As a Peer Support Worker, I listen to people explain their mental health stories every day. I have spent hours being trained to better understand how to tell stories about mental illness and trauma safely, and I’ve become well-acquainted with the process of facilitating a safe space for others to do so, too. When the working day is over, I moonlight as a psychology student, so my evenings are also filled with tales of mental distress, reports on suicide, and everything in between. As serious as it can be, I love talking about mental health. I literally do it all day long. But, when it comes to reaching out and sharing my current mental state with others, even I can be lost for words.
Reaching out to others in search of support and solidarity is an incredibly challenging and inherently vulnerable process when it comes to mental health. Whether you’re struggling with stress from work or home, or you’re coping with a mental health condition, it takes an immense amount of courage to disclose your innermost thoughts to someone you love, a trusted colleague, or even a complete stranger.
Personally, I was very lucky to grow up in a family that maintained a consistent dialogue about mental wellbeing. Since members of my extended family have suffered from depression and anxiety, my parents always made a concerted effort to check in with my sister and I if they saw some signs of stress or unexplained mood swings. And yet, when OCD crept up on me in my early teen years, I still felt like I had nowhere to turn and that no one could possibly understand what was happening in my mind. I was afraid of judgment and confusion from my loved ones – if I couldn’t find the language to explain my terrifying intrusive thoughts and compulsive urges, they might think I was utterly mad. However, when my mental health took a serious turn and I became suicidal, it was essential that I talked to someone, no matter how uncertain I felt. As my favourite researcher and mental health hero, Dr Brené Brown, says “we don’t have to do it all alone – we were never meant to”, and I know now that speaking up and reaching out is a step on the path to wellness.
If you’ve already registered for eFriend, you’ve taken an incredibly brave step. Talking to someone you’ve never met before about how you’re coping can be a strange and daunting experience, no matter how friendly they are. In my opinion, the best support networks are the ones with multiple safety nets. When I have more than one person or group to lean on, I find myself better equipped to manage what I’m going through. Different supports will give me different skills and insights, which weave together to create a holistic set of strategies that work for me. If one person isn’t available to chat, or needs a break from supporting me, I have other people to seek help from. If a problem shared is a problem halved, then having a comprehensive support network means that I have a number of people who can prop me up and make me feel supported without sacrificing their own needs. With that in mind, here are my top tips for reaching out for mental health support:
Family and friends
1. Tell them exactly what you need
My Mum is a fixer. If I come to her with a problem, she will instantly jump into solutions-mode before I even have a chance to stop her. When it comes to managing my mental health condition, I had to tell my Mum explicitly that all I needed from her was a listening ear. I didn’t need too much advice, or for her to come to my rescue, I just needed someone to hear my story and meet me with empathy and compassion. Have a think about what you need from the people in your life and give them clear instructions around how they can support you. If they aren’t sure of what you need, they might start guessing, which can mean that your needs aren’t being met. You won’t need the same things from everyone, and that’s perfectly valid.
2. Your mind, your choice
No matter how close you are to someone, what you choose to disclose to them about your mental health is completely your choice. There is no expectation that you tell your partner of your best friend every single detail of what’s going on for you, because some thoughts and feelings are allowed to stay private, regardless of the nature of your relationship. If someone in your life struggles with this idea, it can be helpful to explain to them that it has nothing to do with your opinion of them, and it has more to do with what is constructive for you on your mental health journey.
3. Set the tone
If talking to your family or friends about your mental health isn’t something you normally do, it could be tricky for both of you to navigate. If you’re concerned that someone won’t understand what you’re saying or won’t take you seriously, start by creating some placement around the conversation. Let them know that this conversation is a little more serious, and that this is something that is incredibly important to you. Mental health is a very personal experience, and no two individuals will have exactly the same experience. Give your support person the space to ask questions, as this can help them empathise with what you’re trying to explain. They may not understand perfectly, but that’s okay – they don’t always need to in order to support you.
Mental Health Supports
1. Take time to build trust
Developing a relationship with a new doctor, psychologist, mental health social worker, or psychiatrist can be just like starting a new relationship with anyone in that it takes time to build trust. It’s okay to progressively open up to a mental health professional, because it is important for you to feel safe and comfortable throughout the process of seeking help.
2. Honesty is the best policy
For a long time, I tried to convey to my psychologists that I was coping better than I was. Whether this came from a fear of seeming weak or as though I wasn’t trying hard enough, I can’t be sure, but I do know that honesty has saved my mental health. I’ve come to realise that doctors and psychologists
do recognise that reshaping your mental health is easier said than done. It can be hard to take action, and sometimes you may fall down or make less than ideal choices, but there really isn’t any judgment because clinicians are human, too. Any step towards working on your mental health is a good one, so be sure to give yourself credit for whatever strides you have made in the right direction.
3. You are the expert on you
While I am very lucky to have a GP and a psychologist that I trust unequivocally, I have certainly had encounters with doctors that have made me feel disempowered. Just because someone is a specialist in a certain area of mental health doesn’t mean that their opinion is more valuable than yours in a conversation about you. There should be nothing said about you without you, so make sure that your clinician makes you feel heard. If they don’t, it’s perfectly fine to look for someone new