Mental health: The great, unnecessary debate

Why you shouldn’t trivialize someone else’s mental health concerns

By Roshni Riar, Staff Writer

Opening up about a mental health concern isn’t easy. I get it, I’ve been there. It’s an uncomfortable topic to navigate and I am definitely guilty of avoiding those potentially awkward conversations by decidedly steering clear from the mention of mental health altogether.

As a result, I rarely share my feelings. This might spare me some embarrassment every now and then but is ultimately detrimental to my wellbeing and limits the support I could have but may not be aware exists.

Unfortunately, this is a shared sentiment amongst people who struggle with their mental health and it impacts them just as negatively.

Personally, the reasons for internalizing my mental illness range. To name a few: Struggling to overcome cultural stigmas, not yet accepting my mental illness as being a part of me, and not wanting to deal with the ramifications that opening up might create, particularly when speaking with someone I think I can trust with that kind of information. The problem isn’t just about opening up, however. Once I’ve gotten over that hurdle, if I do elect to talk about my mental health with someone else, then there’s the actual conversation to be had and that’s where my frustration begins.

What makes opening up so contentious for me is having to deal with other people’s reactions. Sure, when you get into a conversation with someone where the primary focus is mental health and illness, there is going to be a reaction. However, there’s a lot of different ways that people can take an admission like “Hey, I’m really struggling with depression right now and I’d like to share that with you.”

In what some might assume could be flattery, a response that I am generally met with is: “You? No way! I would’ve never guessed, really. Are you sure you’re not just having a bad week?”

This kind of response is problematic for a number of reasons. Immediately, I’m being challenged and not accepted or understood. It might seem like the right reaction to have, acting like it’s unfathomable that I could be struggling, but it puts me in a place where I feel the need to defend myself or somehow prove that I am in fact being honest. If I feel strongly compelled enough to be opening up, the last thing I want to do is be questioned about whether or not I’m certain that it’s depression that’s bothering me.

I shouldn’t feel the need to behave a certain way in order for someone to believe me. Challenging someone’s mental health doesn’t open up a conversation; it ends up becoming an analysis of the person who just admitted their struggles.

When someone expresses disbelief in your mental illness, it also highlights the fact that a lot of people unfortunately depend on stereotypes to form their understanding of what depression or anxiety may look like. It cements the idea that people expect certain things from a “depressed” individual—and the fact that I’m loud, crack jokes, and relatively social doesn’t sit well with their preconceived notions or beliefs.

Reacting with shock also means that you’re not reacting any other way, whether that be with understanding, concern, or compassion. It’s hard to move past that initial reaction, and if I feel perturbed by having to explain myself in a way I wasn’t prepared for, I’m not going to want to redirect the conversation so that you can start over and try another approach.

The takeaway from this rant is that people need to take a moment and pause when someone shares something as heavy as a mental health concern with you. You may feel shocked because you genuinely didn’t think your friend was feeling so terrible, which is totally valid. Instead of asking if they’re sure, or expressing how you can’t believe it, just ask them if they’re okay. Ask them what’s worrying them. Listen to what they have to say. Don’t trivialize someone who’s going out on a limb to share and reach out for support. Reach back and offer them a hand—don’t make them prove themselves before you’re willing to help them.