Whether it’s feelings of shame, guilt, fear or trying to protect loved ones from the truth, many people with mental illness suffer in silence, choosing not to share their struggles with family and friends. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, over 40 million people in the U.S. – that’s 1 in 5 people – will experience a mental health condition this year.
Years ago it was common for those suffering from “taboo” disorders such as schizophrenia or depression to be locked in mental institutions or kept in isolation by their families. While the cultural conversation around mental illness is more widely discussed, many sufferers continue to maintain veils of secrecy out of fear, stigma and the desire to shield others from pain.
Mental Health America (MHA) released its annual State of Mental Health Report earlier this year and cited that over 76% of youth with severe depression – 1.7 million kids – stayed quiet about their struggles. Additionally, on average, it takes 10 years between the onset of symptoms and when individuals of all ages receive treatment, reinforcing the idea that many choose to keep their illnesses secret.
Paul Gionfriddo, President and CEO of MHA, said, “Far too many young people are suffering – often in silence. They are not receiving the treatment they need to live healthy and productive lives – and too many simply don’t see a way out.”
More Harm Than Good
Experts agree that keeping secrets is ultimately more harmful and decrease an individual’s overall sense of well-being.
According to Abby Rodman, best-selling author, psychotherapist, coach, and relationship strategist, secrets and lies can wreak havoc on your personal relationships and your health.
“Deciding to keep a secret or tell a lie is always a choice. And, often, we choose either or both because we’re afraid we can’t withstand the consequences of coming clean. But which is preferable: A relationship (and, perhaps, a life) suffocated by the heavy curtains of secrets and lies? Or a deeply-breathed life lived with a clear conscience and self-respect?”
Here’s one man’s personal story about keeping his struggle with mental illness a secret from family and friends:
The Slippery Slope of Secrets
Other harmful effects of keeping secrets include:
- Secrets create inauthenticity. Where there are secrets, there may often by lies, and where there are lies, there’s inauthenticity. The mindset of “what they don’t know, won’t hurt them” is the farthest thing from the truth, and can dramatically shift the dynamic of even the closest of relationships.
- Secrets create bad energy. While attempting to keep information from others, you’re focusing your energy in all the wrong places. Not being transparent and withholding the truth creates an overarching atmosphere of negativity, even if the other side isn’t aware of it.
- Secrets are bad for your health AND your brain. According to Rodman, secrets, especially those that are big and take a lot of energy to keep hidden, can make you sick. She relays that in one study, participants who cut back on lying had fewer mental health and physical complaints and that lying can make people anxious and depressed, trigger headaches and cause nausea. “Your brain gets muddled by lying, scientists say. The part of your brain wired to tell the truth is essentially being rewired by your lies, ramping up your stress hormones and interfering with things like learning and memory,” states Rodman.
- Secrets make you lonely. Being vulnerable and honest can be intimidating, and in the case of keeping mental illness a secret, you’re doing yourself an extreme disservice. Suffering in silence means you’ll be unable to lean on a support system, which can create deep feelings of isolation and make it more difficult to seek appropriate treatment.
- Secrets create disrespect. Secrets deprive your loved ones the right to process the impact the information may have on them. By keeping important things from your loved one, you’re unfairly disrespecting his/her opportunity to make informed decisions or lend support.
- Secrets are stressful. According to Art Markman, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology and Marketing at the University of Texas at Austin said, studies have shown that people find themselves thinking about the secret about three times more often than actively hiding it. Dr. Markman states, “Keeping secrets may be stressful, but not because of the activity of hiding it from a person. It may be stressful, because you may keep thinking about that information, which reminds you that you have a secret. Knowing you have a secret may make you feel as though you are not acting authentically, and that can depress your mood.”
Choose Straight-Forward Communication Over Silence
The video below reinforces how crucial it is to talk openly and not keep secrets when it comes to something as important as your mental health.
Michael Slepian, a professor of management at Columbia Business School, studying the psychological effects of secrecy, the development, and formation of trust, and deception detection say, “The act of confiding a secret can feel cathartic and relieving. But mere catharsis is not enough. When confiding a secret, what is actually helpful is the conversation that follows. People report that when sharing a secret with another person, they often receive emotional support, useful guidance, and helpful advice. These forms of support make people feel more confident and capable of coping with the secret.”
Secrets Have More Power When They Are Kept
At the American Brain Society, we encourage you to let go of the secrets you’ve been holding on to – your health and well-being depend on it. Once your support system is aware of any struggles you might be experiencing they can provide sympathy, encouragement and help with concrete action.
Here are a few tips to help open up the conversation with your loved ones:
- Decide who to talk to. It’s your decision to share your struggles with a few close family members or a wider network of people. If it helps, consider making a pro/con list so that you can see the benefits of telling people who will understand
- Plan the conversation. You can get the best support possible by determining what you want to say beforehand. Try including “process talk” in the conversation, which means “talking about talking,” rather than talking to share information. For example – “There’s something going on in my life that’s been bothering me for quite some time. I think I need to talk to someone about it. I feel embarrassed and sometimes confused, so please try and be patient.”
- Set boundaries. Your loved ones may have their own opinions, so be clear with people how they can support you. By having clarity around your own needs, you’ll be able to communicate how they can help
English novelist George Orwell said, “If you want to keep a secret, you must also hide it from yourself.” By choosing to keep things private you are making a decision not to face what is ahead of you. Through opening up, you’ll be able to process your own emotions more easily, while also relying on the support of your trusted circle. You owe it to yourself, and those who love you, to let people in and let go of your secrets.