Who needs to change?
Understanding this is key to understanding my perspective and benefitting from the advice laid out in this post. Your mental illness is not your fault, you did not ask for it and you did not do anything to deserve it. Despite this, you are the one who needs to change. You are not at fault, nor are you doing anything ‘wrong’ but if you seek to change the dynamics of the communication within the relationship that needs to come from within yourself, you cannot change other people.
If you experience anxiety or low self-esteem this can be difficult to accept without feeling like a piece of shit, basically. You feel as though all the communication problems in your life are your fault anyway and being told it is you who needs to change validates those negative beliefs but that is not the case. Unfortunately, most people you come across will lack the capacity or the desire to change for the better interest of someone else, it is difficult and that goes against human nature. It is due to their lack of understanding that you must change, you need to meet them on their level and bring them over to yours.
1. Relate your experience to physical health.
The poor communication of mental health needs often stems from a lack of understanding, based upon a lack of experience with the symptoms. However, everyone has suffered some form of physical illness in their life and mental illness can bring on a lot of physical symptoms that can help you to explain what is going on. I find it extremely useful to relate my experience and describe it in a physical way when talking to somebody who doesn’t relate.
For example in depression it is common to feel tired, lacking motivation, wanting to sleep or rest a lot more, lacking an appetite and so on. Instead of saying “I feel depressed” it could be more useful to the other person if you were to say “I feel quite run down, I don’t have much of an appetite and I feel I just need to rest.” Honestly who can even argue with that, everybody feels this way from time to time.
Anxiety sufferers can often feel sick, shaky, like they are going to pass out alongside the anxious feelings. Anxiety to a non-sufferer means a slight worry, let’s face it, and it is so much more than that, but when you say I am anxious you get invalidated so much because of this. Instead, you could say “I feel ill, I feel nauseous and it’s making me not want to do much.” Again who hasn’t felt sick and been put off whatever they were supposed to be doing?
2. Keep it simple
Mental illness can be overwhelming, so many symptoms can onset at once and they can create an awful combination. Trying to explain one of these symptoms to somebody can be difficult enough, trying to explain all of them at once is going to be impossible. Instead, try to keep it simple and focus only on the ones causing you the most trouble in the moment, or the ones that person can help you with. Instead of saying you feel guilty, worthless, low self-esteem, unmotivated, say you feel sad. It is easier to digest and essentially comforted in very similar ways so the switch will work.
3. Experiment with your words
Everybody is different, we all have different perspectives and associations of emotions. Therefore different people will react differently to different words that you use when explaining how you feel. For example saying you feel tired could lead to them understanding the feelings of lethargy, or it could lead to invalidation. Everyone feels tired in the morning, try exhausted instead.
4. Be Patient
It takes a lot of patience to learn to understand someone with mental illness yes, but it also takes patience to try to explain your feelings to others. Nobody is going to understand overnight as soon as you say you feel sick and tired once or twice, you have to drip feed the information and allow them to formulate a picture over time based on the experiences you share with them.