We’re being told to ‘reach out’, but what does this mean, and how do we do it?

When you live with mental illness you’re often told to ‘reach out’ for support. But how do you actually do this? 

I’m a mental health writer and advocate, and often find myself telling people to ‘reach out’ when they’re struggling. I stress how honesty and openness is important, that you can’t move forward without sharing your story with the people closest to you. I tell people it’s ok to show vulnerability, and that by doing all of this we’re defying stigma. But I’m realising ‘reach out’ is such a vague statement, people don’t know how to actually do it. It’s this hopeful statement that people throw around, without ever really defining it. What are we asking people to do or say? It’s not exactly clear.  

It’s just too vague. It’s the same as when somebody says, “tell someone how you’re feeling.” Great, yes you should. It seems like a simple request; but how do you do it? It also comes with its own form of stigma. Knowing what we know, apparently, means we should be talking, we should be sharing. When we don’t, we’re seen as at fault. You’ll hear after, or even during a crisis from people in your life, “Why didn’t you tell me?” This is a loaded question, and isn’t asked to show someone cares, but often as an insinuation that you didn’t do your job. You didn’t ‘reach out’ like you’ve been told to. We’re expected to know how to do this, and we’re scolded when we don’t.

It goes without saying, that we all need to normalise asking for help. But it doesn’t end there; we need to explore and understand how to ask for help. I’ve put together a few key phrases that explain exactly what you need, why you need it, and what’s going on for you right now.

“I’m depressed/anxious/suicidal right now. I’m not sure what I need, but I need someone to talk to.” 

This explains simply how you’re feeling. Most importantly, it doesn’t put pressure on you, or the person you’re talking to. You’re explaining that they don’t need to fix you, or solve the problem, you just need someone to chat to. I like this, because often when I’ve been very depressed, I can’t pinpoint what I need to feel better, but I know human connection will help.

“I’m struggling with my mental health, can we chat on the phone/Skype/etc and come up with a plan?” 

This is a good one for the people close to you, because it gives them a sense of purpose. Just saying the words ‘I’m struggling’ can feel massive when you’re ill. Leaving it hanging there in the middle of a conversation can feel oppressive and way too much to handle. But following it up with coming up with a plan, feels positive and that you’re willing to deal with the feelings your experiencing.

“Can you help distract me, let’s talk about anything.” 

This is often what I need when I’m in a crisis, or hearing voices. It’s a simple statement that explains your state of mind, without having to go into detail. Distraction helps you focus on the conversation. It doesn’t matter what it’s about – often it’s just hearing that other voice, watching someone as they speak that helps.

ā€œIā€™m having a difficult time taking care of myself. Can you help with a few things?ā€

When we’re having a difficult time, everyday tasks can feel insurmountable. They build up and we feel like we can’t cope. Asking for help, however small, can make a difference to our mental health. It might be just picking up some essentials from the shops, giving you a lift to a doctor’s appointment, or something more, like helping you sort your finances.

“I’m really not feeling very good, and I’m worried about staying safe. Can you stay on the phone with me/stay with me/come over until I feel better?”

This is for when you’re feeling suicidal and having intrusive thoughts. It’s a way of telling someone you’re feeling this way, without actually saying the ‘S’ word, which might freak some people out. Telling someone you trust them and want them to keep you company until the feeling passes, will make them feel you value them, and it explains how serious the situation is.

Of course, it’s also so important that people ‘reach in.’ Again, it’s a vague statement, and can feel overwhelming. I’ll do a follow up post about how you can do this.

No, that person you disagree with isn’t delusional

As someone that experiences actual delusional thinking, it’s difficult to hear people using the word to describe someone they disagree with. By using this term all you’re doing is insinuating our symptoms are synonymous with badness. 

I live with Bipolar disorder, with psychotic symptoms. When I have an episode of bipolar mania, I might become delusional. This means I often experience delusions of grandeur. I’ve experienced this since my late teens, with it first surfacing at University. I wasn’t diagnosed until my mid twenties. Delusional thinking means I lose touch with reality. A recurring belief I’ve had is that I’m not only invincible, but that I’m incredibly important. I’ll believe it’s impossible for me to be hurt by anything or anyone. I’ll also think that this power extends to people keeping me out of harms way. It doesn’t make sense and it’s not supposed to! In the moment though I’m convinced I’m right, and any evidence to the contrary wouldn’t change my mind. Delusional thinking has caused me to be run over. I would just walk out into busy roads without looking, believing everything would be ok. Luckily I came away with just bruises, which further fuelled the delusions. I’ve also be in quite a serious car crash because I decided I could drive in the middle of the road, because cars would move out of my way. Again, somehow, no one was hurt. 

With elections, Brexit and Trump, I’ve heard more and more people use the word as a slur. I’ve even had someone from my extended family use it, when they know I suffer with delusions. When opposing sides are arguing, or even just having a debate on an issue, the go to word seems to be ‘delusional’. I’ve heard phrases in the media, by experts in their field, by politicians in interviews all along the lines of;

“This policy is delusional”

“What they’re suggesting is delusional.”

“This delusion will harm the public/economy/our country etc.

It’s insensitive, lazy and a gross misuse of the word. “But delusional means different things!” It may do, but it’s obvious what meaning people are trying to convey when they call someone delusional when they deeply disagree with someone. It’s hard enough trying to explain what delusions are to family and friends, without them constantly hearing the word in a negative light on the news, on social media and by the people running our country. The more people hear the word used in this way, the more likely they are to use it in their day to day language.

Why does it matter what words people use? It’s just a word isn’t it? Well, it portrays delusions, and the people that experience them, as bad. It fuels the idea that people that experience delusions are dangerous. It’s deeply hurtful to the individuals that experience them. We’re human beings and are affected by an illness that can completely overwhelm us, cause damage to our relationships and our lives. We deserve to be listened to when we say a word used in this negative context is hurtful.

Changing up your vocabulary isn’t difficult. Try using words to convey how you feel about what someone has suggested, such as; unrealistic, fantasy, pipe dream, confused, wrong, ignorant etc. Think about that difference of opinion, and the emotion or belief that first pops into your head, and use that word.

I’ve heard people saying that awareness raising has had its moment; that people understand what depression and anxiety is now. I think the way delusional is used shows that stigma, and a lack of knowledge and understanding is still rife when it comes to certain mental illnesses. The less palatable it seems, the more stigma exists.

Before you say it, think about the person behind the word. Think about the ordinary person, like me, who experiences delusions. Think about how you would feel if something you live with was thrown around to attack, discredit, and insinuate someone is bad and cruel. I don’t think you’d use the word in the same way again.