What not to say to somebody who’s opening up about mental health problems

It’s important for sufferers to be able to vent their feelings. Don’t dismiss their fears

We are constantly told to talk about our mental health issues and to avoid bottling things up. While bottling up is definitely not a good strategy to good mental wellbeing, sometimes it feels easier. Not talking and keeping everything in does mean you can feel very alone and isolated in tackling your problems.

However, sometimes when I talk to other people about my problems in an attempt to halve the pressure, I get reactions that are more damaging. I know I’m not alone either, as I have spoken to many who deal with this double-edged sword.

There’s nothing worse than pouring your heart out only to be met with responses such as “you’re dramatic”, “you’re sensitive”, “you’re attention seeking”, “you’re making it appear more than it is”, “calm down” – the list goes on. Regular people do not have to be experts in the art of speaking to those who are suffering, but it should be common sense that these responses are unhelpful. As someone who suffers from anxiety, a disorder where I constantly overthink everything I say and every action I perform, getting to the point where you feel comfortable talking to another person about these issues is very difficult.

A lot of men will not feel safe and secure openly talking about their genuine feelings to others

For me, it is a bit easier because I am more comfortable, having dealt with these problems all my life. In saying that, not everyone is as comfortable doing so. For example, being a writer, I can find the words to describe how I am feeling, but some people don’t know how to express what they are feeling in words. They struggle so much to get it out, so to be met with responses and reactions such as these is just disappointing. It would make you wonder why you even bothered to open your mouth. Beyond finding the words, some people have not yet reached the point where they have identified it as a problem or received a diagnosis. Or perhaps they just do not feel safe or secure sharing their feelings with another person.

Alternatively, they may be frightened to admit how they feel for fear of seeming a certain way. In men’s case, a picture has been painted that they need to be strong and never have any troubles. Therefore, a lot of men will not feel safe and secure openly talking about their genuine feelings to others. Sometimes men fear it will make them appear weak or that it threatens their manhood. For instance, Priory Group surveyed 1,000 men in 2018, and 40 per cent said it would require self-harm or thoughts of suicide for them to actually seek professional help.

‘Not doing well’

There are also several barriers for women, too, for example the fear of seeming sensitive or showing you are not doing well like your other peers. Unfortunately, what this often results in is bottling up emotions and, as many will know, suppressing these kinds of emotions is not a great strategy. Bottling up is essentially avoiding venting how you are really feeling.

Growing up with mental health issues, I kept a lot of what I was going through to myself, mainly because of the age that mental health started to affect me. It felt uncomfortable and scary to speak to others my age about it because thoughts would enter my mind such as “would they understand?” In addition, at an impressionable age where everyone is trying so hard to fit in, I would think “Would this make me an outcast or the weirdo?” and even “Would they tell other people?” since at this age, gossiping and sharing other people’s secrets almost gets you points. But suppressing these emotions does not make them go away. Rather, they can further enhance the emotions you are feeling. I remember bottling up my anxiety when I was younger because being frantic and nervous 24-7 wasn’t cool. It felt embarrassing to be shaky or blush, never mind having a panic attack.

I looked for other ways to cope with what I was feeling, and this resulted in unhealthy coping mechanisms and addictions. I suffered an eating disorder

The truth is a problem shared is a problem halved, so the reality of doing this was I did feel really alone. The negative thoughts and feelings were much louder and greater, and it wasn’t long before my mental health began affecting my life in all aspects – home life, school life, social life and more. In addition to that, I looked for other ways to cope with what I was feeling, and this resulted in unhealthy coping mechanisms and addictions. I suffered an eating disorder as a result in my early teenage years. There is a lot of stigma around eating disorders, that they are a lifestyle or just a fear of gaining weight. For me, it really was a means to feel in control as I couldn’t be in control of my own chaotic feelings nor what happened in my life.

While it felt like I was in control of something at the time, my feelings got even more chaotic as I wasn’t supplying my body with regular food or nourishment. Therefore I was feeling even more anxious and began experiencing a lot more depressive and suicidal thoughts. Another unhealthy coping mechanism I developed was self-harming. This became quite an addiction for me, too, in that once I finally did get help, I found it difficult to stop. Having been bullied and tormented intensely, I self-harmed to try and get past the emotional pain. While this was my thought process at the time, self-harming only made me feel like I had to hide more of me and almost made me hate myself more since I was harming myself. Another way that bottling up really impacted me was by ultimately making me overreact to just about everything.

Personal attack

Given that there was so much bottled-up emotional turmoil, I struggled to cope with any stress on top of what I was feeling and would overreact. Someone would say something so small to me and I would see the negative and take it as a personal attack. That sadness and worry inside would fester and come out as anger. It was a sign that I needed to vent. Bottling up emotions just makes things worse; it feels as though you are fighting what you are going through alone. However, in order to encourage people to speak openly to someone they trust about their mental health difficulties, the responses need to change, and people need to learn how to communicate back to someone struggling.

Talking about our pain means we must acknowledge our pain first, which can initially make us feel worse

Keelin O’Dwyer, head of counselling and wellbeing at Fettle says: “When we fall and have a cut or a scrape afterward, we have to re-plaster the wound over the space of a week or more to help it heal. Re-plastering a wound is very unpleasant because it means we must reopen it again. But in the end, the injury heals, and we feel better for doing so. Re-plastering a wound is a lot like opening up about our struggles to others. Talking about our pain means we must acknowledge our pain first, which can initially make us feel worse. We may also hear unhelpful comments from others, leaving us feeling invalidated and overlooked. However, if we choose kind and caring people we can trust to open up to, while talking may feel uncomfortable at first, it will benefit us emotionally and mentally in the long term.”

She adds: “If you are supporting someone who is struggling, my advice would be to acknowledge the person’s pain and respond with kindness. So, you can acknowledge the pain through words of compassion such as ‘That’s tough’, ‘That sucks’, or ‘That’s challenging’ – pick a phrase that feels natural to you. The second part, responding with kindness, is offering help that fits the person’s needs. Asking questions such as ‘How can I help?’ or ‘Is there any way I can support you through this?’ can be beneficial. Or even just letting them know, ‘I’m here for you if you need me’ can go a long way in helping someone feel cared for during a difficult time.”

Given O’Dwyer’s insights, it is vital that when we speak to people about their mental health issues, we strike a balance between logic and validating their feelings.