May is mental health awareness month. A time to share experiences and challenge stigma.

And one thing you are sure to hear is someone to say: it is time to talk.

Being vulnerable about your mental health can be beneficial and aid recovery, but to be brave and start a conversation often feels impossible.

It did for me.

My diagnosis with post-natal depression and anxiety took me by surprise. I didn’t know what it meant. I felt ashamed and afraid of how others would react.

Better to deal with this in private and keep my friends, than be honest and risk losing them, I thought.

But this doesn’t work. It stalls recovery and denies you support you may well need. Also, hiding can be really tiring.

But how to begin?

If you are approaching this conversation (maybe for the first time) here are some thoughts you may find helpful. You could even share this with someone you want to talk to ahead of your conversation.

For the person who talks:

First know this:

You are brave. Being willing to broach this subject takes courage.

Your vulnerability is courage spoken.

And then:

Tell your story as you remember it. Don’t worry about trying to use medical jargon or feel the need to give reasons or justify your experiences. Be honest. Use simple words.

Don’t worry if you end up feeling tangled in your own descriptions – these things are hard to put language to.

I hope:

As you tell your story for the first time you will gain some slight distance from it.

When your head is a mess it can be hard to make sense in the whirling and confusion. By putting words to what you are going through you will create a structure – a house for your experiences to live in.┬áTo frame your experience for someone else might enable you to see your mental health differently. Or to see it for the first time.

Remember:

You can tell your story as often as you need to. To move through grief requires repetition. (And any acknowledgment your mental wellbeing has not been how you wish surely involves grief.)

As we talk we make sense. As we talk we come to terms with what has happened. As we talk we understand.

I have been telling my story for over nine years, in person at first and then here in writing. It is a therapeutic practice, to rehearse, re-tell and remember.

For the person who listens:

The main thing:

Just listen. Don’t interrupt, apart from to encourage or to let the person talking know you are present with them.

Know this:

If someone is opening up to you for the first time they will probably be unsure and nervous: be reassuring.

What to do:

Listen. Occasionally ask questions. It can be helpful to say something like; ‘that must have been really hard.’

Don’t argue with their telling of the truth – it is their truth and their truth alone. How you remember an experience and how they remember it may be different, that is okay. There have been countless occasions when I have had a horrific experience of an event, but from the outside it looked as though I was totally fine. Those of us who suffer with mental health problems become good at hiding what is going on inside. If you friend tells you they felt a certain way – do them the courtesy of believing them.

What not to do:

Don’t offer solutions, the person you are listening to is not expecting them and is rarely asking for them. This could well be unhelpful. Try and refrain from doing so.

You can ask: Is there anything I can do? Accept the answer may well be: no. By listening you are helping – but maybe in a way the person who is talking can not realise or quantify at this moment.

Afterwards:

The person who has told their story might feel vulnerable and exposed. Text them or send them a card in the post to tell them you were honoured they chose to talk to you and how you love them.

It is also important the person who has opened up knows they are still seen as a person, not just someone who has struggled to maintain their mental health. Don’t be weird. They are still the same person, you just now know another part of their story. We contain universes. We are not defined by a diagnosis or current struggle.

In all this please know:

There is no perfect conversation about mental health. You are human. You might say the wrong thing. You might say too much or too little. You might have been freaked out. You might have shut down and not been able to continue.

Be gracious with each other and give each other repeated opportunities to try again, and again, and again. This is not a once and forever conversation, it can (I hope it will) gradually become normal, because there is nothing to be scared or ashamed of.

It is good to talk.

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