mental health

How to Talk to Loved Ones About Mental Health

A friend asked me for advice recently. Since I’m hardly the expert on, well, anything, I was humbled and flattered that she wanted my opinion.

Basically, she asked me how to talk about mental health with loved ones.

How do you explain your feelings of sadness, anxiety, or hopelessness to someone who hasn’t dealt with those feelings themselves?

How do you justify having a good day when you’ve told someone you regularly deal with mental health issues?

I can imagine it’s confusing to see someone you love go through the ebbs and flows of depression, anxiety, or even the occasional blues, especially when they can’t really point to one thing as the root of all those feelings.

When you catch a cold, you have very noticeable symptoms: stuffy nose, coughing, sneezing.

When it comes to depression and anxiety, however, it isn’t so obvious. Symptoms of these mental health disorders vary and will often be mistaken for being lazy or tired. So unlike someone saying they have a cold, saying you deal with depression or anxiety (or both) might just sound like an excuse.

We’ve been conditioned to believe we have to show physical signs of illness to be taken seriously. But why? Just because you can’t see mental illness doesn’t mean it’s not there.

So how do you tell that to your boyfriend, your girlfriend, your spouse or your family?

Well, first off, let me just say I know it’s not an easy thing to talk about. So even doing any of the following is courageous of you. I should also note that these aren’t end-all be-all solutions; even if you haven’t been diagnosed with depression or anxiety, we all know that talking about feelings can be really difficult. These are just some things that have helped me.

Remind them that it’s not their fault.

Maybe you’ve acted distant, standoffish, or just very much unlike yourself. To your loved one, it may feel like they’re the culprit. If we’re talking about romantic relationships specifically, your significant other might feel like they have something to do with your unhappiness.

But it’s not them. It’s the way your mind is wired. And though they might not believe it, you need to remind them that you’re not trying to make them feel bad. They didn’t do anything to make you feel this way, and they shouldn’t take it personally.

Ask them for help.

Even if it’s as simple as asking them to be patient with you or asking them to give you a little breathing room, let them know they’re on your team and that you need them. There will be times when there’s nothing they can do but ride it out with you. Just ask them to listen and be there when you need it.

Talk about it.

Sometimes it helps to have an honest, open conversation about it. Give them the chance to ask any questions they may have. You don’t have to have an answer or get to the bottom of anything, but just talking about the way you feel can be therapeutic if you’re comfortable with it.

For me, my anxiety can appear unannounced, but it’s usually triggered by my worrying mind and the fact that I agonize over things that haven’t yet happened. In those cases, it helps to talk about a specific scenario and walk through potential outcomes. Think about what feelings might come up and how you can squash them or avoid them altogether.

I’ll give you an example. In October I took my first trip overseas to attend a wedding in Scotland. When I first booked the ticket early in the summer, I was SO excited. I was visiting Europe for the first time! I’d be with friends! At a wedding! But as the trip got closer, I started getting really anxious.

I worried about the dynamic of the friend group. These girls are all my friends, but they share a special bond from living in Chicago for several years. Will I feel left out?

I was worried about logistics. What are we going to do once we arrive? I’m not good at taking the lead. Will someone else make decisions?

I was worried about having a good time. (I know. Crazy, right?) I can’t hang like I used to. What if I get sleepy and can’t party like everyone else?

Before the trip, my therapist and I talked through some of these scenarios. She told me to visualize arriving in Scotland. Getting off the plane. Walking through the airport. What would happen next? And then what? And what would you say/do? And what if [insert a situation here] happens?

Most of my answers were some variation of, “well, we’d be really excited to be there…” or “I just know I’m going to have the best time.” It sounds kind of silly, but after talking it all out I realized that my anxiety was NOT reality; it was completely unfounded.

Whether or not visualizing and walking through each step helps you find some clarity like it did for me, simply talking about it with a loved one (or a therapist!) might help.

 
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So here’s a little serving of some cold hard truth: They might never understand why you feel the way you feel. They can empathize, sure, but it’s one of those things that’s difficult to fully understand unless you’ve lived it.

Just remember: you’re not alone. SO MANY PEOPLE are on your side and know how you feel.

Mental Health Matters: My Story

I talk a lot about mental health on Instagram, as evidenced here, here, and here, just to point out a few examples. With 16+ years of diagnosed anxiety and depression under my belt, I’d like to think I have enough credibility to speak to it. But sometimes I wonder if people really know my history and why I’m so vocal about it. Or if they even care. Or if I just sound like another millennial advocating for #selfcare. (That’s definitely the anxiety talking.)

In any case, I want to share my story because it’s an important part of who I am and has inevitably become part of my business. Instagram has been a great platform for talking about mental illness, but it’s only part of a bigger picture.


I guess you could say I’m lucky; I can’t point to any trauma or abuse as a catalyst to my weekly panic attacks. They just happened.

Each breath wasn’t deep enough. I shook uncontrollably. Nauseated, my comforter tight against my closed mouth, I tried not to vomit. My mom and dad framed my twin bed, trying to comfort me. The world was closing in. I was only 11.

And that’s how I got to know anxiety.   

By the time I was 15 I became deeply depressed, crying a lot, completely unprovoked. I felt a sadness so overwhelming it made my bones ache. Everything hurt and I felt a heaviness that made the simplest to-dos feel like impossible feats.. Although I never attempted it, I thought about suicide and understood the physical pain and mental anguish of people who do take their lives.

My mom took notice and called my doctor. Soon after, I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety and prescribed Zoloft. After a few weeks the anti-depressants made a difference; I no longer felt hopeless or miserable, but there were still underlying anxiety issues to work through.

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In my early 20s I navigated life in college and grappled with self-worth. Those 4 years flew by and soon life came at me hard and fast with new challenges: adulthood, finances, careers, relationships. I wondered why I couldn’t function like my co-workers or friends who all seemed perfectly content—maybe even happy—going through the motions. I knew I wasn’t cut out for a corporate job; I needed freedom and flexibility to do my best work, and stingy office buildings and beige cubicles were suffocating, to say the least.

Enter: calligraphy. My interest in lettering and design quickly became another form of income. At first it was a manageable amount of work, little projects here and there. But soon I started networking, taking on more clients, doing bigger and better things.

It all came to a head last summer. I’d been working in advertising. I had a long commute and the work was demanding. It was difficult to balance my business with my career; I’d often stay up until 2 or 3 in the morning, addressing envelopes or designing stationery. I realized I was becoming the worst version of myself, unable to devote myself to the work I actually loved.

Then I had a full-blown meltdown. That was the day I realized I needed to make a change. I needed to slow down, breathe deep and really start to put myself first. So after a lot of thinking, I quit my job, started working part-time as a freelance writer and now have the time and flexibility to focus on Loose Leaf. And myself.

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I wish I could tell you that life has been sunshine and rainbows since then. But I still deal with a lot, including days when I can’t get out of bed. Or days when I feel hopeless. Just like in life, there are ebbs and flows to mental illness, and how I feel in any particular season of my life often parallels any big shifts and changes.

But I’ve found ways to make my anxiety and depression manageable. Thanks to therapy, meds, and other various tools in my anxiety-fighting arsenal (lookin’ at you, CBD oil), I’m in a good place.

I’m just one of the 43.8 million Americans diagnosed with mental health issues. Chances are you know someone who struggles with anxiety, depression, OCD, or PTSD. Maybe you’re one of them.

I share my history with it because maybe there’s someone out there who feels like I did—stuck in a cycle of sameness, feeling like an imposter, wishing you could feel normal. This isn’t me rallying for everyone to ditch the 9-to-5 and start a business. It’s me telling you that you deserve to feel whatever your “normal” is, whether that’s in your job, your relationship, or your interests.

If there’s anything I want you to take away from all this, it’s that mental illness is real and operates differently in each person who deals with it. Sometimes you need to accommodate it, give it its own space apart from where you live and work and sleep and eat. Because it’s always going to be there, but it doesn’t need to have power over you.

Find a therapist in your area: www.psychologytoday.com/us/therapists
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline:
1.800.273.8255