How to open up if you’re struggling with your mental health

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The pandemic and lockdown have been hard on LGBTQs – but here’s why sharing’s healing.

nterview: Jamie Tabberer; picture: posed by models (Zackary Drucker/The Gender Spectrum Collection)

Today is Time To Talk Day [4 February 2021], a campaign to get people talking about their mental health.

Talking things over with loved ones can have a huge impact, and the more conversations we have about mental health, the closer we will be to ending the loneliness many experiencing such problems feel.

To mark the day, Attitude fired some questions over to Pablo Vandenabeele, Clinical Director for Mental Health at Bupa UK Insurance [pictured below] to find out how LGBTQs struggling with their mental health through the pandemic and lockdown can seek help.

Pablo Vandenabeele, Clinical Director for Mental Health at Bupa UK Insurance

Can you elaborate on the message of Time To Talk Day and how to carefully select who to talk to?

Time to Talk Day serves as a reminder to us all that it’s important to check in with those around us – including our family, friends and colleagues – on a regular basis, even if they look like they’re doing okay.

Conversations about mental health shouldn’t be an intimidating prospect, or even a conversation you have to have exclusively with a mental health professional – even a small chat over a coffee with a friend can help to make a real difference.

When it comes to finding the right person to talk to, trust is key. Choose someone that you feel comfortable in having an honest conversation with, as this can help you open up.

Likewise, you may find it useful to talk to someone who’s been through something similar before, as they may understand your situation and be able to offer first-hand advice.

On the whole, the vast majority of people are understanding and will do their best to help.

If you don’t feel you’re getting the understanding or support you need though, don’t be disheartened – there are plenty of other avenues available. That could be talking to another friend or loved one, or speaking to a trained specialist.

Organisations like MindSamaritans and CALM all provide free and confidential helplines for those in need. Their teams are experienced and understanding and can offer help whatever you’re going through.

What are the benefits of discussing mental health?

This year one in four of us will experience a mental health problem, yet many of us are afraid of opening up about our mental health struggles. For many struggling with their thoughts and not being able to talk about their struggles with those around them can increase feelings of loneliness and create a stigma of shame.

However, by discussing mental health we can break down stereotypes, barriers, feelings of isolation and loneliness that are all associated with mental health problems. Encouraging those around us who may be struggling with their mental health by simply talking to them helps them to feel supported and understood.

Talking about your feelings can act as a coping technique when you feel as though you are struggling mentally. Just by speaking to someone you trust can help you to feel less alone, whilst also encouraging others to do the same.

We all know that the last year has been especially tough. Many of us have been socially isolated during lockdown, so opening the channels of communication about how we’re feeling with one another is more important than ever.

The aim of Time to Talk Day is to help break stigmas and taboos about mental health, give us all a better understanding of how we’re feeling, and whether we need extra support. Although we may not be able to have these conversations in person this year, there’s still plenty of ways to have them virtually.

What do you believe to be the specific challenges and triggers to LGBTQs in this pandemic? 

For LGBTQ+ people, the opportunity to relate to others who understand their journey and hardships is invaluable. Whilst we’ve been in lockdown, many in the community may feel like they’ve missed out on sharing milestones and experiences with their support networks.

LGBTQ+ people – especially those in the BAME community – are more susceptible to mental health issues, homelessness and safety risks as a result of the discrimination they may face. As a result, the pandemic may have exacerbated an already difficult time, particularly if they’ve returned to live with family who aren’t aware of their sexuality, or have trouble accepting it.

Our research has found that more people have also been turning to Google during the pandemic to find out whether questioning their sexuality is normal. This is clearly saddening to see, and just shows why it’s important that we’re creating an environment where everyone feels supported – and able to be their true selves – regardless of their sexuality.

With The Albert Kennedy Trust recommending to young people that they should ‘press pause’ on coming out until they have trusted support networks in place, living their normal lives will sadly be something very difficult, or even impossible, for some LGBTQ+ people at this time.

The road to understanding your sexuality can be a confusing and worrying time, and the ability to find those you can relate to and be supported by is so important to help develop positive relationships and experiences, going forward.

Throughout the pandemic, LGBTQ+ support charity, Switchboard, has reported a 20% jump in use – with many getting in touch to share their experiences of how their sexuality has been received by their families.

If you’re struggling with any element of your mental health as a result of your sexuality, I’d encourage you to reach out to those you trust and share your feelings.

Diagnosing mental health issues at an early stage is key to better outcomes, so if you’re finding things difficult please don’t feel you need to deal with it on your own.

If you’ve been struggling with those feelings for more than two weeks, remember that your GP can help you and there are plenty of resources available with advice, like our Mental Health Hub, Mind and the LGBT Foundation. 

What is your advice to LGBTQ people confined with ‘bigoted relatives’?

It can be difficult to live with the people you care about if they have a hard time accepting who you are.

If you are living in a hostile environment, where your home is no longer a safe place to be who you are, remind yourself you are not alone in this. Since the beginning of the pandemic last year the number of LGBTQ community members feeling cut off from society has increased.

It is important you can take care of your mental health. Try creating a safe space in the house that is used only by you – perhaps your bedroom. Use this place to feel free to express yourself, whether this is by listening to music or talking to someone you can share your feelings with – this may be a friend or a specialist helpline. Remember, there is support available to help you through this tough time.

If you’re living with homophobic relatives at this time, it is important to remember there is no problem with who you are – you have a right to be yourself.

What is your advice to LGBTQs who have had to go back into the closet because of who they’re quarantining with?

It can be an overwhelming and suppressive experience to feel as though you have to hide who you truly are. If you’re struggling with your identity because of your current living circumstances, it is important that you are able to talk to about your struggles.

Talking to someone you’re not currently living with can help, this could be a friend, colleague or even a specialist helpline. Sharing your feeling and experiences with another can help put a perspective on how you are feeling.

Having an open conversation with those you are currently living with about how you are feeling is an impactful way of being able to discuss the situation in a controlled environment – but only if you feel safe to do so. Speaking freely, without the fear of feeling judged, can help to create an environment you can feel more comfortable in.

What is your advice to LGBTQs quarantining with abusive partners?

Domestic abuse is a serious issue and affects 25% of the LGBTQ+ community. If you’re currently living with an abusive partner, please remember that help is available and reaching out is often the first, and most important step.

Confiding to a friend or family member can help you to get the support you need. However, if you do not feel comfortable opening up to a loved one, there are lots of organisations such as GALOP and the LGBT Foundation, who are trained to offer specialised help and advice on LBGTQ+ domestic abuse.

Whilst a partner’s abusive behaviour is something that can only be controlled by them, there are steps you can take to increase your safety. For example, creating a safety plan­ (a set of actions you can be prepared to take if you feel your safety is at risk, such as, packing an emergency bag if you need to leave quickly), can help to protect yourself.

What is your advice to LGBTQs who are struggling to access therapy?

If you’re struggling with your mental health, it is important you talk to your GP. Being totally honest about how you’re feeling can help your GP to signpost you to the help you need. Your GP will know what help is available to you locally and be able to advise you on the best support for you.

Waiting for help can be frustrating, however there’s lots of support widely available whilst you are waiting to receive support. Bupa’s Mental Health Hub has a wealth of free information and advice from mental health experts.

Speaking to a loved one about how you are feeling can also help you to cope with times when you are struggling. Just sharing your thoughts with someone you trust can help you to feel less alone, whilst also encouraging others to do the same.

What are the pros and cons of social media in these times?

In a time where social distancing is being encouraged, social media may feel like a good way to bridge the gap and stay connected to friends and family, as well as raising awareness for important issues. A lot of LGBTQ+ people also find benefits from connecting with likeminded communities online.

However, the way we interact with social media can affect our mood.

Often, the content we view on social media has been manipulated to appear as the better version of the original. This can lead to us to comparing ourselves to others we see on social media platforms, causing feelings of low self-esteem, inadequacy or feeling of missing out. Whilst we are being encouraged to stay at home, the fear of missing out can be heightened by certain content we are consuming.

It is important to be aware of the content you are consuming on your feed. Take the time to go through your feed and unfollow any accounts that make you feel upset, or like they’re setting unrealistic expectations. This can help ensure you are consuming content that makes you feel positive.

Follow accounts that are relative to you and are help you feel connected to others and part of a community. And remember, you can always take a social media break or limit your screen time if you find that your relationship with platforms is damaging your mental health.

What is your response to an LGBTQ person who is nervous about coming out and/or opening up about their mental health on social media?

Social media is a very open and public space, the content you share through your social media profile can be shared across the world.

Sharing a personal journey about your experience of coming out or any mental health struggles can be a way of raising awareness of mental health issues in the wider community. Which may help others experiencing similar situations to your own feel understood and even encourage them to open up.

However, as with many things on social media, posting personal stories may open you up to negative comments. If you are thinking about sharing your story be aware that there may be some people that are not as supportive as others.

If you’re concerned, remember that you can change your settings so that your posts can only be viewed by your followers.

It is also important to remember your feelings are personal to you. If you do not feel like you are ready to, or want to share your feelings and experiences openly with lots of people – many of them unknown, that is completely normal.

Being able to confide in a trusted friend or family member is another way you can open up about your thoughts about coming out or any mental health struggles you’re facing.

What are the steps a person should take if they believe a loved one is feeling suicidal?

It can be very upsetting if you think a loved one is feeling suicidal. Whilst you may not be able to make their suicidal feelings go away immediately, you can help by getting them the help and support, they need.

If your loved one needs urgent help, it is vital you don’t try to handle the situation on your own. Act quickly to seek medical help from a mental health professional, like the emergency services or NHS 111.

It is important to encourage your loved one to talk about how they feel. Whilst this may feel like an uncomfortable conversation to have, letting your loved one know you are there to support them can really help.

Whilst it isn’t always easy to identify if your loved one is experiencing suicidal thoughts, if you spot signs early, you can help them access the support they need quicker. There are some common signs you can look out for when looking for suicidal tendencies;

· Often talking about suicide, for example using statements such as ‘I wish I was dead’
· Regular mood swings
· Increased alcohol or drug use
· Making a habit of saying goodbye to people as if they won’t be seeing them again
· Taking steps as if they are preparing to end their life, such as stock piling pills

Again, it’s important to normalise conversations around mental health. This isn’t always easy, but the first step is asking how people are, and genuinely taking time to listen to their response.

All too often, people automatically respond with “I’m fine”. In reality though, if we take the time to ask a few more questions, many of us are facing challenges that can be eased by the support of others.

Can you offer any mental health management tips?

When looking after your mental health, find what works best for you. Opening up to someone you trust about how you’re feeling, making sure you’re getting enough sleep, eating a balanced diet and exercise are all great core ways to take care of your mental health.

However, if you feel as though your regular mental health management tips are no longer helping, now is the time to try something new.

Take the time to invest in your interests, whether this is learning a new language, listening to music or getting creative. Taking time out for your day to do the things you enjoy can help to boost your mood and increase levels of productivity as you have something new to focus on.

Remember, if simple changes to your mental health management techniques don’t make a difference, or you feel as though your mental health is worsening, it’s time to seek medical advice. Speak to your GP or call a helpline. A mental health expert will be able to help by identifying what’s causing you to feel this way, and to look at steps to take to improve how you feel.

Fast access to support is available through Bupa’s Mental Health Direct Access service, which allows health insurance customers to speak to a specialist without needing a GP referral.

What services/support groups do you recommend?

There are lots of services and support groups available, if you or a loved one is having a hard time with mental health.

Bupa’s Mental Health Hub offers a wide range of advice from our experts on how to look after your mental health and can point you in the best direction to help you to have conversations with the right people for you.

There are a number of organisations in the UK that are providing support to LGBTQ+ people;

LGBT Foundation – a national charity that are trained in providing support and advice

Mind – The UK mental health charity has a section of their website dedicated to providing support and useful information to the LGBQ+ community

Albert Kennedy Trust – offer support to LGBTQ+ young people aged 16-25 in UK who are facing or experiencing homelessness or living in a hostile environment

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