The 'Time to Change' campaign has been instrumental in tackling stigma around mental health and on 4 February, their 'Time to Talk' day encourages people to talk openly about mental illness.
I've suffered with depression and anxiety for most of my life and I can vouch for the fact that talking about it has helped and probably saved my life.
However, I feel I must issue a warning to people who may be thinking of taking the plunge and doing some talking. You may talk to lots of people before you find anyone that wants to understand. You may talk to people and get a bad reaction, or no reaction at all. You might be starting therapy and you could well get someone great to talk to. Or your therapist may respond with crass, shocking or downright stupid comments.
When you have mental health issues, you already feel low, useless and unworthy so if you talk about your illness and get an unfavourable response, it can make you feel a whole lot worse.
Having said that, you will also find that there are a ton of amazing people out there who do want to understand and try their very best to help. It might take a while and you will have to test the water with friends, family and sources of professional help to weed out the good, bad and useless.
I'm used to discussing mental health now, but it has been a long process of trial and error and a steep learning curve. To anyone thinking of opening up, I have a few tips on what to realistically expect:
1) Stigma around mental health is usually borne out of fear, ignorance and denial. It is everywhere. You could find a complete stranger at the bus stop chatting to you about 'dangerous schizophrenics' and also hear a comment like 'what have you got to be depressed about?' from your partner. Prepare to be surprised, but don't let it stop you talking or challenging any negativity which comes along.
2) Lots of people don't really know what to say when you open up and that's to be expected as the norm. Be patient, ask if they have any questions or worries. When talking about mental illness let people know why you are telling them. Mention that you do not need advice, suggestions or 'fixing', you are just being honest and trying to raise awareness. Ask for specific help if you need it. Sometimes people will want to support you but don't know how. This could be things like doing shopping, cooking or cleaning if you are struggling or phoning more regularly.
3) Stigma comes in all kinds of interesting packages from unexpected sources. Along with misconceptions and judgements about mental illness you could find yourself ignored, ridiculed and disbelieved by people who are meant to be helping you. For years I was told by doctors and therapists that I wasn't depressed or anxious. One GP remarked that I was 'too pretty' to be depressed. My first CBT appointment was spent desperately trying to convince the therapist of my feelings. He remarked that he had 'worked with people in hospitals who were too depressed to wipe their own arses' and as I could wipe my own arse, I was apparently fine. A psychiatrist also told me I would be 'fine' because I could articulate my problems very well. I'm not suggesting you become a gibbering unwashed wreck, but watch out for being judged for your presentation and be prepared to challenge it.
4) Some people will really struggle with you opening up, like family, friends and anyone close to you. It may come as a shock that you have disclosed or discussed a mental health issue and they might react badly. Don't let this make you feel worse. Don't apologise for how you are but also don't expect people to understand straight away. Changing attitudes and removing barriers to discussion takes time and effort and not just from you. I think it's worth pointing out that some people may never understand or be open to trying no matter how much information or time you give them. I think it's best to just accept this and move on without letting it crush your confidence. For everyone who struggles or reacts badly there will be just as many positive or neutral reactions that you can work with.
5) Timing is everything. A campaign like Time to Talk is a great opportunity to take a leap of faith, as you can use it to bolster your confidence and know that thousands of other people are talking too. They also have a range of information you can give people if the act of physically talking is difficult. But if it's not your time to talk yet, that's OK. You have to be ready and if you never want to talk, that is absolutely fine.
Despite the negative pitfalls I've mentioned, I feel that talking about mental health is not only worth it, but hugely necessary. Through persevering with opening up, I've found the confidence to deal with and challenge any shocking, surprising or negative reactions which may come along. Be prepared, but don't let it stop you if it's something you've been thinking about doing.
For information, support and resources about the Time to Talk campaign you can visit http://www.time-to-change.org.uk/
Follow me on Twitter @flyingkipper for good chats about mental health