Apologies if the title is misleading, but this won’t be about a secret cure for mental health problems that involves kissing as many people as possible. There will be kissing, but this post is mainly going to be about communicating when you have depression. It is seemingly impossible at times to communicate what you are going through to others. When struggling you tend to be in the minority and feel powerless. The goal of this post is to give some helpful tips I have learned about how to let others know what you are going through. Not just that you have a mental health problem, but how it affects you.
Just a quick reminder that talking with trained professionals is crucial and needs to be prioritized. This post is about talking to non-medical folks.
To be clear, I did almost none of these things when I started talking about having depression. It was too big for my brain to comprehend at the time. I am not writing these things because I brilliantly navigated my way through having depression. I stumbled through every sentence, often unable to understand what was happening to me. My desperate emotional state seemed at odds with ever understanding my suffering. Yet, it is possible to wrap your head round what is going on, and it is worth it.
This week I have been staying with my brother and sister-in-law. They have a little boy who is a bundle of joy, but has had a cold this week. Because he has been ill, Owen has been a wee bit more grumpy than usual (although still a total star). He is the same wonderful, caring, and playful boy he has always been, but just needs us to be a bit more gracious when he is ill (his parents are amazing at this). We all know what it is like to feel miserable and ill, thus he gets some special treatment whilst he is sick.
This is exactly what needs to happen with depression. Depression is an illness, so when people have depression, you need to cut them a bit more slack when they are ill. The major difference here is the severity and strangeness of depression. Depression isn’t just a cold, it can be far worse. We need to be extra gracious for those struggling. When I say it is strange, I mean that it is a bit more difficult for people to empathise with depression than a cold.
It has been easy to see that Owen is ill. His runny nose and throaty cough mean even the most unobservant among us would instantly be aware of the situation. These signals allow us to catch on to his indispositions without any need for him to say explicitly. This is a great thing because he is two and can’t yet articulate what it is to suffer from his symptoms.
This is oddly like my experience with depression. I am not saying that I am as lucid as a toddler, I will leave that for you to decide. Rather, I found myself suffering from a whole host of symptoms which overwhelmed me. I knew that they made me feel horrible, I know that I hated them, but I didn’t know how to express this. It was a new type of suffering that I didn’t have words for. This only makes things more isolating. I couldn’t reach out to people for help because I lacked the requisite vocabulary or understanding. Because depression is hard to talk about, and there is powerful stigma and misunderstandings surrounding the topic, people don’t know how to help.
Some things were easy to assist Owen with. We would help him blow his nose when it was runny. The reason we knew how to do this, despite his lack of verbal communication on the matter, was because of our understanding of what a cold is. Due to the nature of depression and the state of our society, this is not the case with depression (I have no idea what mental health illness’ symptom corresponds with a runny nose). This means that people who are ill don’t always get the support we need. This is why it is so important to have a discussion about these things.
If you are reading this and find yourself thinking that people with depression need to toughen up, then you have come to the right place. Please keep reading because that is not how depression works. It is an illness, and illnesses limit you in various ways. Some people who read my blogs or talk to me about depression think that I am advocating coddling people who suffer with depression. Or that I want to excuse their actions and give the millennials what they are stereotypically entitled to. This is not true at all. People with mental health problems have a ton of work to do when facing these illnesses, but the way to help is to come alongside those of us struggling. Ignoring the ramifications of the problem just causes more pain.
Crucially, people who have struggled/are struggling with depression need to play our part in this dialogue. We need to talk about it, but only in the proper, healthy context. This usually comes after years of practice and difficulty, and even then, it sucks. This context is hardly ever a public forum or a group setting, but usually sitting down with a loved one in a safe and secure environment.
A big stumbling block to this discussion is how difficult it is to talk about depression. It is a storm composed of many fronts. Articulating the idea is nigh on impossible at times as people may react badly and hurt us, there is an abundance of social stigma, and it is scary. Despite all this, it can be done, and it is so worth it.
Talking about depression
Although this would win points for being pithy, it shows how ignorant and arrogant I was. It is not that simple. If it were, I would be out of a blog.
If I was writing this 6 years ago it would be my shortest blog post. In regards to talking about depression, it would mostly comprise of this…
For the most part, I now find it moderately easy to talk about having depression. Not as easy as talking about football, but a lot easier now I have come to terms with it a bit as I come to terms with it. There are times when it doesn’t seem worth the effort, but it has been extremely helpful. I am only happy writing to encourage people to talk about this topic because I know how much it sucks to talk about having depression.
I was ill for about 6 months before I told anyone. I was ill all the time, but didn’t want to mention to my friends what it really was. I knew that telling them would mean accepting what was wrong with me, which terrified me. Instead I avoided the truth and kept ploughing on. The first time I managed to tell someone I didn’t know what to say other than “the doctors think it is depression.” I didn’t know what to say next or how to continue the conversation, so I didn’t talk about it for another 6 months.
One thing I did notice though, is that the first time was the hardest. The second time was still hard, but slightly less though. It did get easier over time. However, easier is a relative term. Every time that it came up in conversation I would tense up and get anxious. I would stop making eye contact and lost the feeling in my arms and legs. I hated it. Telling people made me feel weak and that I was letting people down. It made me disappointed in myself for having to struggle with this illness.
I would start to feel isolated and think that my friends would reject me or be disappointed in me. I didn’t want people to think less of me and was afraid that it would compromise our relationship. These feeling were made worse in the context of feeling lonely because of depression. Telling people was horrible.
#1 Telling people gets easier with practice, but it sucks at first.
Thankfully depression is like kissing someone (mum and dad, if you are reading this, this is all speculation). The first time you kiss someone it is terrifying and awkward (also great, or so I have heard). You don’t really know what you are doing and are totally out of your comfort zone. It can be easy for insecurities or a lack of confidence to make this a traumatizing experience. Depending on the outcome, and who you are kissing, this can be a big relief, or a disaster. The good news is that each succeeding kiss will be easier (in theory). Even if it feels awkward for years to come, it will never be as difficult as it was before.
Whilst kissing has never caused me to lose feeling in my arms and legs, or caused me to feel lonely and anxious, it is similar to telling people that you have depression. The first time you tell someone is scary. I didn’t know what I was doing or how the people were going to react. I felt like it could end well or terribly. For me it ended decently, neither great nor badly. However, each time it has got a lot better. It took me about four years of practicing telling people that I have depression before I stopped losing the feeling in my body when I told people. It still can happen, but it is so much better in general.
This creates a positive cycle where I can talk about it more and feel better about it when I do talk about it. The important thing to take from this isn’t that you should go around kissing people, but telling people does get easier.
#2 Remember that telling people is worth it.
Another subtler point from the analogy above is that it is worth the hassle. Kissing is great (again, only from what I have heard), so the analogy still holds. The more you feel comfortable kissing the better it gets. Having painted a picture of how difficult it is to tell people that you have depression, it might seem strange that this is an article telling people that they should discuss it, but hear me out.
Here is a quick-fire list of benefits of talking about depression, which I would love to elaborate on, but never seem to have enough space in these blogs.
- You can be more comfortable around someone who knows you have depression. They will more likely have healthy expectations for you.
- Telling someone usually strengthens the relationship dramatically. Being vulnerable with someone deepens relationships, this is no exception.
- They can help in a lot of different ways if they understand the situation better, like helping you get medical care.
- It helps break social stigma.
- It can be helpful for coming to terms with being ill.
- It may help you realise ways in which it affects you.
- It helps you get out of your own head and get some perspective. This can crucial when fighting negative thoughts.
- The more you talk about it the more it empowers you to talk about it. Then you can reap more benefits from talking about it.
There are more, but not for now…
#3 Take baby steps. Start Small and work your way up.
The first two points are good things to remember when telling people rather than advice on how to tell them, but this is where things get practical.
The first ‘actual’ tip is to take it easy and slowly when telling people. It is an enormous challenge. I couldn’t even tell my family or greatest friends at first. I had a lot of great relationships and would be happy sharing almost anything with those close to me, but this was a unique challenge. It takes a long time to go from this to being able to openly discuss it. The obvious implication of this is that you shouldn’t go and announce it to a big group of people first. Work your way up.
#4 Start with someone close to you.
Because this can be a tough conversation, find a friend who is a good listener, who cares deeply for you, and loves you. Not only will they be the type of person who is probably best suited to help you, but the will also be most willing to listen. This is usually a family member or close friend.
Just a quick reminder that talking with trained professionals is crucial and needs to be prioritized. This post is about talking to non-medical folks.
#5 Find someone who is a good listener.
The ideal situation for telling someone what you are struggling with, with any issue, is someone who can listen well. This is someone who will sit there silently when appropriate, will ask questions, will affirm you, and will give you their undivided attention.
It may be the case that all your friends are bad listeners even though they love you. When this happens ignore #4. It is best to tell people close to you, but if they are terrible listeners then maybe start with other people and move onto them after some practice.
#6 Go in with an agenda and be intentional.
This probably sounds weird and mechanical but it isn’t. A lot of people, myself included, tend to idealise an ‘organic’ relationship where all topics that need to be talked about come up naturally and nobody ever has to ominously say “can we talk about something?” At best, it is like a rock dropping into your stomach, at worst it feels like your parents are about to ban you from playing video games again. Unfortunately, these ‘organic’ relationships are probably the stuff of legends, the longing for comfortable relationships instantiated in myth.
An agenda is required for any serious conversation. A plan is helpful, go into the meeting with a list of things you want to say. A simple example would be a two-part plan. The first part is saying “I want you to know that I have depression,” and the second part being “This is a significant part of my life, so please ask me questions about it.” I find it so much easier to talk about something when someone is asking questions about it. Talking about depression is horrible, so anyway in which the experience can be improved is strongly recommended.
Going in with a plan can also be helpful because it stops things getting awkward. People might not know how to respond, so they might say “sorry to hear that,” and then the conversation stalls. This can be tough if you are bearing your heart, so have a sentence or two prepared about what you want to say to them. This whole thing may be tough and feel awkward, but it is worth it.
#7 Do this over food or a drink.
Everything in life should be done with food and drink nearby. Sharing food is a wonderful way to build relationships and makes the situation much less intense. Also, if things get awkward or difficult, you can just pretend to be really engrossed by your food as a temporary escape.
#8 Open up the conversation.
I am sure if I could see my younger self talk about depression I would cringe. Without a doubt, it would appear like I never wanted to talk about it again, which would have been tragic. I think that it is important to say to the person that it would be helpful if this was an ongoing discussion, even picking it up months later. Talking about the topic with the same person repeatedly can be a lot easier than starting from scratch each time.
#9 Don’t feel bad if it doesn’t work out or you struggle talking about it.
I posted a video by the TED talk people on the blog which gives a succinct talk about what depression is. One of the points it makes is that it takes someone on average 10 years to talk about mental health struggles. That is a very long time. I cannot emphasize how tough this is. Don’t beat yourself up if you haven’t managed it yet.
The other side of this coin is that he people who you are telling might not know the best ways to respond. It is a tricky situation and one that is tough to get right without prior experience. Be very gracious to those you are telling.
#10 Do it in writing first.
Telling someone needs to be done in person, but doing it in writing is potentially a lot easier. What I mean by this is to write down your thoughts in a journal first. Handwritten is a lot better, but electronically works too. If you feel the need to preempt the conversation with someone with a Facebook message telling them of the topic at hand feel free to. However, don’t have the conversation online. Ultimately these conversations need to happen in person, but recording your thoughts in a diary or sending someone a heads up may be beneficial.
#11 Required reading is a must.
This is going to sound so stupid, but please just believe me. One of the best ways that people can understand your depression is by reading about it. Whilst it won’t usually be things that you have written, people reading about depression from articulate authors is immensely helpful. I find it unbelievably encouraging whenever one of my friends says that they have been reading up on the topic. They are saying that they love me enough to take the time to read things to help me.
This is one of the reasons I always ask people to share my blog (hint hint, it takes two seconds on Facebook, take a break and go do it). People reading about depression helps fight social stigma and all sorts of other wonderful stuff. But if someone who has depression goes on their Facebook to see that you have shared an article on depression it shows hope and love. This is not shameless self-promotion. I have received so many messages from people I don’t really know because someone they know has shared the blog and it has helped them. It doesn’t have to be this blog, but please get people reading and share material on the topic. I know that sending your friends and family a reading list is strange, but it often has amazing results.
There are more tips (get in touch and ask!), but I want to mention some things to avoid before I bore you.
#12 Don’t do these!
Particularly initially, be wary of telling people who are adversarial. The last thing you need in this discussion is an argument.
Don’t start with people who ignore the medical evidence. This will just make life miserable for you and they might spread misinformation to you.
Don’t talk about it online rather than in person. The anonymity provided by hiding behind a screen can be freeing, but it can be terrible for telling people you have depression. Whilst it is probably easier to do so over the internet, it is far worse for you in many ways. I don’t have space to go into it, but please trust me that it is a bad idea. If you want to tell someone thousands of miles away at least do it over Skype or something similar.
If the person doesn’t react in the way which you would hope, it’s ok. This happens and is probably not your fault. It is ok to ask them to respond in a certain way as well (not that you can control their emotions, although I am looking into mind control). Feel free to say, “please listen to what I am have to say then give me a hug after,” or “I just need you to listen for a second then please ask some questions because this is super tough.” Whoever you choose to tell probably loves you lots, but also probably doesn’t have too much experience, cut them some slack and don’t take confusing reactions personally.
Don’t exhaust yourself or make yourself ill trying to tell people. Whilst it is great to tell people, and you need to tell some people at some point, look after yourself.
Don’t give up. Getting comfortable talking about this takes ages, maybe even years. Remember that the benefits are immense, but it is a long-term strategy.
Hopefully, this helped. Even if you don’t have depression I tried to write it to give some insight into what having depression is like. I might write more on this topic from the other side on helpful ways to respond and support someone when they confide in you. Thanks for reading this and please get in touch if you have any questions, would love to help in any way that I can.