My mom’s heard me describe the malaise that’s plagued me since puberty…pretty much since I hit puberty. But only recently was I able to give the situation a name: It’s persistent depressive disorder, a chronic form of depression characterized by an ongoing low mood. “I’m just like, sad as a default,” I told her again—my constant refrain—in a mall food court as my voice broke and tears streamed over my bourbon chicken. “And sometimes there’s no reason to explain it, but stress can aggravate it, so I really need you to work with me on this.” (Note: Sometimes my mom stresses me out.) She seemed to finally understand…until we were in the car leaving the mall, when she repeated her refrain: “Why are you sad? There’s so many good things going on in your life right now.”
“Ugh. Seriously, Mom?”
Does this situation sound familiar at all to you? Because despite initiatives happening to squelch the mental health stigma in society, I often feel weighed down by all the people who don’t “believe” in my struggles. And when these are top-tier figures in your life who you love, trust, and see regularly, it’s especially damaging.
In at least some sense, we all want to feel validated and accepted, so when a loved one essentially gaslights you by ignoring or even denying the reality of your struggle, it can be especially tough to deal. So what’s the best way to respond? Whether this situation materializes as a parent who doesn’t believe in therapy, a partner who doesn’t understand why you need medication, a boss who thinks your anxiety can be fixed with lavender oil, or something else entirely, psychotherapist Alison Stone, LCSW, says coping is a bit of a balancing act.
“You want to do your best to effectively communicate to your loved one how you feel, what you’re going through, and how it affects you,” Stone says. “If your loved one has never been exposed to mental-health struggles or experienced them personally, you may need to educate them—assuming they have an open mind.”
“If your loved one has never been exposed to mental-health struggles or experienced them personally, you may need to educate them—assuming they have an open mind.” —psychotherapist Alison Stone, LCSW
But if they seem to dismiss your attempts to clue them in, Stone says it may be time to reach out to others for support. I’m personally lucky to have a community of friends who are also in therapy and thus don’t perpetuate the mental health stigma that many others in my life do. My community of therapy-goers doubles as a built-in support system for me. And if a social confidant isn’t giving you enough support, finding a therapist or looking into organizations like the National Alliance on Mental Illness could be great avenues for you to explore.
“When it comes to being vulnerable, I always suggest knowing your audience,” Stone says. “Is this a safe person to be vulnerable with? Have they given you the emotional green light to be truthful and honest with your experience? If they have been continually dismissive or critical, then the answer is likely no.”
After answering those questions comes the dividing line of deciphering when someone’s being dismissive of versus actually destructive for your mental health. And if you realize a friend is acting destructively, you may choose to reevaluate the role they play in your life, and maybe even take a break from the relationship. But sometimes, that choice isn’t so easy to make. For example, while it’s your prerogative to sever a relationship with any toxic person in your life, in practice, it can be tougher to accomplish when the person in question who’s contributing to the mental health stigma is a family member. And if you remain committed to the relationship, Stone says boundaries are key.
“I’ve worked with a few clients whose parents have been quite dismissive of their mental health struggles, but cutting their parents out of their lives simply isn’t a feasible option,” Stone says. “I encourage them to think about what boundaries they need to set with these family members in order to protect themselves—perhaps talking about their mental health or their experiences in therapy is off-limits—while still preserving parts of the relationship that might be more healthy.”
In my case, this means me working to care less about earning my mother’s approval and trusting that her lack of understanding about my mental-health struggles doesn’t come from a malicious place. I also know that the more I clue her in, and the more I note how positive my experiences with therapy have been, the more her support grows.
It’s been awhile now since she’s asked me why I’m sad since I have so many great things going for me—so it’s clear we’re making progress. And, now I understand that her default assumption has always just been believing symptoms have causes, just like my default state of being has long been a constant dull state of low mood. But neither of our defaults have to stand—we just both have some work to do.
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