4 Reasons Why You Need to Share Your Mental Illness Story
4 Reasons Why You Need to Share Your Mental Illness Story
My heart was pounding the first time I spoke to an audience about my experience with mental illness. My mouth went dry, words became choked, and emotions welled up. I knew I needed to continue though, because as scared as I was of telling the story I was more scared of not telling it. I knew of people who had died from the complications of eating disorders and depression. I knew that people needed to hear that the long road of recovery is real. I’ve since told my story to hundreds of people. Now, when I tell my story, my voice is filled with conviction and earnest. I’m not preachy, I simply tell the story of ‘what happened to me’.
I absolutely believe that sharing lived experiences through a story is key to understanding our mental health. A story communicates what can’t be told through conversation, because a story is constructed in such a way that it demands your attention. The story needs you to come on a ride, stay for the journey, and get off with new knowledge and understanding of the world around us.
Mental illness is more common than ever. About 1 in 5 will experience some form of mental illness in their lifetime… and we don’t talk about it. Worse, for those who have recovered, we talk in whispers – still not daring to share what has happened. I want to let you know that anyone who has gone through mental illness is a goddamn inspiration. Every single person needs to hear your story, and here’s why:
1) Reduce stigma.
Sharing your story breaks down barriers between you and the people around you. Even though mental illness affects in 1 in 5, a person can feel like mental illness is not happening if it’s not spoken about. By sharing your story you are saying that this happened to you, not some guy down the street or your friends’ mums’ best friend – you are real and you exist. By sharing your story you are saying, ‘this happened, it didn’t happen because I was selfish or vain or violent or a bad person – it just happened, and I’m a normal person just like you’.
2) Dispel the Happiness Myth, Increase Resilience.
There’s an unstated belief among us that we have to be happy 100% of the time. It’s a myth. Truth is we all fail, it’s pretty painful, and that is completely okay. We absolutely need to talk about times of adversity and failure, how we coped with these times, and how we bounced back either by ourselves or with outside help. I often talk about how I felt like I had failed when I wasn’t accepted into a university course that I really wanted. I felt like I didn’t know how to cope with this failure and it’s what led to some serious symptoms of mental illness. People have often thanked me for sharing this vulnerable story with them, and come back to me and said that it helped make them more resilient when failure rolled around in the future.
3) You’re an Expert by Experience.
During your time with mental illness you will have learned countless strategies to cope with emotionally tough times, know things about hospital systems, and experienced first-hand what therapy is like. Through your experience, you will have also gotten to know the mental health system well enough to comment on its inadequacies and strengths. In short, you’ve got valuable insider information and people want to hear what you have learned. Tell them.
One of my biggest strengths I have now is an absolute willingness to book an appointment with a counselor if I know I am feeling stressed, rather than ignoring the feeling. After years of therapy, I’m also likely to be the most moderate person you know about food and exercise and can recognise healthy and unhealthy attitudes towards food and exercise (hah!). You’ve got power here!
4) You Can Influence Systemic Change in the Mental Health System.
Like I said, you’ve got specialised knowledge. Government representatives often call on people with lived experiences of mental illness to guide where our mental health system should go and ask for their opinion – will it meet the needs of people? Is this what people want? By sharing your story, you show that people with mental illness have valuable opinions and are voices that need to be heard when advocating for a better mental health system.
This is all great, but there are also some things you need to consider before sharing your story. These are the main three:
1) You have to have emotionally processed your experience.
Writing out your story is cathartic and can be therapeutic, but telling it to an audience is not therapy. You need to have emotionally processed something to be able to have perspective and talk about it. It took me about a year to write my 700 word story about my experience with anorexia because each sentence was an emotional hurdle I had to jump over, and sometimes those hurdles would take me weeks to climb. It’s not easy, make sure you are ready.
2) You have to know your character.
Who are you without your mental illness? I found this one took me years to answer. In reality, I’m still finding out who I am without depression, anxiety, an eating disorder, without trying to stifle my emotions with one behaviour or another. Discover who your character is in your story.
3) You have to be competent in self-care.
Even though you’ve emotionally processed your story it can still feel emotional to talk about it to an audience. You need someone in place to call to speak about your feelings, and strategies for self-care at the ready. For example, going for a walk, catching up with a friend, seeing a movie – whatever works for you.
That’s a wrap: Shared experiences are so valuable and connect us on a deeper level to mental illness, something which is unfortunately so common. I’d encourage you to bare yourself, allow people to come on a journey with you, because we’ve all got a story to tell.