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To tell or not to tell

“I didn’t intend for anyone to know,” said Karen, “but word spread anyway. When I returned to work after my hospital stay, my coworkers hardly said a word to me. Maybe they just didn’t know what to say, but I felt like an outcast.”

Even in these enlightened times, many people living with depression, bipolar disorder or another mental health disorder are reluctant to talk about it.

The stigma of mental illness isn’t easy to overcome. Many people don’t understand or accept mental health disorders. They may stereotype, label, ridicule or withdraw from someone who discloses that they have a disorder. Some think someone should just be able to “get over it.” It doesn’t help that the media often portray people with mental illness as dangerous or criminals.

Keeping the secret can make people living with mental illness isolate themselves, feel ashamed, even avoid getting treatment. They fear losing their job, family or friends. It’s appropriate to make careful decisions about who to tell, but sometimes it’s the right thing to do.

“Healing comes through sharing the illness experience,” says Dr. Jane Mountain, MD, an authority on bipolar disorder. “We don’t need to leave out the story of our illness, but we need to include chapters about wellness when we tell our stories.”

Dr. Mountain offers these tips for if and when you decide to share information about your illness:

10 Tips for Telling Your Story

1. First, listen to others. Ask them what they think of a person who has bipolar disorder. Their answer will help you know whether it is safe to tell your personal story without first educating your listener.

2. Tell your story to yourself first. As you do so, decide which parts you wish to share with others.

3. Begin by telling your story to your therapist, a trusted friend or relative.

4. Carefully choose the people to whom you tell your story. You can always add others to your list, but once you have told your story indiscriminately, you can’t take that decision back.

5. Tell your story a little at a time. Going too fast for others may make it difficult for them to be supportive, especially if they don’t, at first, know how to help.

6. Tell your story in a safe place where you can be assured of the level of confidence and privacy you require.

7. Look for healing in the telling of your story. As you tell your story, look for one positive addition each time you tell it. Instead of, “I am so-o-o depressed,” try, “I am very depressed, but now I am beginning to understand what depression means.”

8. Tell about the wellness side of your coin as well as the illness side. “I’m doing better since being in the hospital, even though that time was difficult for me.”

9. When others tell your story, make sure they include your strengths rather than dwelling on your weaknesses.

10. Remember, your story isn’t finished yet. You may have a painful illness story at the moment, but in the future your wellness story will be the most compelling part of your experience.

«I wouldn’t tell a potential employer about my illness,» said one person who is living with bipolar disorder. «But if someone told me they were going through a similar situation, I’d share my story. I’d want to let them know that others have been there.»

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