How to tell people about your mental illness

Being diagnosed as having a mental illness can be both scary and a relief. While it’s great that you’re on the path to getting well again, telling people about your illness can cause anxiety and stress. Here’s how to work out who to tell, how to tell them, and how to deal with any anxiety you might feel.

This can help if:

  • you’ve recently been diagnosed with a mental illness

  • you’re worried about what people will think of you, and how they’ll treat you, once they know about your illness

  • you want to share your diagnosis with someone you trust.

Two high school boys smiling

Mental illness and stigma

Unfortunately, there is still a lot of stigma surrounding mental illness and it’s possible that you’ll have to deal with it at some point. One in five Australians will receive a mental health diagnosis at some point in their lives, so most people will either experience this personally or know someone who has. The good news is that there’s been a lot of progress in mental health awareness and the stigma is fading.

Most people will be supportive and understanding, but others may be confused, ignorant or negative. Sometimes, it’s possible that the other person simply doesn’t have any experience or awareness. Choosing someone to have a conversation with who cares about you, and that you can trust, can help you to open up about what’s going on for you.

When faced with these situations, remember that your illness doesn’t define who you are, and it’s up to you how much information you want to share.

Being okay with your mental illness

Remember that just because you can’t physically see a mental illness, it doesn’t mean it’s not a real illness. Understanding your own feelings and being okay with your mental illness can help you be more confident about sharing the diagnosis with others without feeling fearful or ashamed.

Telling people about your diagnosis

Whether or not you tell someone about your mental illness is completely your choice. You don’t have to tell everyone you know (or anyone at all, for that matter), especially if you don’t feel comfortable talking about it.

But if you’re okay with talking about it with friends or family, sharing can:

  • provide support and understanding from people you trust

  • reduce the stigma around mental illness

  • help you to come to terms with your mental health and encourage recovery

  • show others that it’s okay to talk about mental health.

If and when you’re ready to tell others, remember these tips:

  • Pick a day and a time when you’re feeling okay. Don’t force yourself to do it if you’re feeling vulnerable.

  • Tell the person as much or as little about it as you want. You’re not obligated to tell everyone everything.

  • Rehearse the conversation in your head before you have it – even if it feels a bit strange!

  • It may be important to tell your employer, in case you need to take time off, but you don’t have to. If you do, they’re required by law to keep this information confidential.

  • With mental illness affecting one in five adults (or one in four young people), chances are that most people know someone who’s dealing with a similar issue.

Get some tips for having difficult conversations here.

What if others react badly?

Not everyone will understand, or know how to offer support for mental illness. If someone reacts negatively to news of your illness, you may choose to give them some space or to offer some more information. It’s not your job to teach others about your illness; but if they are open to learning more about your struggles, this could help break down the stigma for others.

Remember that it’s up to you to decide how much you want to share, and this might differ depending on who you’re speaking with and how close you are.

What if I can’t just escape the negative treatment?

You might find yourself in a situation where you can’t just walk away from the person or people who are reacting badly to the news of your mental illness – for example, if it’s your parents or other people you live with, schoolmates or people you work with. This might be after you tell them, or could be because they found out accidentally or without your consent.

How the other person reacts isn’t a reflection of you, and it’s not your fault if they aren’t as supportive as you hoped they’d be. In these scenarios, leaning on the people in your life who are supportive, and doing other things to take care of yourself, can make you feel more confident and better equipped to deal with those crappy moments.

What can I do now?