“Coming out” with depression is an onerous task, which can feel especially overwhelming when you’re struggling.
However, opening up to loved ones can be hugely beneficial – removing the effort of concealing your illness, reducing any feelings of shame and building your support network.
There are many questions you may ask yourself when contemplating talking to loved ones about your depression.
What’s the best way to tell them? What should I say? How will they react?
The answers to all these questions will of course vary from person to person: we are all different after all. You alone must decide on the course of action that works best for you and your loved ones.
However, at Blurt we know how helpful it is to learn from our peers – people who have been in similar situations to us. As such, in this post we’ve listed some insights and experiences shared by members of our Peer Support Group, in the hope they might prove useful to you.
How to broach the subject
The first thing you need to consider is HOW you want to tell your loved ones about your depression. There are many different ways you can do this.
For some, a face-to-face conversation will feel most comfortable:
For me doing it face to face is essential, I find nothing more stressful than the wait between sending an important message and waiting for a reply. Then once you get it there’s so much room to misinterpret writing, and since you’re already feeling vulnerable it’d be very easy to see things more negatively than they are. Face to face you have more control over the conversation, you can see their actual reactions and there’s more intimacy. Do it one on one or in a small group somewhere you feel comfortable: for me that was pubs and restaurants, but for others it might be their house
Others will prefer to disclose from a distance:
I’ve used social media a lot to communicate with the outside world about my illness because I find phone calls and talking about it in person very distressing
I couldn’t face telling my Mom in person, and I lived at university and couldn’t do it in a text. Instead I wrote a letter and posted it home…it was the only way I felt I could broach the subject to begin with
I honestly don’t remember telling my immediate family, it was probably by drunk text
In some cases, you might entrust a third party to deliver the message for you:
When I had my big breakdown, I couldn’t face my family. I was too much of a mess and had kept it a secret for so long. Instead, my husband broke the news for me, and I expanded on it when I next saw them in person.
Telling my family was the hardest of all. Fortunately my sister is a nurse and she prepared the ground for me.
What is most important is that you broach the subject in the way that feels best for YOU. Don’t beat yourself up if that’s different to the way you think you ‘should’ be starting the conversation: the fact you are opening up at all is enough.
Use your own preferred method, whether you call text write or speak face to face doesn’t matter, what matters is that YOU feel okay doing it.
Once you’ve decided how you want to begin the conversation, it’s useful to consider what you want to say. Will you ‘ease them in’, or announce you are depressed from the off? This may vary depending on your audience:
My advice would be to tailor it to who you’re talking to. Caring people need to be let in slowly, if you banter with your friends bring it up casually and let them know you’ll answer questions (within reason).
If you are delivering the message face-to-face, you might want to rehearse your opening line – this may help in the moment if you find yourself lost for words. If you are sending a text or a letter, you might want to take some time out before sending it off, so you can check with fresh eyes that your words convey exactly what you want to say.
That said, there’s something to be said for just speaking your truth in the moment. Rehearsing and deliberating can make you feel more anxious. Remember, the people you are telling LOVE you and care about you. You don’t need to give them an Oscar-worthy speech.
What to say
Again, we can’t tell you exactly which words to choose when revealing your depression to loved ones. This will depend on who you are, your natural communication style, and who are talking to.
We do think honesty is important:
Be as honest and truthful as you can
But the actual words you choose should be what feels best for you:
Whatever approach works best for yourself or how you can more easily communicate. I was quite blunt with my depression/anxiety and found it easy to say in person that I had a problem, but when [I was] actually communicating (rather than repeating a rehearsed performance) I found it emotional.
Be prepared to share your personal experiences:
I think an important thing to do is make sure you talk about how it affects you in concrete terms, medical definitions are great but lay people relate to stories. Explain how you feel and maybe debunk a few common myths.
Give guidance about how they can help:
I’ve found that most folks want to help, but need guidance about how to handle me.
My oldest brother doesn’t really understand it but does support me in his way. He does ask me how I am and he listens.
Dad, bless him, sends me a lot of self-help stuff and information.
And remember – even when broaching difficult subjects – a little humour never goes amiss:
Don’t be afraid to joke about it if you want to! I definitely mined the dark comedy side of depressed life to make my ‘so my life fell apart’ tales a bit less bleak.
This is especially useful when telling people with limited understanding of mental health issues, or those who appreciate information from ‘authoritative’ sources.
I used the Mind website a lot to help explain my illnesses which was a great help
Matthew Johnstone’s Black Dog books have been really useful to help people know the basics. Something about the cartoons that gives absolute clarity
I used the Black Dog video
I sent her a few links, including links to my own blog that explains the science behind depression as well as ways in which family/friends can help those who are depressed
I try to make sure they know that it’s not being sad it’s a medical condition. I point people to the NHS page mostly
You may also find it helpful having a trusted person who’s already ‘in the know’ with you for moral support:
My husband came with me when I talked to my family. Having him there made me feel safer, I felt they were likely to be calmer in his presence, and – if they did react badly – I’d have him there to stick up for and comfort me
Dealing with reactions
Communication is a two-way process: once you’ve revealed your depression, the person you’ve told will naturally want to share their thoughts and feelings with you.
Although you can’t control how they respond to your news (this may be different to what you envisage), you can prepare yourself mentally for their potential reactions.
People by and large have positive experiences of ‘coming out’:
My parents have always been great
My dad had to come and rescue me from work when I cracked – he’s been right there from the start. His partner is amazing as well and suffers with the same kind of things
My parents and brother are very supportive
My colleague and friend knows because I broke at work and admitted sobbingly that I had depression and it was bad. She understood. She said she would always help me out
My boyfriend… has been there for me through the worst and the best
Mostly I’ve had great reactions and people have offered to help all they can
However we need to remain mindful that some people’s responses may be hampered by confusion or ignorance:
Try not to expect a reaction that’s always helpful. Some people don’t really know how to react to MH issues and even in trying their best, it isn’t always constructive to you
They may want to know WHY you are ill:
I think the very hardest bit is that people always want to know why you are depressed, to know the cause or reasons. Sometimes it just bloody is. Depression doesn’t discriminate.
They might immediately worry if they’re to blame:
She cried and cried and couldn’t talk to me – and when she could, later that week, she asked: ‘Did I do anything wrong? Do you think something that happened as a child caused it?’… She took it very personally for a while I think
Or react badly because of shock:
I’ve had some unsupportive reactions as well which is always horrible but sometimes it’s the shock of being told and eventually they come round to being supportive
You do have to be prepared for unhelpful comments:
“Cheer up! Pull yourself together!” Do you not think I’ve tried that?!!
“Well you look really well”. Well actually it’s my brain that’s poorly so there aren’t really any visible signs….
“Think of all the people who are worse off than you”…Actually… I’m not competing…
“You’ve got nothing to be depressed about!” Oh yes I have. You have no idea what it is like living with the internal pain. Depression can be endogenous too.
“Taking all those pills can’t be good for you” Actually, my mental illness is just as valid as any physical one. If I was diabetic, I’d take insulin and you wouldn’t question it.
I’ve never had any really negative reactions, but even the most well intentioned people tend to trot out some of the classic ‘exercise, sleep, think positive’ “advice”, and ask ‘but you don’t seem sad’ type questions.
And – in very rare cases – an unpleasant response:
No one knows because the one person I told stopped talking to me. Now I trust no one.
If someone DOES respond negatively, it’s vital to remember it’s not your fault. You also need to ask if that person really has your best interests at heart.
If they don’t react well I find it helpful to remind myself that it’s not a reflection of myself, it’s their problem. You can’t help having your illnesses and it will be OK
The friends that matter don’t mind… and the friends that mind don’t matter!
How to deal with people’s reactions? This one for me is a big one. Even if I want sympathy or empathy, I try to tell myself that not everyone can provide this, nor is it on them to do so
Why being honest about depression is important
With the risk of people reacting negatively to your depression, we can ask why should disclose it all. Isn’t it easier to suffer in silence?
No one knows not even my husband as I’m the calm strong one in the family (on the outside!!)… Don’t plan on telling anybody… when I am in a dark place, no one sees
Whether you talk about your depression is of course entirely your choice – you must do what feels best to you, always. This is your life after all.
However, at Blurt we are big proponents of honesty. We believe opening up about depression has many benefits.
Being open about our depression builds our support networks
First and foremost we have to be mindful that the ones who are closest to us, want to help us. If the tables were turned, wouldn’t you want to know?
My family and friends didn’t find out until it was too late and I ended up in hospital. I wish they had known earlier though so they might of been able to help me and they have told me they wished they knew earlier as well
Being open about our depression reduces the burden
Honesty might not cure us of our depression, but it can change how we feel about it:
I was so relieved when I finally came out. I’d been carrying the secret with me for so many years, and it was so, so heavy. Afterwards I felt free.
Talking about (rather than hiding) our experiences, helps reduce feelings of shame.
We need to speak up, we need to let people know. I sit here crying, because it is so hard and frustrating to battle every day what most people just see as ‘normal’
Being open about our depression helps others who suffer too
Depression is more common than the silence in society would have us believe, affecting as many as 1 in 6 people . There’s a good chance your honesty will help others be honest too:
I was amazed by how many people said “You know, I’m really proud of you for speaking out about this. I’ve had trouble too. I’m always here for you.”
One reaction I didn’t expect was the amount of people who reacted by sharing their own struggles with mental health, one friend admitted to me she’d been depressed but never told anyone else before. Honestly those reactions were the best.
I have been staggered by the number of people who have said that they had no idea I was suffering because of the mask I wore and actually… They are in the same boat as me.
Stigma about mental illness is sadly still very real thing. By being open about our depression, we are doing our part to fight negative attitudes and ignorance:
I am out and proud about my fragile mental health. Even in my darkest of days, I have been honest and open about it. It was a conscious decision. I hid it for years and years, too afraid of the stigma attached to it in the corporate world.
We need to talk about depression. The more we talk, the less of an issue it becomes.
Only when everyone can talk openly without fear of ignorant reprisal about mental health, will we have won.