Can you make someone mentally ill?

Mental illness: I hope you're doing well? No it doesn't

How can I react if someone tells me about depression, anxiety disorder, or trauma? Our author went looking for answers.

Dealing with mental illnesses is becoming more open - also thanks to a young generation who dare to talk about it. In our series "Fits Already" we deal with talking about the psyche. How can you, as a non-affected person, talk better about mental problems?

Sometimes you don't get a banal answer to a banal question. Some time ago I wrote a message to Noa. Noa should remain anonymous in this text, gender is also irrelevant. We got to know each other during our studies, got along well, lost sight of each other. So again a message: what is Noa doing and where, plus a quick "I hope you are fine?"

No it didn't. Instead: Depression, get back on your feet, let's see. Noa wrote that as a natural answer to my question, which was actually not a question, but an insinuation.

How can I talk about mental illness?

I wondered for a long time what I could answer. I was afraid that I'd hurt Noa or made Noa angry with my mundane question - and that my next message would only make things worse. I couldn't decide whether an inquiry was urgently needed - or whether I would be crossing a line and invading Noa's privacy. Most of all, I was ashamed for acting so stupidly.

In the end it was only enough to say, "I hope you are better?" When Facebook showed the blue tick - message delivered - I wanted to slap myself.

If I don't know what mental illness does to a person, how can I talk about mental illness? This question never let me go. I wanted to find answers and strategies to get rid of my uncertainty. I asked Noa, wrote Gareth, who had given a TEDx talk on the subject at my old university, spoke to friends. Then I googled: I wanted to find a psychologist, an expert who knows how to talk about mental illness. On the second page, first entry, a blog post by Julia appeared.



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Julia's full name is Julia Katharina Faulhammer. She is 26 years old, studied psychology in Chemnitz and blogs at about mental illnesses, including her own. Julia writes that she has been living with post-traumatic stress disorder for almost ten years; that is, she has experienced things that she could not process. She also has depressive episodes and agoraphobia, which is a fear of leaving the house. With her blog, she wants to write against ignorance and stigmatization - and answer questions that I also ask myself: How can you react when someone tells you about your own psychological problems? And what should you not say to an affected person, if at all possible?

I wrote Julia an email, discarded it, wrote again. Julia's illnesses instilled in me respect: trauma, depression, can't leave the house. As with Noa and many people before that, I didn't want to say anything wrong. At some point I sent the email off.

Julia replied two days later. She is interested in an interview, but cannot make a phone call. She will later explain that a phone call is a lot of stress for her and that she has to spend hours preparing for it. We arranged to meet up via Facebook Messenger.

This time I have an advantage: Unlike with Noa, I know that Julia is mentally ill. I know she speaks openly about her illnesses on her blog. That's why I dare to ask about it.

There are eight minutes between my question and Julia's answer. Overall, our conversation will last over three hours. Julia sends emojis again and again, almost everyone is happy, laughing and winking.

Actually, I still have a question. I want to know who or what traumatized Julia. But my feeling is that it would be wrong to ask. I decide to listen - I'm not sure if it is out of cowardice or out of respect for the person who is also sitting in front of Facebook 250 kilometers away.

Do I only accept an illness as such when I see it? If the person concerned has a cast on their leg or snot runs out of their nose? Julia wants a society in which the psyche can be just as naturally ill as the body. And in which this illness is not constantly called into question. That makes sense to me.

And still, there is a difference: I know what a cold feels like, I can imagine how painful a broken leg must be. I cannot understand what happens in the head of a depressed person. And something else is different.

Julia is affected. She cannot speak for the millions of other people affected, she says herself. But what she writes, I have also heard from others.

Noa, for example, told me that those affected do not accidentally tell about mental health problems, so asking questions is never taboo. Noa also gave me the tip to consider what kind of reaction I would find appropriate in the event of the flu - and whether or why I apply different standards for mental illness.

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And Gareth Griffith, a 28-year-old Englishman, calls in his TEDx talk "Why big boys don't cry"Just like Julia, that we should all be talking about mental health. When I asked Gareth on Skype what exactly he meant by that a few months after the talk, he said," Not every conversation has to be a mental health conversation. But the subject should be on the table. It should be okay to say, I feel like shit, I've had a lot of panic attacks this week. "Over lunch with colleagues, over beer with friends, people should be able to talk about mental health anywhere, says Gareth. And that doesn't just apply to mental illness : Everyone should have the opportunity to say openly if they are feeling bad - also as an early warning system. "Feeling bad is something that happens to all of us. It doesn't make us any less good, it makes us human. It is something so fundamentally human that we are so ashamed of ourselves. "

Five tips - and one honest question

So it's not just about creating a society in which the psyche can be just as naturally ill as the body - but also one in which both are discussed with the same naturalness. The fact that Noa told me about mental health problems shows that it sometimes happens. The fact that I have found it so difficult to answer shows that it doesn't happen often enough.

There are now five points on my list of thoughts on how I can react better the next time someone tells me about depression, an anxiety disorder or a trauma:

  • Thank you for your trust
  • Express feelings honestly
  • ask questions
  • Treat like a normal disease
  • respect

And there is something else: In the future, I will no longer assume that others will be fine, as I did with Noa. I want to ask honestly. And answer honestly.