Sometimes, it can be really difficult to open up to others about our own mental health struggles. It may be especially difficult if the person you’re reaching out to for support doesn’t know much about conditions like depression or anxiety. Unfortunately, people within our support networks sometimes misunderstand or downplay the impact of mental health conditions (even when they mean well). We know how much anxiety and/or depression might affect us, but they can be hard to describe to people who haven’t experienced them.
Several times, I have heard people say that they think people use anxiety and depression as excuses not to do things. I have heard others claim that those who say they have anxiety or depression are just overreacting; after all, we all feel anxious and depressed sometimes. Through many conversations like this, I have realized that two pieces of information can sometimes help others understand that anxiety and depression are real conditions that have severely impacted my life. Hopefully, these tips can help you explain your experience if others you know are struggling to understand.
First, I find that many people aren’t aware of many of the symptoms of anxiety or depression. Most people know that anxiety means frequent worrying and depression includes feeling sad and down. However, there are lesser known symptoms that can have a huge impact upon a person’s ability to function. For example, I’ve often heard others say that people with depression are just lazy, and if they’d go out more or be more productive, they wouldn’t be depressed. People who hold this view often are not aware that depression isn’t just sadness. Common symptoms also include hypersomnia (excessive sleepiness or time spent sleeping), fatigue or loss of energy, diminished ability to think or concentrate, and diminished pleasure or interest in almost all activities. Therefore, it takes the depressed person significantly more mental and physical effort to do anything a non-depressed individual does in a day. Explaining this can make it more understandable why a depressed person might appear lazy to a casual observer.
Second, it can be hard to know the difference between healthy negative emotions and a disorder. To use a personal example, before my friends understood anxiety better, some of them thought I was overreacting or saying I had anxiety to get attention. Of course, they experienced anxiety sometimes themselves and therefore assumed my experience of anxiety was similar. Since they were not severely impacted by their level of anxiety, they could not see why I was. It really helped when I explained how experiencing anxiety sometimes is different than having an anxiety disorder. This has to do with the frequency and severity of the anxiety. For example, a diagnosis of generalized anxiety disorder requires that the person experiences anxiety more days than not about a number of different things. It also requires that the anxiety is difficult to control and causes significant distress or impairment. While my friends occasionally felt anxiety about things most people would worry about, like an important test or a confrontation, their anxiety did not occur with the frequency or severity that mine did. Upon understanding that, they were able to sympathize.
I know how frustrating it can be when other people don’t understand that you’re trying your best despite mental health conditions. One way we can help our friends and family understand our experiences better is challenging their misconceptions when we feel comfortable to. Hopefully these tips make that a little easier!
How have people reacted if you’ve talked to them and opened up about your mental health? What are some stereotypes about mental health that you’ve encountered or heard from people you know?