By: Athena Wu
The conversation around mental health and illness is daunting—for people on both ends.
While more and more people are talking about mental health, it is still an unfamiliar and uncomfortable territory. It may be because of the stigma of mental illnesses that has haunted our society for ages, or it may simply point toward how humans despise being vulnerable. We build walls up around ourselves for security, protecting our innermost thoughts and emotions from judgment. We hide our burdens because we don’t want to burden others, or we believe that we can deal with them on our own. Opening ourselves up to others, as well as having others be vulnerable with us, can bring up fear—fear of judgment, fear of rejection, fear of doing something wrong, but also fear for a loved one’s well-being. With these intimidating emotions swarming our minds, having conversations around matters such as depression, addiction, or suicidality is not at all easy, but it is still nevertheless essential in protecting lives and healing.
How can I tell someone that I am struggling?
It all begins with one line:
“I’m not doing too well. Can I talk to you about it?”
You can say it face-to-face, over text, through Snapchat—whichever platform makes you comfortable. Talking in person is better for physical connection and empathy. After all, there are no emojis or abbreviations we can hide behind. It’s the real thing—raw emotion and expression. Although I try to challenge myself to have vulnerable talks face-to-face, I do find it easier to express everything I want to talk about through messaging apps. They give each person time and space to react, process, and contemplate without the stress of being put on the spot.
Know ahead of time what you want to tell them. At the moment, I tend to get caught up in my thoughts, anxiously rethinking my decision to talk about my struggles. The reluctance and uncertainty quickly take hold, and suddenly, it’s all too easy to close up, “Never mind, it’s nothing. I forgot what I was going to say.” Being nervous and scared to take that first step is normal, but if you already have a plan of what you want to get out of the conversation, it becomes so much easier to keep going forward with it.
Think about what you want them to understand about you: your emotions, your daily struggles, and your triggers. Give them a glimpse into your mind while still sharing only as much as what you are comfortable with. Tell them how they can be of support: “I don’t really need advice, but I’d like to talk to someone when I’m feeling overwhelmed.” Planning out these “goals” beforehand can give you much more reassurance and security going into the conversation, and communicating them to the other person will help them understand you better, as well.
What do I say when someone confides in me?
Being on the receiving end of this conversation is a much different situation. You’re on the spot. A deer in headlights. Especially if you’re not familiar with mental health struggles, you likely won’t know the best thing to say. Is there even a “best thing” to say? Do you ask more questions, or is that intrusive? Do you try to reassure them? Do you say something funny to make them laugh?
The truth is that everyone is different. People cope in different ways. What could be helpful for one person could be frustrating for someone else. If you feel stuck, fruitlessly racking your brain for a response, there is an easy answer: “Thank you for trusting me. I don’t really know what to say, but I’m sorry you’re going through this. If I can do anything to help, let me know.” Let them tell you what they need, rather than trying to guess. Don’t try to solve their problems. Mental illnesses aren’t curable overnight. Listen to what they’re saying. They might ask you to make some changes or stop doing something that isn’t helpful for them but don’t get defensive. Understand that they aren’t blaming you, but they are actually trusting you with a part of themselves they likely don’t share with many people. Then, afterward, go do some research.
How do I reach out if I think a loved one is struggling?
Opening up is, for the lack of a better word, hard. Many people who suffer mentally are not going to be the ones to reach out first, even if they do want support. They are hoping that you will notice that they are not okay. The signs will be there, so if you notice shifts in mood or behavior, look into it. Changes in appetite and sleep, social withdrawal, and mood swings are common indicators of mental illnesses or mental health issues.
Check in with them often, and be prepared if the answer is that they are not okay. If it comes to a point where you are worried about suicidal thoughts, substance abuse, self-harm, or other dangerous behaviors, the best thing to do is ask them about it. Let them know that you’re worried and that you want to help without sounding accusatory—tone matters. The tone you start with will set the mood for the conversation. It will make it or break it.
The conversation doesn’t end after the first one. It is continuous. And it certainly isn’t one-sided. Opening up to one another pushes you to navigate your emotions that otherwise might have been kept bottled up inside. It strengthens your relationships and how you empathize with other people. Vulnerable conversations don’t always get easier, but having them and embracing help and support can make life a little more bearable.