What did mental health mean to you growing up? Was it spoken about? Did you know anyone who was in therapy? These questions will undoubtedly have various answers depending on when you grew up, along with countless other factors.
If you’re considering sharing your own struggles with loved ones who may not understand mental illness, it can be a liberating experience, but it may also come with a lot of stress and worry. No matter what you decide to do or say, I hope to give you an understanding of why misunderstandings of mental illness are still so prevalent, and what you can do to help loved ones understand your experiences.
The historical silence around mental illness
For those who lived with OCD before the internet was widely used, information on mental health conditions was scarce. There were no databases to turn to for advice, and no social media platforms to find like-minded individuals who could share in your struggles. It simply didn’t exist. It was difficult to spread awareness of mental health issues.
For a long time, there were few people doing the difficult work of mental health advocacy. Resources were very limited. It was a different time, and decades upon decades of misinformation and mischaracterization of mental illness had determined society’s views on the topic. During the 1990s, more research was dedicated to understanding mental health, and overall awareness slowly started to increase. This is when Mental Illness Awareness Week in October was created to foster greater awareness and advocacy for mental health generally. Whereas it was once a forbidden topic, public education about mental health was finally being provided on a large scale.
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The lens through which mental health problems were viewed began to shift. People began looking at mental health the way they viewed physical health. More and more people were seeing mental health for what it was: a real health concern. This opened the door for education about the impact of mental illness on those who were suffering. Legislators were getting involved and changes were being made to better support those who were having difficulties, just as there were regulations in place already for those with medical problems. Still, there was a long road ahead.
A new time, with new views on mental health
We have come so far from where we were decades ago with regard to people’s understanding of mental illness. Mental health is openly discussed and greater communication around related topics has provided much-needed support for many. What was once pushed into the dark has been brought to light. People with mental health conditions are being heard and more properly diagnosed and treated. Things are thankfully changing, and more and more people are being helped.
You too can help those who may not know what mental illness is like, and others who struggle with OCD, not knowing that there’s a whole community of people with similar experiences. It is by telling your stories that others can truly see and learn what OCD is. When we draw attention to incorrect portrayals of OCD, when we educate people who are misusing mental health terminology, and when we address discrimination in all areas of our lives, it allows others to find the support and help they need to get better.
Advice for talking to loved ones about OCD
I think it is important to understand that many of our loved ones were raised in a time when mental health concerns were viewed very differently. They may still hold many of these learned beliefs. It can be very hard to change a way of thinking that has persisted for so long. Remember that you do not have to convince them or anyone else of the legitimacy of your experience. Although it may be tempting to try, remember that sometimes people just don’t understand what they don’t have experience with. Education can help, but it won’t always change those long-held patterns of thinking.
Maybe you, like me, were also raised in a time when it was taboo or unheard of to speak about mental health issues—you may also have difficulty putting your experience in words. That’s okay. It’s important to recognize this and have self-compassion: you are doing the best you can with what you have been given. Whether or not you share your experience, it is yours and no one else’s.
If you choose, try talking to people you have a close relationship with, people who truly care about you. Start by letting them know that you value them and your relationship with them. Acknowledge that you appreciate their role in your life, and that it would be valuable to you to discuss your experiences with them. Even if they don’t truly understand, it can be liberating to share with the people you care about. And remember: it’s not your job to make them understand. That’s their responsibility—your experiences are your own, no matter what.
Whether you tell others about your experience with mental health issues or not, please know that there are others with experiences like yours, and that you don’t need to continue to suffer. You can reach out and talk to a professional. I know therapy may seem scary but don’t let that stop you from living the life you want to live. You deserve to get effective treatment. If you aren’t sure what you are experiencing and suspect mental healthcare is needed, there are many resources available.
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Stigma may still exist around mental health, but bit by bit we are tearing it down. If you’re ready to start treatment for OCD, we can help. Our licensed therapists at NOCD deeply understand OCD and are specialty-trained in treating OCD with ERP therapy. We work side-by-side with the OCD experts and researchers who designed some of the world’s top OCD treatment programs – and that means the best care for our members. You can book a free 15-minute call with our team to get matched with one and get started with OCD treatment.