When you meet someone new, how long do you wait before you do it? Do you do it? Or not? I’m talking about taking a deep breath and being honest about your mental health.
Despite having had mental health issues from childhood it’s only in the last year or so that I have begun to be honest with friends (and some family) about the extent of my illness. This is largely due to to the Time To Change campaign and discovering the incredibly supportive and vociferous mental health community on Twitter. But I’m still fairly cagey about it, mostly through a lifetime’s habit. I’m still prone to self-stigmatise and feel (needlessly) ashamed or embarrassed.
Now that my daughter has started school I’m coming into contact with a lot of new people. Some of them I’m becoming quite friendly with and I’m starting to wonder whether, if the opportunity arises, I should casually mention something about my mental health. The main reasoning behind this is that I have days, or sometimes weeks, when despite being fairly stable thanks to my medication I just cannot face seeing people and being sociable. Or there are days when I’m profoundly uncomfortable being out in public but I can cope just chatting on a friend’s sofa. It might be useful for new friends to know this in advance, so that my occasional last-minute cancellations, nerves or reluctance to commit to a meet-up aren’t misconstrued.
However, I’m profoundly nervous about being honest as I have a deep-seated fear of rejection. I’ve already lost a couple of previously close and well-loved friends because they simply couldn’t cope with my problems. And if they, who knew me so well, felt the need to walk away from me then what’s to stop a relative stranger from doing the same? Mental illness is still remarkably stigmatised and misunderstood despite 1 in 4 UK adults having it, and I have no wish to become the playground bogeyman (or bogeywoman if you prefer!).
Interestingly I recently came across the NHS Attitudes Towards Mental Illness 2011 Survey Report. According to this report:
12% of people agree that it is frightening to think of people with mental illness living in a residential neighbourhood;
12% of people think someone with mental illness doesn’t deserve sympathy;
16% of people believe that one of the main causes of mental illness is a lack of self-discipline and will-power.
These may be relatively small percentages, but as someone who is mentally ill I find them worrying. People don’t wear helpful t-shirts with the slogans “I’m educated about mental illness – talk to me!” or “I’m ignorant, don’t open up to me!”. I have no way of knowing whether the person I’m having regular coffee dates with falls into category A or category B.
I sometimes wonder whether perhaps it would just be safer and easier to keep things to myself, to lessen the risk of rejection and stigma. But the thought that torments me is that there’s no way of me knowing whether the person I’m friendly with falls into category C – someone else with mental health issues. Maybe they’re struggling with the same dilemma that I am. After all, we don’t wear helpful t-shirts either!
On the whole, I think I need to take the risk and be honest. I owe it to myself to not be ashamed or afraid of what others may think of me. I owe it to all the other people with mental illnesses to be open; to stand up and be counted, maybe even to educate. My mental illnesses (I have several conditions) impact most areas of my life and so they’d be a fairly significant secret to keep.
I don’t worry about telling people that I have degenerative disc disease and need to use a walking stick. I shouldn’t be worried about telling people that I have mental illnesses and need medication.