With more people experiencing anxiety and depression in a socially distanced and social media-heavy culture, mental health support is a necessity. And though nothing can replace help from a professional therapist or counselor, discussing mental health with a partner, friend, or loved one can offer tremendous relief in difficult times.
Mental Health & Relationship Health
Opening up about your own mental health experiences doesn’t always feel easy. Sometimes, the stigma that comes with mental health conditions can make talking about them feel embarrassing or even shameful. Some have been taught to hide their mental health issues and mask themselves as being as “normal” as possible. Discussing mental health directly with someone else can feel extremely uncomfortable, then. For some, they may even feel like they are burdening others with their problems if they openly discuss their mental health. Yet when you don’t talk about your experiences and emotions, you may experience more confusion and conflict in your relationship. Oftentimes partners won’t understand what their loved one is experiencing or they won’t know how to help.
When you do make space for talking openly about mental health, you are more likely to receive the support you deserve. And when you are comfortable discussing your experiences, a partner may feel more comfortable discussing what you need and how you’re feeling. In this way, talking about mental health increases the health of your relationship. Because your partner or loved one likely won’t understand exactly what you’re experiencing, clearly communicating your thoughts and feelings with them can lead to less misunderstandings, less conflict, and, in many cases, more compassion.
The Importance of Trust
Before discussing your own mental health conditions or struggles, it’s important to establish trust. Though there is no need to hide or be ashamed of mental illness or mental health issues, it can be helpful to gauge the level of trust you have in the other person and their ability to respond positively. Know that someone who puts you down or shames you is not worth trusting. Also know, however, that even the most trustworthy partner, friend, or loved one will never be able to act as a stand-in therapist, and they may not always know exactly what to say or do. Look for someone who respects you, shows a true interest and curiosity in you, and acts empathetically to you and your experiences. A person with these qualities may be worth your trust and worth opening up to about mental health matters. And remember, even though talking about mental health can help strengthen a relationship, you don’t need to start these conversations until you truly feel ready.
How To Talk About Mental Health
If you do feel ready to share your mental health experiences with a partner or loved one, use these six steps:
1. Choose a neutral time and environment.
You may feel nervous to discuss mental health for the first time. And the other person may be inexperienced with talking about mental health, too. Choosing a neutral time and environment may help the conversation go more smoothly. Opt for a time with no distractions and in a private or quiet setting. You may even want to schedule the conversation and give your partner or loved one a heads-up that you want to talk to them about something personal.
2. Discuss your experience.
Start by discussing your personal experience, feelings, and perspective. For example, you can say, “At my worst, I feel…” or “When I’m having a rough day, I may act in the following ways…”. If there is a name to describe your experience, such as Generalized Anxiety Disorder, feel free to use this name and share how it impacts your life.
3. Identify your triggers.
Next, help your partner, friend, or loved one know what may trigger you. You can say, “When — happens, I feel…”. However, be sure to stay neutral and avoid blaming the other person. Aim for using statements with “I” and “me” rather than “you”.
4. Share what support you want.
This step is one of the most important for strengthening your relationship. Ask for the support you want clearly and confidently, and see if the other person is able to accept your request. Support looks differently to everyone: you may ask for hugs when you’re feeling down, you may need help with doing chores, or you may simply want some alone time. Let the other person know what support you prefer when you’re struggling. By specifying exactly what works for you, it clears up a lot of confusion and stress in the relationship.
5. Give them space to learn and ask questions.
Even if the other person truly loves you, they may not be able to intuitively understand what you feel and experience. Give them space to continue learning, asking questions, and making mistakes. For example, they may forget that your low energy is related to depression or that certain movies may be triggering for you. As long as they continue to invest interest in learning, accept that these mistakes may happen at times.
6. Adopt a color system.
Before ending your first discussion about your mental health, consider sharing a color “warning system” with your partner or loved one. In this system, colors indicate your emotional and mental state, even when you feel unable to fully explain or understand your own feelings. Green means that you feel stable, calm, and clear. Yellow means that you may be slightly irritable, you feel that you may be easily triggered, and that the other person should proceed with caution. Orange means that you are likely to become highly reactive. Finally, red means that you are experiencing a state of panic, anger, or other distressing emotions. Consider sharing these colors and their meanings with your loved one to use as a quick and easy signal in the future.