I believe there is still a stigma around a person suffering a mental illness. And that this contributes to the shame some sufferers feel which makes it harder for them to recover. I also believe that the stigma is partly related to the science of our long gone past (a lack of scientific understanding of mental illness resulting in straight jackets, electric shock therapy, insane asylums etc), partly due to intolerance, and partly due to fear.
I can’t change intolerance or science in this humble little blog. But perhaps I address some of the fear.
The fear of ‘what do I say to a ‘crazy’ person’, ‘what will they want to talk about’, ‘what if they talk about their mental illness’, ‘what if the conversation becomes difficult’, ‘what if they talk non stop about their troubles’. I don’t like the word ‘crazy’ but I realise that’s the way some people think of mental illness. I know people with mental illness and I wouldn’t consider them crazy. What is crazy anyway? Isn’t it all relative?
Case in point: a friend of mine told me last week that when she told her friends she had been diagnosed with postnatal depression they stopped contacting her. When she met another friend in the street and was asked how she was going – you know the usual “oh g’day, how you going” type conversation starter. When she mentioned she’d been having a rough time of it and had been diagnosed with postnatal depression the friend took a few steps away and quickly ended their chat.
I reckon that some of these reactions come down to a fear of what to say. And what NOT to say. Imagine how supported sufferers would feel if that fear was removed and conversations about it continued as normal. So I’m here to help anyone that doesn’t know what to say. I don’t proclaim to be an expert. But if what I write helps one person know what to do when faced with this situation, I’ll be happy.
First and foremost know that, for the most part, a person with postnatal depression is not unhinged and are unlikely to harm you when you say “g’day how you going”. Unless you say something silly like “g’day how you going, when are you due?”. People – if you are unsure if they’ve had the baby or are due to have the baby, don’t ask! Alright, moving on.
Postnatal depression is simply a very minor and temporary change in chemistry of their brain which makes them a bit down (sometimes very down) or stressed. So there is no need to step away or find a way to end your conversation.
If they are strong enough that day to admit they’ve been having a rough time here’s some things you can say (in increasing levels of interest/concern you feel like you can offer):
Bummer. So how about that rain the other day . . . and move onto something else.
That’s rough. How cute’s your baby though . . . and move onto something else.
Gee, that’s no good. Still, you look really good . . . and move onto something else.
Hmmm, that must be really hard. Still, you have a beautiful child . . . and move onto something else.
I didn’t realise. Good on you for seeking help (or being able to talk about it), that must’ve been hard.
I understand that can be a dreadful illness.
Gosh, that must make being a new mum extra hard.
Wow, that’s a pain in the bum, I hear that it’s more common than people let on.
Is there anything I can do to help you?
Do you feel like you have enough support to get you through this?
Hey, maybe we should meet up one day and I can lend you my ear to talk about it.
Have you talked to anyone about how you are feeling? If you feel like you need some support I could come to an appointment with you.
If you feel like they are going on and on about it, it’s getting too much for you and you want to move on try these:
That’s a bummer. But look that’s really hard for me to talk about. Do you mind if we talk about something else?
Hey that’s tough, maybe you should talk to your doctor about these things, because while I care about you and would like to help I don’t really know much about it.
I’m glad you’re getting help and starting to recover. Honestly though it would be great to hear about the other parts of your life.
Putting the illness aside though, how’s life otherwise.
That’s a real bummer and it sounds hard, but tell me more about your baby/home/partner/christmas/weekend.
Honestly though, no matter what words you use, the best thing you can do is acknowledge their illness as though you would any other illness. Because that’s exactly what it is. An illness that they would choose not to have if they could.
Treat them kindly, as though you would if they were well. Act without fear and judgement. And you will make their day rather than adding to their shame and burden.