The need for emotional connection, to have at least one relationship which allows us to feel accepted ‘warts and all’ for who we are, is a key emotional need – one of nine emotional needs which have to be met to secure good mental health. So, friendships are important for all of us at all times, but especially so if we are experiencing mental ill health.
Suffolk Mind’s emotional needs audit is a questionnaire which has been completed by over 2000 people across Suffolk. The emotional needs audit asks people to score how they feel their emotional needs are being met at the moment. The latest data shows that even when people feel that emotional needs for feeling secure, having control over their lives, feeling valued and that they are achieving things are not being met so well, it is having an emotional connection which is a key factor in helping to maintain emotional wellbeing and resilience.
So, it’s little wonder that the prospect of disclosing personal experience of mental ill health to friends can be daunting – particularly if we feel anxious that it might affect the relationship in a negative way.
How might we begin a conversation about mental health with a friend if we are unsure of how they might respond?
One approach might be to introduce the topic of mental health into a conversation in general terms – not about our own experiences specifically. For example, we might talk about how mental health was portrayed in a film or a book.
You might mention an article that you’ve read in Student Life or perhaps an idea related to mental health which you’ve come across, and ask for their opinion. For example, an idea which we teach on our Suffolk’s Needs Met course, and which is generally agreed upon by mental health professionals, is the mental health continuum.
The idea that mental health is on a continuum – or in plainer English a spectrum - suggests that all of us are somewhere between feeling well and severe mental ill health and can find ourselves moving between these points at different times in our lives. You might explain that you’ve read that we’re all on a spectrum somewhere between feeling well and serious mental ill health and ask your friend what they think about the idea.
It’s worth remembering that, given that one in four people experience some kind of mental ill health in the course of any given year, it is more and more unusual to come into contact with people who have never been affected by mental ill health in some way. Your friends might surprise you by talking about their own experiences of mental ill health or the experiences of people in their family.
If you feel that it would be better to be more direct, you might think about choosing the best way of communicating how you feel.
Picking a time and place to speak face-to-face for example, where you’re not going to be interrupted, even if there is ‘never’ an ideal time. Or, perhaps you would feel more comfortable writing down how you feel or speaking on the telephone.
If you’ve ever experienced anxiety you’re probably very good at rehearsing things in your head – but not always in a helpful way. Well rehearsing what you’re going to say is one way of taking control of an overactive imagination in a useful way. Find a time and a place to calm down, perhaps when you’re out for a walk, having a soak in a bath, or after you’ve done something relaxing, and rehearse what you’re going to say, keeping what you plan to say simple.
See yourself feeling calm as you practice explaining how you feel. Perhaps you might explain that things have been challenging and that you’ve been to see your GP or are planning to do so, to ask for help.
If you have a relevant example from a film or a book, this could be the time to use it to describe your experiences. If there are parts of your experience which make it more tangible, it can be useful to describe them, if we want to help other people understand. For example, if there’s a particular time when the symptoms affect you most, such as waking up feeling exhausted or lacking in energy or hope that things will improve, or specific issues which are a cause of worry, describing these can help people to better understand what you’re going through.
It might be that your friend wants to know how they can help and support you and, if they do, you might want to think about practical help you need, or perhaps you would just like them to be aware of when symptoms are getting in the way of you keeping to your usual routine, or enjoying the activities you share with your friends. Importantly, give your friends time to understand so that you can both talk about mental health openly.