In honour of mental health awareness week, I thought it important to discuss the main reason why mental health awareness campaigns exist in the first place.
I can’t begin to tell you how many clients come to me, not only with clinical symptoms, but with broken spirits. Whether they are dealing with mood or anxiety disorders, personality or relational problems, a huge number of my clients feel discouraged and isolated because of misunderstandings, closed-mindedness, and confusion on the part of their entourage. It is to these people, the friends and family members of individuals diagnosed with a clinical condition, I speak. Please, let’s talk.
- “This is ridiculous!”
- “You are being stupid.”
- “You are making no sense!”
- “What are you thinking?”
- “Smarten up!”
- “I’m so disappointed in you.”
- “You need serious help!”
- “What the hell is wrong with you?”
- “You are f**king crazy!!”
As you’ve likely guessed, these are the types of statements made to individuals diagnosed with mental illness by the very people who have committed to loving them. Obviously, this is a problem and I’d like to help by opening with this: Mental health conditions are complicated – they will produce REAL and LEGITIMATE thoughts and behaviours that you may not understand. Yes these thoughts and behaviours are limited or distorted but, and I stress, THEY ARE REAL and LEGITIMATE.
The Culprit is The Condition
For anyone who reads our blog, you know that social anxiety hits close to home for me. It is a highly misunderstood and easily misjudged condition, in which individuals diagnosed, have a crippling fear of being embarrassed or negatively judged. Misunderstandings on the part of family members are very frequent and heartbreaking. Take my client “Emily” for example. Emily’s sister was having a wedding. It was going to be big, traditional, religious, and fabulous. Emily’s sister counted on her to, not only be a part of the wedding day but to partake in all pre- and post-wedding festivities. While Emily would have loved to be a big part of this big wedding, she could not. Her preoccupations were very typical of individuals with social anxiety. “How will I talk to people who don’t know me?” “Wedding guests will think I look awkward.” “Family members might think I’m not doing a good job.” “I might say something stupid in front of all those people.” Now, we all have social fears but for individuals with social anxiety, these fears are all-consuming to the point where they trigger the fight-or-flight system…our survival system. In other words, unknowingly, these individuals treat social judgement as a matter of life or death! All of this to say that Emily’s social anxiety would inhibit her involvement in the wedding. This resulted in significant familial conflict. Emily’s sister took personally the fact that Emily could not be part of her special time. The sister exhibited lingering and consistent disappointment, frustration, and anger towards her sister because she believed Emily “did not care enough to be part of the wedding!” This was, of course, not true. Instead, the culprit was Emily’s social anxiety…not Emily’s heart.
Mental Illness Misinterpreted
Time and time again, legitimate symptoms of mental illness are misinterpreted. The diagnosed individual is falsely given labels like “stupid,” “ridiculous,” “sick,” “mean,” “antisocial,” “pathetic,” and of course “crazy,” just to name a few. If you are among the millions of people who have a loved one with a diagnosis, I urge you to take a step back. Here are some actions to follow to better your relationship with someone experiencing clinical symptoms and to increase your understanding of mental health issues in general.
- Ask about their diagnosis. Let them tell you what it’s called and how they understand it.
- Read and/or ask questions. Once you get the name of the condition, read up on it or ask a professional. Try to understand the symptoms and tendencies of an individual with that specific condition.
- During a time of conflict with your loved one, do not act impulsively. Ask yourself, first, if their diagnosis has anything to do with their behavior. This will help you wisely assess the situation and better resolve conflict.
- Acknowledge that this task is not easy. Some symptoms are legitimately hard to witness or be involved with. Individuals with social anxiety may bail on you at last minute. Individuals with depression may not answer your calls. Individuals with borderline personality disorder may suddenly become angry with you. I want to validate that it is indeed hard on the spirit of both parties.
However, while I’m asking you to open your minds, I am also asking you to know your boundaries. While you must respect the individual diagnosed, you must also respect yourself. Take a time-out when necessary and ask for help if you are feeling depleted. In extreme circumstances, you can even decide to not be involved with this person. Please be honest if this is the case. Everyone would be better off if you leave a relationship you cannot align with.