May 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.”
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