papijack in the sun

There are plenty of pieces out there, I’ve found, about what not to say. (Example: Do not tell a person experiencing clinical depression to “get over it,” or to “snap out of it.”) But less common are the pieces that advise us on what’s in the right ballpark.

Listen to me read this piece here:


A friend of mine had recently been diagnosed with an illness — the reaction to which I was able to pseudo-witness in the Comments section of her Facebook updates. During a conversation with two lovely young women, held in an alcove of San Francisco’s Makeshift Society, I recounted one particular response that had me absolutely livid.

For privacy’s sake, I will not recount the actual statement here; regardless, I considered it to be both ill-informed and bone-headed. But what the women told me — with a sweet matter-of-factness that underscored how surprised I was by their reaction — was that they, too, would not know how to respond to being told of a friend or acquaintance’s mental health diagnosis.

There are plenty of pieces out there, I’ve found, about what not to say. (Example: Do not tell a person experiencing clinical depression to “get over it,” or to “snap out of it.”) But less common are the pieces that advise us on what’s in the right ballpark— and so I turned to my peers. I asked them, many of whom are living with chronic illnesses, including mental health diagnoses, what they would appreciate in response to such a disclosure.

I do want to say one thing before I get into the nitty-gritty: it is scary as all get-out to reveal a psychiatric diagnosis (or diagnoses). I’m an advocate. I speak in public about my personal experiences with schizoaffective disorder and PTSD. And yet if it looks like we might become pals, or if I’m meeting you at a conference and I find myself disclosing my diagnosis to you, I can almost guarantee that I’ll walk away from that conversation feeling anxious.

Which makes it all the more important to aim for the following. Even if there’s no capital-R Right way to do this — akin to, I believe, there being no capital-R Right way to comfort the grieving — I still believe that there’s value in learning from the experiences of others.

three smiling people, a bearded man, a blonde asian, and a young woman

Thank us for telling you.

Part of my anxiety about disclosure is that I fear having intruded upon you in some way — as if you’re going to go home and rue the day you met me, because now you have to deal with knowing this thing that I know all the damn time.

If it’s a recent diagnosis, tell us that our choice to seek the professional help that resulted in that diagnosis was a mature, brave one.

Because it is, and because we often feel that we should have done a better job of “toughing it out,” or “dealing with it on our own.” (Katharine Tillman.)

Validate that what we’re going through is real and hard.

Catherine Shu says this beautifully: “What I want to hear,” she says, “is some validation that what I’m going through is real — as in, so real it’s been scientifically validated — and extremely difficult. Just, ‘You are doing the right thing by taking care of yourself,’ means a lot.”

Why is this important? Because we often wonder if we’re making a big deal out of nothing. Sometimes, people are actively in our lives, telling us that we are making a big deal out of nothing.

You might say, “Taking care of yourself is the right thing to do.” Or, if you’re in a position to go for the simple route, “I’m sorry to hear that.”

Trust our ability to navigate our own experience, including the fact that we’ve chosen to identify with the diagnosis being shared.

This is a tricky one, and not even so much a “thing to say” as an “attitude to take” — but, imminent bodily harm notwithstanding, we’re often told that we don’t know what’s best for us. For some well-meaning folks, that may include saying things to us such as, “I don’t think you have depression-depression — maybe you’re bummed because of the weather!”

We are coming to you with a disclosure about our identity, and identities are by nature very personal. Please respect that, just as you would respect other sorts of identity disclosure.

On a similar note, we may be choosing to take medication. You may have strong feelings about that. “I support you in any step you take toward healing,” however, is an indicator that you understand the importance of agency. (The same, by the way, goes in the opposite scenario. Not everyone chooses to take medication.)

Depending on your relationship with us, your support (and props) in acknowledging that we are on a healing journey can be enormously helpful.

“I’m really proud of you for taking care of yourself, ‘cos that ain’t easy, and you’re doing such a good job.” (Mabelle Bong)

If you’re in a position to do so, and believe it to be true, please vocalize the fact that you’ll stick by us.

You know those people who never say, “I love you,” because they assume that it should be obvious? Yeah.

Feel free to ask us what we need.

This applies to other life-altering events, as well, but living with a mental health challenge often means that we might need help. We might need someone to make sure that there’s something edible in the fridge. We might need someone to make the trek to pick up prescriptions. We might need to be listened to. Maybe we need a distracting movie, complete with cornball performers who make fart jokes. “It’s okay not to know what’s needed,” JSA Lowe says. “You’re not a clinician or a guardian angel. It’s okay to check in repeatedly, and keep offering support and assistance and love.”

If we say that no, we don’t need anything, don’t be afraid to ask again. It doesn’t have to be in the five minutes after the initial query, but I found that it took years before I took anyone up on an offer of help. And there’s also the possibility that, in a situation when we’re disclosing because we’re not in a good headspace, we won’t be able to come up with what we do, in fact, need, in which case — depending on your relationship with the person — JSA adds, “come over, put in a load of sheets, put on a dumb TV show, take out the recycling, make and serve a cup of herbal tea, smile and offer a hug, and quietly leave.”

Enormous, enormous thanks, again, to everyone who commented and contributed on this topic — and a personal thanks to everyone whose responses to my disclosures helped me to feel safe, heard, and seen.

Other pieces that relate to support and mental illness: Schizophrenia in India, & the Strength in Belonging; One Life, One Pair of Hands. I’ve also updated (and added a little video to!) the informational page for my new e-book about living well with mental illness, Light Gets InSo honored by the feedback I’ve received thus far.

Have you had experience with disclosing a mental health issue? What were some helpful things that people said to you? What do you wish people had said to you?