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"I don't want to offend but..." - how to ask someone about their experience of mental health

In the last few months, three people have asked my about various aspects of my mental health and my experiences of it. However, each person started the conversation with "I don't want to offend you" or "I'm not sure the best way of asking this" or something similar, and this isn't the first time I've heard this kind of mitigation before starting a conversation. Each comment had then been followed by a question about my mental health, whether that be what it feels like to have a panic attack, what it feels like to be depressed rather than just sad, and so on.

Now I know for some people, talking about mental health and more specifically, their own illnesses, can be a very sensitive topic and for some people very triggering, but personally, as long as you're not purposefully trying to be a dick about it, I'm not going to get offended by your question. I'm happy when people ask me things because it shows me that they want a better understanding of mental health.

I get the fear, especially if you were speaking to someone you don't know. Mental health and illness is a very personal topic, but if it's someone you know, you probably know how open they are about the topic, and how much they'd be willing to tell you. My close friends know I'm so open to talking about anything mental-health related, it's published on the internet for anyone to read! And if you ask someone and they don't want to speak about it, I'm sure they'll either say it, or you'll get the feeling that they're uncomfortable, so don't push it.

To answer a couple of questions I have been asked a few times:

What does it feel like when you have a panic attack?
This is a hard one to be objective on, because everyone's experience is different; how I react in situations and how my panic attacks happen may be completely different to anyone else's, it's not black and white. Even my own panic attacks differ from each other sometimes. But to kind of summarise it, it's scary. Sometimes I can go from 0-100 in a matter of minutes. As I've said in a previous blog post, there's a difference in the causes of panic attacks and anxiety attacks, so as a result, the attacks themselves are different. Anxiety attacks will gradually build, I can kind of tell that they're coming. To the girls reading, you know when you're moody, tired, your body aches and you just know you're period is about to start, it's like that with an anxiety attack. If I'm going on holiday and I know I've got to go to the airport, my anxiety will start building about a week before: I struggle to sleep, my eating goes to the extreme whereby I either have no appetite or I binge, I get snappy and grumpy and I can just feel it in my stomach. To be honest, when I've had the anxiety attack in the airport, i.e. crying, hyperventilating, shaking and sweating, I'm relieved, because I know that (most of the time), the anxiety will begin to leave my body and my brain, and I'll feel more myself again, until the next time. (I said that in my head like how David Attenborough says 'mother and baby are safe...for now'). But panic attacks are different, I can't tell when they're coming or going. With my panic attacks, it's more of a sense that I can't breathe and there's a really heavy weight on my chest, my stomach is tied up in knots. I don't always cry, but I definitely hyperventilate. I also become either desensitised or hypersensitive to what's around me. I either notice every little sound and movement, sound and taste, or I notice nothing at all because all I can see is the panic attack. I'm not going to lie, it's scary, especially when I'm on my own because I can't always stop them. And when I say stop, I mean delay; if I'm somewhere in public and manage to calm myself down from the panic, it still usually happens when I get into the car, or I get home, even though I'm in a safe space. Like I said, panic attacks often don't have a specific trigger in my case.

How did you know you were depressed and not just sad?
This is a tough one, it wasn't a quick realisation. Upon reflection, I'd say I had depression for about 2 or 3 years before I went to the doctors about it. It's not as simple as hurting your leg, realising it's not getting better and going to the doctors within a couple of weeks. Even once you've been to the doctors, you're not necessarily diagnosed straight away. To begin with, the doctor told me it was the depression that caused the anxiety, but 6 months later, they told me I had depression and anxiety, not just with. To be honest, for me, it was the people around me who noticed. The people who knew I wouldn't leave my uni room at weekends if I had no reason to, the people who knew my self-esteem and confidence was rock bottom, the people who I was breaking down in front of; they were the ones who knew. But like with anxiety, everyone's experience of depression is different, it's not just a case of being sad. I constantly felt exhausted, not just tired, I was irritable all the time, not just a bit grouchy once a month, I was hurting the people around me emotionally, I was telling those closest to me that I didn't see the point of being alive. So I guess the answer to the question is, I didn't, I thought it was just how I was. I had nothing to be depressed about in my eyes (another post going into this here). I have my friends and family to thank for that, and to apologise to for putting you through the stress that I did.

But the point I wanted to make by writing this, is a quote that my friend used in a speech at school which comes from Ramon Bautista -
"the only stupid question is the question that is never asked"
Don't be afraid to ask questions about mental health, we should be living in a world where it's just as normal to ask how someone's mental health is just the same as their physical. The only way to reduce the stigma around it is to talk more openly about it. As long as you are asking from a place of concern or genuine interest, I would assume 90% of people would be happy to talk about it.

I'm always open to questions whether they are in public or private if there's anything else you want to know!

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