Dear Winnie,

I was recently diagnosed with a mental health disorder. I think we, as Bruneians, are still afraid to talk about mental health disorders, or are ashamed when we have one! I’d like to share my experiences and talk about them more. If you have any advice in regards to this, I’ll appreciate it very much.

– LN

Winnie: The fact that you’d like to share your experience and talk about them more is already a great start!

So many of us who struggle with mental health disorders feel apprehensive about speaking up, out of shame, or fear of judgment – because not everyone you open up to will know how to respond appropriately.

As someone who struggles with bouts of depression, this has certainly been the case for me. I was scared I wouldn’t be taken seriously, and that people would think I was being a big baby, or a drama queen. Or, I’d be scared that they would take me seriously, and that it would change their perception of me – that they would see me as weak or broken.

While there have been awareness campaigns carried out on mental health issues, I agree that the stigma still exists. The mention of mental illness still evokes extreme characterisations: that if you have depression, you would be sad all the time, or if you have anxiety disorder, that you would be a constant nervous wreck.

I think a great way to start talking about your mental health disorder is to debunk the myths and stereotypes that come with it.

Let’s say you have bipolar disorder, for example. You could start by asking people what they think being bipolar is or what it’s like to have it. From their answer, you can gauge the level of understanding they have, how interested they are in the matter, and how sympathetic or empathetic they may be to it. You can then adjust your approach accordingly.

If someone is responding in a negative way, I would recommend checking in with your own mental state first – can you handle talking about this with someone who doesn’t understand, or is not supportive, or even dismissive, of your experience?

I’ve tried talking to friends about my depression while I was deep in the throes of a depressive episode, and there were a few who really didn’t know what to say or do, let alone comfort me. While I don’t hold that against them in any way, it did leave me feeling like I’d made them uncomfortable. And that made me feel worse.

I felt bad that I couldn’t be “Fun Winnie” for them. I felt embarrassed that I couldn’t pull it together and fake being happy. Instead, I continuously apologised for being such a downer while also trying to explain and justify my being a downer. Gah! I should have just stayed home.

While speaking up about your experience with a mental health disorder is important work, it’s even more vital to look out for yourself first. Your mental health comes before the responsibility you’ve placed upon yourself to spread awareness of it. So if you don’t think you can handle the emotional labour of explaining it to someone who doesn’t get it, then don’t.

However, if their response is positive and encouraging, then by all means, carry on and tell your story, girl! And to further support your efforts, I’d recommend learning all you can about your condition.

Reading up on your disorder can equip you with the right words to better explain your experience. Sometimes we don’t realise what we go through until we read someone else defining it, and then it’s like, “Yes! That’s exactly what it feels like!” (Plus, it feels good to know you’re not alone.) It can also help you identify your triggers and boundaries. What are the things that set you off? What are actions you can take to mitigate the situation?

It’s crucial to note that mental health disorders are not “one size fits all” situations. I know at least three people with anxiety disorder and it manifests in very different ways. So, do read up on the various symptoms that exist for your mental health disorder, and acknowledge which ones are true for you, while remembering that the symptoms that don’t apply to you, still apply to other people.

It is also essential that you identify the ways you like and/or need to be supported during an episode i.e. whenever a disorder manifests itself in the worst way. Do you like to be held? Or is being touched the worst thing someone can do? Do you like to hear reassuring words? Or would you rather pretend the episode is not happening and carry on as normal? What soothes you?

Finally, and most importantly, is to manage your expectations – which is easy to say but much harder to do, especially given that you’re the one with a condition. But it helps if you can detach and not take it personally when people don’t respond to you in the way that you hope. Perhaps they’re grappling with their own issues that they’re not ready to confront. Remember that how they respond to you says more about them, than you.

All the best!

Tiwin Aji is a Brunei-based comedienne known for her popular web series, #WinnieonWednesday. Equipped with empathy and a preternatural knack for doling out advice, she discovered at a young age that she loved telling people what to do.

If you’d like to get her take on your dilemma, fill out the contact form below or email your questions to Answers to reader-submitted questions will be published fortnightly in the ‘Winnie Wisdom’ column. All submissions will remain anonymous.