The public discourse surrounding mental health has come a looong way. Today, celebs (Selena Gomez, Demi Lovato, Jennifer Lawrence , Ellen Degeneres, and Kristen Bell, to name a few) speak up regularly about experiencing and managing various mental health issues and use their public platform to help normalize the topic. Mental health days are finally become a thing that bosses and workplaces respect and even encourage. And more and more women are seeking out at-home remedies—CBD, exercise, meditation—to help take care of their emotional well-being.
But despite those steps forward, paired with the reality that mental health conditions are so common (nearly one in five people in this country live with one), talking about mental health still isn’t easy or comfortable for many people.
And that's a problem, experts say. But what are reasons behind this hesitation, and how can you overcome any nerves and be more forthcoming about your mental health status? Keep reading.
To start, so many mental health issues still carry a stigma attached to them.
Sure, society’s made strides at being more accepting of and open about mental health issues. But the stigma surrounding mental health problems or illness still deters people from speaking up and seeking help, says Sari Chait, PhD, founder of Behavioral Health and Wellness Center, LLC, in Newton, Massachusetts. You may worry that you'll be judged, or looked down on, or assigned certain stereotypes associated with a particular mental health condition.
The desire to meet certain social expectations or fill specific gender or familial roles may also play a part in why some people keep quiet. For example, people who identify as more masculine could be less likely to open up because they want to appear strong and self-sufficient, says Nicole Issa, PsyD, founder of PVD Psychological Associates in Providence, Rhode Island.
Chait adds, “In some cultures or families, there is a sentiment that people should pull themselves up by their bootstraps and just move on.” Or, perhaps you are a parent or you take on a caregiver role of sorts, and you worry about appearing vulnerable or weak in front of your children or another individual who relies on you.
Others may stay private about mental health problems due to fear of penalization, like in the workplace. “Many individuals seem to worry about being punished for having mental health difficulties or [being] labeled as ‘unstable,” Issa says. This is an unfortunate reality, given that research has suggested that having an untreated mental health condition can impair a person's work performance.
Sometimes, the mental health condition itself can discourage you from speaking about it.
As Chait explains, if you have anxiety, you might be in a spiral of negative, anxious thoughts, thinking that you won’t feel better ever; this may keep you from communicating your situation to someone. If you’re dealing with depression, you could feel hopeless, which might lead you to think, why bother?
But there’s a bigger, more pervasive issue keeping some people silent, too: “Many people worry that what they are experiencing is abnormal—and that nobody else feels that way,” Chait notes.
(Spoiler alert: That couldn’t be further from the truth.)
Even though it can feel intimidating, here’s why it can be beneficial to open up about your mental health (when you're ready).
Talking about it can actually help fend off, prevent, and even work to improve symptoms of mental health conditions. “Often, mental health struggles are a huge burden that people carry in silence, and simply receiving some support can help individuals feel better,” Issa says.
In fact, a growing body of research finds that social support is *huge* if you have a mental health condition, helping you develop feelings of security, communication skills, and positive experiences that can help buffer against stress and improve both mental and physical health. Opening up via therapy, too, is an effective and proven means of learning skills to cope with your feelings. And having these coping skills (that you developed by being communicative with a mental health pro) can, in turn, help you feel better.
But speaking up also matters because it can be contagious. “People often want to talk about their mental health concerns but feel like they will be judged,” says Chait. “Once they know they won't be, it helps them open up.”
Of course, being transparent about how you’re actually feeling on the reg is easier said than done.
It also doesn’t always have to involve a heart-to-heart over coffee with your bestie (though, hey, it totally can); there are other little steps to help you gradually express how you’re feeling more often.
If you’re hesitant about sharing more about your mental health, try these five strategies to help you get there:
Let’s be real—the mere thought of finding a therapist who’s a good fit (or a friend who has time to lend a listening ear) can be downright exhausting. Instead, try opening up even casually to someone you’re super close with by sharing benign details about your day.
Work up to telling her about your emotions and see how she responds: “For some people, they may feel most comfortable by sharing one small detail about how they feel to test the waters,” Chait says.
Ask others how they are.
Realizing that not *everyone* constantly sees the world through peachy shades or lives the life you see on Insta can help you see you’re not alone in feeling down/stressed/anxious/unsure from time to time, Issa says.
The more consistently you show the people in your life that you care and give them a safe space to talk about what’s going on, the more likely that they will let their guard down in your conversations. They also will probably return the favor, and hopefully motivate you to open up. Then, you’ve built a non-judgmental social environment together.
Keep a journal.
Not quite ready to put it all out there for the world to hear? Put your feelings and thoughts on paper. “Journaling is a great tool that many people find helpful for getting their feelings out of their head,” says Chait. “There is no right or wrong way to do it.”
Keep a formal diary, jot quick bullet points down on napkins, use your voice recorder on your smartphone, or keep a running document on your computer of how you’re feeling. Expressive writing, where you pretty much spill your heart out via writing, can help “offload” worries, lower anxiety levels, and even help boost your performance later.
Challenge negative thoughts.
Think you’re going to be judged? Worried you’ll face backlash if you speak up? Ask yourself whose judgements you’re really worried about, and take a moment to think realistically about the scenario. “Look at evidence from other times you have opened up in the past or sought support,” Issa suggests.
Often, we crack worries up to be waaaayy bigger deals in our minds. Checking in with yourself to see if you’re catastrophizing can help bring you back to reality, she adds.
Do a therapy consultation.
Many mental health professionals (including Chait!) offer a free initial consultation for prospective clients. “This is a safe way to try telling a non-judgmental person a bit about what you're experiencing and seeing if it feels like something you want to try,” she says.
If it feels right, and financially you can swing it, this may be an entry point into starting a consistent therapy regimen for you. (If you can’t afford it, ask the therapist if a sliding-scale payment system is available, or if they can refer you to someone they trust who may be able to work with you and your financial status.) Don’t love the therapist? A good one will also work with you to find someone you do vibe with, she says.
Cassie Shortsleeve is a skilled freelance writer and editor with almost a decade of experience reporting on all things health, fitness, and travel. A former Shape and Men’s Health editor, her work has also been published in Women’s Health, SELF, Runner’s World, Men’s Journal, CNTraveler.com, and other national print and digital publications. When she’s not writing, you’ll find her drinking coffee or running around her hometown of Boston.