Wednesday 16 August 2023

Six Reasons Your Friend or Loved One May Hide the Truth From You About their Mental Health

Mental health campaigns stress the importance of talking about how we’re feeling, especially if we’re struggling or mentally unwell. Whether it’s a trusted friend or family member, medical professional, counsellor, therapist, or crisis line, the message is clear: talk to someone. Fran and I believe in the value of genuine, honest, and open communication. It’s the foundation of our friendship and the central message of our book, our blog, and everything we do in the mental health arena. But it’s not always easy, or even appropriate, to be completely open with everyone all the time. All of us fib about how we are sometimes. Even me and Fran, even with each other.

In this post I want to look at why our friends and loved ones aren’t always completely open with us about their mental health. Understanding why this happens can help us to be more compassionate towards those we care about, and ourselves. As well as my own experiences, I’ll draw on contributions submitted in response to a request I posted on social media. I’m grateful to everyone who shared ideas, thoughts, and experiences. This article is richer for your insight, courage, and honesty. There may be any number of reasons for someone not fully disclosing what’s going on for them, but I’ll focus on six.

  1. I don’t want to be a burden
  2. I’m not sure you’ll be there
  3. I don’t feel safe
  4. I don’t want you to think I’m weak
  5. I don’t want it to change us
  6. You’re not who I need right now

Let’s look at these in more detail.

1. I Don’t Want to Be a Burden

Not wanting to be a burden was mentioned more than anything else. It’s an understandable concern, and one I recognise in myself. It’s clear that in many cases this is done with the intention of protecting the other person from worrying.

Maybe they’re not telling you for a reason that’s good towards you, like they don’t want to burden you, or don’t want you to know about things like self-harm or suicide or rape. [AW]

I tend to hide my mental health issues from people close to me for several reasons. [The first is] I don’t want to worry them, especially my partner, when I feel they’ve already had enough reason to worry about me. [The second is] I feel such pressure to put a brave face on and show that I’m being positive (which I am most days) and I don’t want to burden people by allowing them to see that I’m having a bad day. [CB]

From the “caring friend” perspective, it’s hard to think that people would hold back because they didn’t want to burden me. I can’t think of a single occasion I’ve felt any of my friends was a burden. There have been times I couldn’t help someone immediately, but I’d rather they checked in with me to see if I have capacity to listen to them than assume I’m too busy or too involved with my own problems. That said, it’s important for me to recognise this can get in the way of people opening up to me.

I feel that other people have their own mental health issues to contend with and haven’t got room for mine, because that’s how I often react to people saying they’re depressed or suffering from anxiety, as I feel like I’ve got my own problems. I then feel bad for not having more empathy, so I don’t want them to go through the same thought process. In other words, I don’t want them to have the same dilemma of wanting to be supportive but just not currently having the capacity. [CB]

This last point was picked up by another contributor, who highlighted the effort involved both in opening up and in being there for someone else.

The feelings associated with mental illness can feel so heavy and explaining these to an acquaintance or stranger or even a friend can feel too much to even know where to begin. Most people don’t really have the capacity to bear such an enormous burden or be there for a mentally ill person for the duration. [AR]

2. I’m Not Sure You’ll Be There

The apparent simplicity of the “talk to someone” message fails to recognise the enormous commitment opening up to another person represents. It’s a commitment not only in mental and physical effort, but also vulnerability. We need to know, or at least trust, that the person we talk to has the capacity to accept whatever we have to share, without rejecting us or responding in ways that exacerbate rather than ease our situation. It’s also true that being there for someone involves more than taking time to hear them out. As the previous contributor noted, it can mean being there “for the duration.”

Whether it’s caused by physical illness or mental, feeling so depressed does make people feel useless and this makes it harder to ask for help. [CB]

I’m not saying I’m suicidal, not by any means. But I realise its best to save the energy I do have to talk with those who can hear me, read me, and instinctively know when to shoot that wing underneath. [MH]

When that trust is there, the rewards can be incredibly valuable, and the effort — on both parts — ultimately worthwhile. This is something Fran and I have found many times, but we’re certainly not alone.

For my cousin, it was a matter of a long time, finally feeling comfortable enough, trusting enough, and vulnerable enough, to share his mental illness with me, and coming to me for support and help when he wasn’t mentally feeling well knowing that whatever he shared with me would only stay between us. [TA]

3. I Don’t Feel Safe

It’s clear that sometimes trust isn’t there, or has broken down, leaving us feeling unable to open up to certain people.

I find my family of origin has no interest at all in my mental health, no interest in my heath at all actually. They see me as strong and they aren’t interested in knowing anything else. [VR]

I thought when I was finally diagnosed it was wonderful. I could tell the people that knew me what I had and that would explain about me and they wouldn’t think I was crazy. But that backfired and they thought I was even crazier. Some didn’t believe me. I finally quit telling others I had Bipolar Disorder until a long time later. [CR]

If there’s no helpful or supportive response it’s easy to understand why someone wouldn’t want to risk opening up to them again. This applies as much to professionals and crisis or support lines as it does to friends and family members.

4. I Don’t Want You to Think I’m Weak

Guilt and weakness came up several times. It’s easy to say that we shouldn’t feel guilty or weak if we’re struggling, but the reality is that these feelings are real. In many cases, they’re reinforced by stigma and societal expectations, but they can be internal too, related to our sense of self-esteem and self-image.

There’s still so much stigma around being mentally ill, especially by older generations who see it as weakness or an excuse for nonproductivity. It often made me feel ashamed and less than, and I stopped reaching out or talking about it to friends or family. [AR]

I don’t like people to think I’m not “strong.” For instance [after chemo] I didn’t leave the house other than to go to the hospital until my hair started growing back and I put a bit of weight back on because I wanted people to see me as my “normal self.” I didn’t want people to see me moping about in my pyjamas and feeling dreadful and full of morphine because that would have been showing weakness (in my mind that’s what it would have been). [CB]

Guilt is another factor, both on the part of the person who’s struggling and the person they’ve shared with.

If people do share their mental health problems, they feel guilty that they can’t do anything for them, or can’t do more. While the person sharing often feels guilty that they haven’t been able to deal with it on their own, and guilty that they may be putting additional stress onto someone else. [When] I was extremely low and struggling psychologically, it was exacerbated by feelings of guilt and complete uselessness. [CB]

These feelings can affect anyone, but they’re especially pertinent to men.

I think men are definitely more at risk of their mental health problems escalating. It’s sad that men asking for help is seen as “being sensitive” which is still viewed by many as a weakness or “feminine.” [CB]

I don’t have a mental health diagnosis but as I’ve explored in blog posts such as Return to Down and THIS BOY GETS SAD TOO, I’m much more aware of my mental health than I used to be. Blogging is part of how I choose to talk about it, as well as conversations with Fran and other friends. I’ve learned to be more honest about my physical health too, as you can read in How International Men’s Day Inspired My First Doctor’s Appointment in 30 Years.

The issue of weakness came up for me last year when a close friend challenged me on something I’d written about crying in an open letter to my father. Examining my thoughts and feelings brought a key insight: while crying certainly isn’t a sign of weakness, weakness itself is nothing to be ashamed of or embarrassed about.

5. I Don’t Want it to Change Us

Talking to a friend or loved one about how we’re feeling, whether that’s a long-term mental health condition or something more temporary, risks changing the nature of the relationship. You can’t unsay — or unhear — something once it’s been spoken.

There are times when I keep things to myself because I know I’ll move through the situation in less time than it’ll take my friend and I to process it collectively. Once shared, the problem or issue can become a thing in itself which needs time and energy to manage. Discussing things with someone can also take me in directions I’d not have gone if I’d handled things myself. This new perspective can be useful but that’s not always the case. Something I might have handled myself in a matter of days or weeks can become something needing months to navigate.

Our friends or loved ones may hide what’s going on because they don’t want us to treat them differently. We may bristle at that. “Oh, I wouldn’t treat someone badly because they’re struggling,” we might say. But that’s not altogether the point. The point is that our loved ones might feel that way. We might too, in their situation. As one contributor put it, “I like people to treat me the way they always did before I became ill.” Fran expressed this powerfully in the early days of our friendship, after I told her I saw her as my friend, rather than as “someone living with illness.”

That is the point, Marty! It is how you are with me. People do not usually treat me that way once they know I have illness. It is a powerful thing. It has helped me see that I am not just my illnesses. I have value and gifts to give.

6. You’re Not Who I Need Right Now

I think there can be a sense of entitlement on the part of friends and family, as thought the person struggling owes us the truth. I don’t see it like that. If we create a safe space, people will tell us what they feel safe telling us, but only if it’s going to help them. That’s especially at a time of crisis. This is something I’ve learned over the years, and it wasn’t an easy lesson. As someone who cared deeply about my friends, I wanted to be there through thick and thin, whatever they were going through, offering everything they needed. It took a while to recognise that I can’t be everything to everyone, and that sometimes I’m simply not who my loved ones need.

I think it’s important to get across that as close friends, we can feel a bit like we have an obligation to know certain things and then it can upset us when we are not told what’s going on. And we shouldn’t feel this way. Regardless of the strength of the friendship, when someone is struggling, they might not act as they normally would, might not reach out to the people they normally would etc, and they still need to not be pressured by anyone. As friends we need to understand that and not take it personally. I know I have felt low about things like that in the past and it’s not a good thing. We have to understand that everyone has a team, and having a team is healthier than having just one person. [LD]

The team analogy is something that’s helped me a lot. I have a role on Fran’s team, alongside her other friends, doctors, and other professionals, but I’m not needed on the field at all times. Likewise, I’ve come to recognise the importance of having a support team of my own. What matters is that people are able to reach out to and access the help and support they need, when they need it. It doesn’t always have to include me.

So What Can I Do About It?

I’ve described six reasons why our friends and loved ones may not always be completely open with us about what’s going on. There will be other reasons too. Everyone and every situation is different. But what can we do about it? What is most helpful? The starting point is not to take it personally.

We have to learn that it’s not a reflection on us if someone is struggling [and doesn’t tell us about it]. It doesn’t mean that we’re not providing enough fun or support etc. It’s just something that’s happening to them. [LD]

Something I’ve found helpful is what I call supportive disengagement. Simply put, this means holding space while someone deals with whatever they’re going through in their own way. It means letting them know you’re there without pushing your need to be helpful on them unless and until it’s asked for. Ultimately, it’s about trusting our friends and loved ones, and supporting them with care rather than worry. The phrases “I worry about you” and “I care about you” are often used interchangeably, but there are three important differences. This is one of the first and most important lessons I ever learned with Fran.

I’ll close with something I’ve just written to a friend.

I’ve been going over my blog post — the one you contributed to about why people may not tell us what they are going through. All the reasons make so much sense to me — in fact, it’s amazing that anyone tells anyone anything! I think all we can do really is hold space for people to trust us with what’s going on for them, and hope that others are there to do that for us when we need it.

I don’t tell my friends everything but I have people who are there for me when I want or need to. As another friend put it when I thanked her for listening when I was talking about some things I was dealing with at the time. “You’re welcome. Always got your back!”

Over to You

How easy do you find it to talk to someone when you are struggling with your mental health or other issues? Do you tend to keep things to yourself, or are you able to discuss them with people you trust? Does it help? How do you handle the idea that people you care about may not always be completely open with you about what they’re going through? What helps you handle situations like that? Fran and I would love to hear from you, either in the comments below or via our contact page.


Photo by Ángel López at Unsplash.


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