Changing the Conversation around Mental Health Starts with You

sad black manMay is Mental Health Awareness Month. Why is it so difficult to talk about mental health issues? One of the most common things I hear from people in therapy is, “You are the only person who knows this.” Said differently, “You are the first person I have ever shared this with.” Same message, different words; basically, the individual never felt that there was someone around to hear or listen to what he or she is struggling with.

For me, mental health awareness is not only talking about specific issues and the need to advocate for better access to care. Although that is extremely important, I think the most important part of the discussion has to do with the discussion itself. Why is it that we are so afraid to talk to our loved ones about our issues? In a recent blog post for GoodTherapy.org, I wrote about losing connection in the age of information. The growth in social media and evolution of electronic devices can contribute to disconnection and sometimes even increase our experiences of isolation, loneliness, and depression.

This is why creating awareness around the conversation is so important. Shouldn’t we be able to talk to our loved ones about what is happening to us? When we change the conversation, we can create change in how mental health is viewed and understood.

It starts with opening yourself up to the conversation. Often, individuals wait until they meet a therapist to talk about their issues because they have difficulty accepting the issues in the first place. When you admit and accept that you are not feeling well emotionally, you open the door to allowing yourself to be honest and genuine. Existential theory believes, as I have said before, that the key to change is relationship and awareness. This has to start with the self. A relationship we often neglect is the one with the self. When we begin to be honest and aware of ourselves, we can then work on our relationships with others.

Second, take a moment to understand why it may be difficult for you to talk to loved ones—and why it may be difficult for them to listen. More times than not, the reason it is too difficult to talk to others about our difficulties is because we believe they cannot understand. We believe that they will not be able to empathize. Although this can be true at times, more often than not our loved ones actually can understand.

In order to feel understood, though, it takes us having to be honest with ourselves about what we need. We often create excuses in our heads, convincing ourselves that we are alone, that we are the first to go through something, when really we are not. It may be difficult for a loved one to hear what you are struggling with because he or she may feel helpless. Again, it helps to know what you need, which you get from awareness, in order to then ask for help.

If we are not aware of what we need, this will continue the cycle of feeling helpless. If that occurs, it is important to validate both yourself and your loved one about the feeling of helplessness and understand that it is OK to feel that way and that, over time, it will pass.

Finally, sometimes when we are struggling emotionally, all we need to do initially is sit with it and allow it to exist. Sometimes we have to accept the difficult emotions as they are rather than trying to mask, hide, or run away from them. Once we do that, we can open ourselves up to the process of change.

Sitting with emotional issues should include, but often does not include, talking to others about our experience. This part includes the actual conversation. During this conversation, try to be as honest as you can with yourself and others. Remember that, more times than not, your loved one has experienced what you have, even if he or she may have been too afraid to talk about it. Take time to check in with yourself and ask yourself, “What am I feeling? What do I need right now in this moment that is healthy for me? Am I afraid? What am I so afraid of?”

Most importantly, remind yourself, “I am not alone. I am not alone. I am not alone.”

© Copyright 2014 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Pooja Shah, PsyD, therapist in Bakersfield, California

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Sada

    May 19th, 2014 at 2:20 PM

    The reason that this can be so hard is because there are people who think that you must have a plague worse than death if you even come out and admit that you are struggling with some emotional issues. I do think that it is time to begin a real conversation about mental health, but by the same token I think that you also have to be careful who you talk to about certain things. There will always be those people who do not understand how hard it is to come out and talk about this and there will also be those people who would for horrible reasons use this information against you at some point in time. Choose your friends wisely is what I would recommend.

  • jonathan

    May 20th, 2014 at 3:42 AM

    Just having someone else to talk to and being reassured that you are not in this alone can be hugely gratifying.

    Too many times I think that there are those who are experiencing things like this who tend to do it alone and try to do things without the help of others because I think that there is this tendency to feel like no one else will ever understand.

    That may be the case at times but then there are other instances when someone will know exactly what you are feeling and experiencing because they have been there at some point in time too. Don’t clam up just because you think that no one can see what you do. There are far many who can than you may realize.

  • Dillon

    May 20th, 2014 at 4:28 PM

    Yes!
    This is something that we all have to commit to beginning together!
    One person cannot do it all, and one voice cann’t speak for the entire community.

  • Nola

    May 21st, 2014 at 8:22 AM

    When there is still so much misinformation going around I think that this is why you also see the large amount of hesitation that some have with sharing their stories. They are afraid of being undermined and told that they are not good enough. I just want to remind everyone that we all have our issues to live with, some bigger than others, and who am I to judge the things that someone else is living with? It is my job to be supportive and not just another smidge of negative in someone’s life.

  • connor

    May 22nd, 2014 at 3:39 AM

    It isn’t as if you can just come out and start talking about stuff like this with the first person you see.
    It at least needs to be someone that you trust, that you have some confidence in, that’s the way to break the ice with these kinds of difficult conversations.
    Choose to talk to someone whom you feel will exude love over judgement, and this will help you to be a little more comfortable when telling your story.
    The more you talk about it the easier it will be, but those first steps, they can feel like baby steps and you need to starrt with someone that you know you can trust and who will support you.

  • Carson

    May 26th, 2014 at 8:31 AM

    I agree with Connor because there are definitely going to be those people who are going to be scared away the minute that you start talking about your problems.

    You have to know the right time to have this conversation and the right time to back away from it and maybe try again later.

    This can even be with someone that you have known for a very long time but that still does not mean that they are open to being the one you share your most intimate details and secrets with.

    I agree that the conversation begins with you, but it has to be in the right way.

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