This is a question I have been asked quite a lot and most recently from a friend who has scars from cutting. When you meet somebody you think may become a friend do you blurt it out? Tell all. Get it over with: rather than investing time in this person only to see them dash away when they found out, maybe just get it over with now?
It’s taken me a while to read on this subject, think on it and work out how to answer.
The first thing I looked at is why do we have friends? Is it important? And if so, why.
Intuitively we all understand that we require human contact, we are programmed to be part of a herd not a solitary hunter. More than this studies show that human closeness is FUNDAMENTAL to our mental well-being, the lack of it we term “loneliness” may not only be correlated to mental health disorders but a cause of it.
Depression was studied by the University of Chicago over a 5 year period, they found that if a person was lonely early in the 5 year period they would develop depression later on, in other words, loneliness may be the first stage of depression. Loneliness in the study preceded depression far more frequently than depression preceded loneliness.
Addiction is another area that researchers argue is caused by loneliness. Chasing the Scream: The first and last days of the war on drugs by Johann Hari (2015) established the concept that those who are surrounded by rewarding, supportive closeness to other humans did not become addicted drugs, even when exposed to addictive prescription drugs. Those who were lonely and isolated did become addicted to those same prescription drugs.
Hoarding usually called “obsessive-compulsive disorder” has its roots in emptiness, isolation and loneliness. The need to fill the void with “things”.
The more I researched the more I realized that this is a supremely important question to ask and to answer. Should I be open about my mental health challenges, past and present, or should I shut up? The most important thing to say is this: only you can decide this, you should talk to your psychologist in depth about it and understand the risks, benefits, etc but I shall do my best here to outline the things to think on and give you my view of it all, remembering though that I am completely open about all things MH and not really a great example of “normal”. Before talking to your psych put together a PRO’s/CON’s list, this should be a general list of the benefits of telling and the disadvantages of telling.
One of the BIGGEST disadvantages of telling others about your mental health challenges is that you risk BECOMING that label. Many folk out there will react by trying to “fix you”. There are also a number out there with undiagnosed MH issues like borderline personality disorder, narcissism, sociopathic tendencies, etc that will view your admission as a perfect tool to manipulate, control and coerce you. Having been the victim a few times (I’m a slow learner) of these individuals I can tell you it is awful, they will attempt to destroy your life and all you hold dear. The other kind of person out there is the one that sees their entire existence as being supported by your label. I have watched this in parents of kids with “anxiety”, they encourage, create and establish these disorders in their children in order to provide themselves with this blanket of empathy and attention from others (a mental health version of munchausen – google it). Often spouses of those with MH issues slip unknowingly into this role, it is called co-dependency and is a terrible trap to descend into.
Work: a great number of you reading this are first responders, serving military, doctors, etc. You all have one thing in common: If your employer finds out you are fighting a mental health disorder you will find yourself out of a job/put on desk duty/removed from your current position. So, anybody you tell had better be absolutely trustworthy. Yes, yes, I wish it were otherwise too but I have yet to find the unicorn to fart fairy dust to make wishes come true. Be a trailblazer? A whistleblower? Stand up for the ones who come after you? I lost a friend last year to suicide, he told me he was going to do it and how. He did exactly as he’d told me he would 3 years ago. He was a whistleblower, he did the tv shows, he forced change within his department and now he is dead. I no longer ask others to do as he did, I only ask that they do what is right for them.
Having said that and scared you silly, I will whistle my own way onwards towards the benefits of telling.
Three things will happen when you tell somebody about your mental health disorder or challenges:
- they are educated on MH, understand and empathetic. They will demonstrate this with a respectful curiosity, a genuine interest and when they overstep a boundary you have established, they will apologize, take note and respect it from then on. It’s important to remember that this will be new territory for them so communication is very important, providing them with websites or groups to ask questions in is a great way to help that understanding.
- straight out of the gate they are awkward, uncomfortable and run away.
- this is probably the most difficult, the person lies and says they are fine with it. They then fade from your life, ghosting you from it. Many with MH disorders will struggle with this behaviour as it is deceptive and many of us expect truth, honesty and straight forwardness from those close to us. We generally only get that from others of our tribe.
Keep these three responses in mind when writing your Pro’s and Con’s.
If you have decided to tell then plan how you are going to approach it. The first step is to set up the conversation, clinicians call this the PROCESS TALK. It’s the “talking about talking” step. For example:
“I want to talk to you about something that is really important, but I don’t know how to ….”
“There is something going on in my life that is difficult to discuss, please could we talk about it but don’t laugh or joke about it….”
Whatever your version of this is, have it ready. If it’s easier send it by text. Set up the “talk”. And no, this isn’t a text or a message conversation, this is a face to face.
Be ready to give specifics of your mental health issue or disorder. Keep it short and to the point. “I have been diagnosed with …”, “I am having problems with ….”, “I am worried that I have… “, “I am worried that I am ….”
The first response in humans who genuinely care about us unless they are MH savvy is to express a need to help. Be ready for this and have a few suggestions as to how they can help, because trust me you don’t want them running off to find that magical South American cat that regurgitates the blossom of arnica and putting it in your tea. Think about who this person is, what they like to do and what they are good at. Whatever that is create things they can do that would help you whether its driving you to your next appointment, or helping you research something specific, being your second brain to think things through when your brain is on the fritz… Whatever it is, have a job ready and waiting or risk being given weird sh** in tea and pill form for the next year.
You DON’T have to SHARE EVERYTHING! Choose what you are and what you are not going to talk about. Do not be afraid to say “I’ve reached my limit”. A new friend of mine recently said this to me. He has established boundaries and I had asked one too many personal questions. It’s how this works. It protects you, your friend and most importantly your friendship/relationship.
Not everything about mental health disorders is bad, in fact, I say this all the time: the best humans are those who have suffered. All of my friends bar very few are those who have fought their own wars and fight every day. They are very real, very straight and don’t play games. That is important to me. I’m as blunt as a five pound hammer and that’s the sort of person I like to have close to me. My tribe. Think deeply on the benefits (yes benefits) of your mental health disorder and share those.
BOUNDARIES BOUNDARIES BOUNDARIES this is extremely important when you have disclosed a mental health disorder. Having solid and unmovable boundaries will protect you from falling victim to a narcissist or undiagnosed whatever.
So now to give you my personal view of this.
When I meet somebody for the first time it’s pretty obvious from the get-go that I am not your normal human. I have always had a thing about me that encourages others to share their inner-most and deepest “things”. It could be the aluminium hat I wear. So for the most part I have been saved from having to disclose anything as it’s a bit bloody obvious I’m either a witch or bat sh** crazy, or both. Smile. (Yes, I make jokes and use humour, so should you.)
If I’m in a big social environment I tend to be quiet and smile a lot, hoping nobody can see that I want to leave the moment I get there. I “fake it ’til I make it”, which honestly only gets me so far. I find military and police events far easier than normal social events, as there is a comfort for me being surrounded by uniforms and that faint whiff of cordite. In my previous life as a banker I became “the other me”, I developed a persona that could waft through a room and somewhat fit in. So, if this is your life develop a comfortable invisible shield or uniform you can slip into, you can take it off when you feel comfortable but until then … “fake it ’til you make it”.
I don’t hold on to any expectation of how another person is going to react when I tell them I have Complex PTSD. Acceptance is probably my biggest health tool. I simply do not expect anything from other people, good or bad. I leave it up to them, here this is me. Take it or leave it, I like me and I like who I am if you don’t.. meh.
I hope that this has helped in someway at least start the conversation in your head or with your psychologist. If you have any questions or observations I’d love to hear from you, either comment here or email, message me.
That photo is of my two best friends who have stuck by me through thick and thin. Very grateful everyday for them.
Brian here. When you talk to someone about this is debatable, but at the end of the day in my opinion you are going to talk about it if you are going to have a meaningful relationship. This mental reality you have is as much a part of you as any other. So unless you can have a meaningful relationship with someone and never talk about your spouse, job, kids, dreams etc; I can’t really see how you can have a full functioning relationship with the person.
Therein lies the question though. Do I need a full functioning relationship with everyone? Does everyone at the work christmas party need to know? Do their spouses that you have to be polite to once a year; do they need to know? Most likely not. But for those that you cherish, its going to come up.
Last point. Coming out of the closet on this is not a green light to be an asshole. Many times I’ve seen people justify every shitty thing they do to a friend as “oh, thats my PTSD.” Bullshit. You’re still a grown up. You own every word that comes out of your mouth, even if its influenced by PTSD. You own every time you’ve been late, even if remembering and scheduling screw ups are part of your PTSD. You own the shit you have to cancel at the last minute, even though thats directly related to you having to handle PTSD. And you are not absolved from having to apologize for those occurrences. You are you, warts and all and you’re simply explaining a thing or two about the origin of the warts. It is not a carte blanche to then carry on being a shithead, because you’ve put the disclaimer out there. You are simply explaining reality, like your friend with diabetes did when they explained why they won’t eat your shitty butter tarts or god awful christmas cake.