Being open about a mental illness is definitely one of those “spectrum cases.” By this, I mean it’s not an either/or scenario. You aren’t either open or shut off about your mental illness. There are degrees.
Starting close to home, you first have to be open with yourself. Maybe this seems weird, like obviously you’d know if you had a mental illness, right? No. Not necessarily. You may know something is off or not quite right, but that doesn’t translate into you automatically understanding that you have X Y or Z mental health issue. Even if you suspect that you do, admitting it to yourself and being able and willing to get help and an actual diagnosis can seem like a mile long hurdle. It’s not always easy.
Going outwards from there, we have our immediate and extended families. Are we open about our mental illness with them? The immediate family likely knows something is up. At least for me, my husband was my greatest advocate in admitting it to myself and helping me find care. My children knew instinctively, I think, that something was going on. I didn’t really even have to “tell” my immediate family because they just knew.
Extended family can be more difficult. Many people don’t want to let anyone beside “the essentials” know about their mental illness, and frankly, I don’t blame them at all. Stigmas abound in our society. Mental illness may as well be leprosy in some cases with the way people react. Instead of a health problem that has a solution, most people tend to see mental illness as a defect of character (which it’s not, by the way). So I totally get it if a person doesn’t want to let their extended family, friends, etc. know about their struggles.
Still, this makes me sad. It makes me sad that in our society, you hear people saying “She’s depressed, ” “She’s bipolar,” “He’s OCD” etc. I’ve said thing like this! We probably all have! But we don’t say, “She’s cancer,” “He’s the flu,” or “She’s a broken leg.” It’s this double standard that makes it hard for others to be open about mental illness, and since people aren’t often open about mental illness, it reinforces this veil of secrecy and misunderstanding. If people don’t step up to correct misconceptions, they continue to spread.
But back to the extended family, I get it. I get how it can be hard to be open. Parents often tell you to “Snap out of it!” Maybe it’s a generational thing. Maybe it’s that they don’t want to feel like it’s their fault that you ended up with a mental illness. Who knows. Being open means having to face the stigmas, the questions, the assumptions. You become the brunt of them. And it’s not easy, especially if you are at a fragile or precarious state of your treatment. So be open gradually, as you improve. Don’t feel like you have to make a world wide announcement. Take your time, if you do it at all.
From there, we have friends, acquaintances, and strangers. Friends and acquaintances are tricky. Sometimes you find a friend sharing the same struggle and it is amazing! You realize that you are not alone. You have a built in support group. You can share stories and encourage each other. But other friends do not share your struggle. Other friends and acquaintances may not understand at all what you are going through. They may think you are overreacting. Being dramatic. Trying to get attention.
Some friends and acquaintances may not know what to do with the information that you have a mental illness. They might be so worried about offending you that they start doing strange things and acting odd. It happens. I don’t know the solution, but I do know that sometimes it feels good to finally let the “other people” experience the awkwardness. You’ve been awkwardly fitting into the social scene while hiding your mental health problems, trying to seem normal, etc., and now you’ve turned the tables. It can be a nice change of scenery.
And strangers? Well, unless you start a blog or something (ahem), chances are you aren’t going to have much opportunity to tell random people about your mental illness. But even just going to therapy and sitting in the waiting room can be an exercise in openness.
At the end of the day, how open you are about your mental health is up to you. It is a private and fragile matter, and everyone has a different comfort level. Don’t assume that everyone will stigmatize you, but don’t expect that everyone will understand and welcome you with open, empathizing arms either. It’s not easy, but that’s okay. If you can handle mental illness, you can probably handle this too.