It takes courage to open up. For them, and for you.
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I remember when I first opened up to someone about my obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) diagnosis.
I was relieved to finally have an answer as to why I was struggling and to have the words to explain it to the people I loved.
But I didn’t know whether I would be judged or understood, validated or rejected.
Speaking from experience: How someone responds to that diagnosis can make or break the relationship.
It tells me whether I can trust them in my darkest hour and be emotionally candid with them. That initial reaction actually means a lot — which is why it’s so important to get it right.
If you’re reading this article, chances are, someone has opened up to you (or is planning to, and you just have… a hunch). If you don’t know how to navigate this conversation, here are some pointers on where to start.
That’s a lot to live with, and many of us do it well. So when one of us speaks up about managing a mental illness, we deserve to be believed and supported.
When someone is sharing their diagnosis, they aren’t asking what you think about it or whether you “agree” with it. They’re sharing their diagnosis because they want to be supported and communicate that they’re on a mental health journey.
It can be so disheartening to open up about a very real struggle you’re having, only to have them disregard or disbelieve you.
Unless someone asks directly for your opinion about the diagnosis, it’s never a good time to deny someone’s experience.
Do: Offer validation and care
The best response to a mental health disclosure is validation.
It means engaged, approachable body language — nodding along, making eye contact, offering a comforting touch (only if they give their OK!).
It means active listening, paying close attention to what someone is saying. It means remaining open to what they have to say, letting them share however much they feel comfortable with.
Don’t: Assume what’s best for them
Everyone and their mother has an idea about how to “cure” conditions like depression and anxiety.
However tempting it may be to tell someone to try yoga or essential oils, if they haven’t asked for your advice, now isn’t the best time to tell someone how to take care of themselves.
Chances are, they’ve lived with the condition long enough to know what doesn’t work for them, and their treatment team has qualified experts.
Do: Ask how you can be helpful
You won’t know what someone needs until you ask. That’s exactly why it’s such a good idea to! One of the best responses I’ve gotten to date was someone asking me, “How can I support you?”
While someone might not know exactly what they need in the moment, extending the offer up front indicates to that person that you’re available to support them should they need it. And that can mean a lot.
Don’t: Make it about you
I have yet to meet a supporter who hasn’t had a really powerful response to someone else’s opening up.
We might feel guilt at not having noticed that our person was struggling. We might feel afraid for them, sad for them, or even upset that they didn’t open up to us sooner.
All of these emotions are valid. And? They’re our responsibility to work through… they’re not the responsibility of the loved one, neighbor, or colleague, who’s already busy managing their condition.
When someone has the courage to share their struggles with us, this is an opportunity to show up. In these moments, our singular focus should be ensuring that the one we’re looking to support feels true empathy.
Challenging emotions happen! And I’m definitely not suggesting that you ignore those feelings. You should consider, however, if and when it’s an appropriate time to share your thoughts and reactions.
One of the most profound signs of emotional intelligence is learning how to sit with someone else’s feelings. It involves listening without offering solutions, or inserting yourself into the picture. It’s a selfless and mature skill that can be honed.
Do: Share your own experiences, if relevant
If you’ve had your own mental health struggles and you feel called to, you might consider sharing your own experiences. It can be comforting to the one you’re close with to know that they aren’t alone!
A disclosure can be an amazing moment to deepen the trust in your relationship.
Remember, though: A mental illness isn’t the same as having a bad day or even a bad week. Mental illnesses are chronic conditions that greatly interfere with someone’s daily life for a prolonged period of time. It’s important not to confuse the two.
If you choose to share your experience, be sure that those experiences are relevant. That way, your person can decide whether they’re able to hold that space for you.
Don’t: Ask invasive questions
The person sharing their diagnosis is ultimately the one who sets the rules of engagement. Meaning, people shouldn’t be expected to share anything outside of what they’re comfortable with! The best way to ensure this is to avoid asking invasive questions.
It can be tempting to ask about someone’s symptoms or to want more details about their journey. But we want to avoid making them feel uncomfortable or pressured.
Of course, there’s an exception to almost every rule. If you suspect someone might be harming themselves or others, or at risk of doing so, it’s best to ask directly to ensure their safety.
Do: Educate yourself further
Few things are more meaningful than seeing a loved one take the time to educate themselves. Reading reputable resources, like those here on Psych Central, is a great place to start.
Not only will this give you the tools to better support your person — it’ll also reduce the amount of labor your person has to do in order to educate you and others in their life.
When someone chooses to open up to you about their mental health, it’s actually an incredible gift. It means they want to have a deeper relationship with you — one where you can be vulnerable and emotionally candid with one another.
In many ways, it’s the ultimate compliment. It says, “You’re important to me, and I want you to know more about me.”
Making sure you can reciprocate, and offering a validating response, can make all the difference in the world. The suggestions outlined here are just a few ways you can do just that.
Ending mental health stigma takes more than words. You can read this and learn what else you can do to be the change we want to see.
No one becomes an expert in mental health overnight. But by practicing having tough conversations, you can become the kind of ally that every person trying to manage a mental health condition deserves to have.
You’ve got this!