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Coming Out About Mental Illness

You've just been diagnosed with a mental illness. Now what? Here's how to tell the people you love.

Practice Makes Perfect

Lang says the next step is to practice telling people about your mental illness, ideally with your therapist if you have one. This way you can anticipate some of the issues, questions, and comments that might arise. Practicing might also help you clarify your own thinking about mental illness as well as help determine who to tell.

"We have imaginations for a reason -- to enable us to anticipate things that might happen and mentally rehearse ways that we might respond to those scenarios," Lang says.

Coping With Bad Reactions to Mental Illness

Lang points to two choices when faced with someone who reacts badly to your disclosure: you can agree to disagree or you can try to educate that person. Read some educational materials with friends and family, and discuss the content. The organization Families for Depression Awareness, offers brochures about how to help someone you love who is struggling with depression, along with other resources available online. The organization is currently developing a monitoring tool to help patients and families monitor their depression treatment.

"It's an educational tool that provides important information about depression, how family members can help someone with depression, and how to monitor treatment with a calendar and diary," says Julie Totten, the founder and president of Families for Depression Awareness. She says the tool, which should be available early next year, will also help you keep track of medication side effects and red flags, which should be shared with the therapist. "It also will be a tool to help families communicate."

NAMI promotes support groups and educational courses for people with mental illness and their families and friends. One program, called Family to Family, centers around the education of caregivers. The NAMI web site offers many useful educational resources as well as information about where to find free support groups and courses in your area, says Burland.

Keep in mind that some people might express concerns about your condition, and this isn't necessarily an act of judgment or rejection. Seriously consider the insights of your loved ones, who may be concerned about things such as suicide or substance abuse.

Supporting Friends and Family With Mental Illness

If someone you love tells you that they have a mental illness, think before you speak.

"Do an internal check of your own reaction instead of just flying off with your first impulsive reaction," says Lang. If you think your reaction may have to do with ignorance or lack of education on the topic -- or stigma -- talk to your doctor or a mental health professional before you start dolling out your own advice. Try to react the same way you would if you were told about a physical health problem that you don't know much about.

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