Want to tell your story? Great. Here’s how.

Last week, I wrote an entry about why telling your story – your own personal experience with mental illness (or anything, really) is so important. Study after study shows that the best way to reduce stigma is to put a human face on it. The power of saying, “Me too” cannot be underestimated – that’s why it is literally called the #MeToo movement.

That being said, telling your story can be absolutely terrifying. You may have no idea what to say, how to say it, or what the reaction is going to be. The fundamental truth is that once you put yourself out there, there’s a before and after in your life. As I’ve said repeatedly about my own life, I found the ability to tell my story in the courage of those who told there’s. To that end: Here are some tips about what to say, and how to say it:

Pick your medium. You don’t need an op-ed. You don’t need to stand on a chair and scream, “I HAVE DEPRESSION!” Telling your story may be as simple as opening up to a friend of colleague, or resolving yourself to do so in the future. It may be a long-winded Facebook post or blog entry (and I am the MASTER of those, with an emphasis on long-winded!). In all seriousness, understand that different medium will have different impacts. Pick the one that works best for you.

Read/watch others. Reading and watching what other people have said will give you a much better idea of how to say what you want to say. You’ll learn what works and what doesn’t. More importantly, paying attention to the stories of others will remind you of a fundamental and very important truth: You aren’t the first, and you aren’t alone.

Read from the experts. Related to the point above: Read what others say when discussing your particular issue. Know what words and phrases are good, and what don’t work as well.

Understand that most people will be overwhelmingly supportive. In a weird sort of way, one of the things that disoriented me the most was how kind people were. It never felt like something that was “so brave” or anything like that – it just felt like something that had to be done. And that became almost a source of anxiety – that now I had this standard to live up to. So, as strange as it may sound, brace yourself for the weird sensation of people being really, really nice and appreciative.

Understand that some will not. There will always be morons and unkind people. Just keep in mind that when someone inevitably says something ignorant, it says more about them than you.

If medium-appropriate, make it a story. Part of making in impact with your story is telling it as a story. When I discuss my own battles, I always begin with something like this: “On August 11, 2014, my life changed forever. That was the day that Robin Williams killed himself.” I think that’s a good hook and a good way to start. Anyone reading will think, “Huh. That’s interesting. Why did that have an impact on him?” And it goes from there. Tell your story as a story. Be specific. Use visuals. Give dates, times and locations. Don’t approach your personal story as an academic book report, replete with cold numbers that fail to convey passion – tell your story with the personal power it deserves.

Understand the impact. This is the one that I missed the most. Depending on who you are and how you choose to say your piece, you may wind up having a greater impact than you realize. When I told my best friend what I was going to do, he correctly noted that this would have a much greater impact on me or my career than I could have ever anticipated. When I told my mentor, she told me that she’d be surprised if the piece I wrote didn’t make state-wide news. Both were correct. Understand that people will look at you differently – and probably in a better light.

There. Hopefully, this post can serve as a guide to help you tell your story. As always, let me conclude with a question: What did I miss? What helped you tell your story? What didn’t? Please let us know in the comments!

The importance of sharing your story

You are all probably sick of me hearing me talk about my own depression/anxiety by now, and why I made the decision to tell the world about it. But, using my personal experience, let me pivot to another topic: Why I think you should tell your story.

I shared my story as a way of trying to make people realize that anyone, anywhere can suffer from mental illness, and in an effort to help destigmatize this terrible disease. As I thrust myself into the issue, I researched more and more ways to try and do just that. What I found, uniformly, was this: The most effect way to fight the stigma that surrounds mental illness is to engage in a contact strategy.

What is a contact strategy? Well, just what it sounds like: Make sure that more people have contact with someone with mental illness. Have those people – regular, ordinary people – discuss who they are, what they suffer from, and how they are able to live a successful and productive life despite their illness.

Does the same strategy work for fighting suicide? Absolutely, and this can come from family members who have lost or those who survived a suicide attempt. While there are guidelines and best practices for sharing those stories, doing so can be hugely beneficial:

Stories of suicide loss told from the heart are powerful. They promote healing for those who are newly bereaved, educate the public about how to support survivors of suicide loss, and increase awareness of suicide risk factors and warning signs.

As you have likely seen in the news lately, many celebrities and other prominent officials have discussed their own battles with mental illness or suicidal ideation. This is wonderful in that it can lower the overall effect of stigma. But, I’ll never forget one particular piece of research that I read: While it’s important, it is not as effective as a “normal, regular” person discussing their own pain and battles. That’s because celebrities are seen as “other” – they are different than normal people in that they occupy an elevated societal plane. Thus, while celebrities going public is great, it has to come from the heart and be a ordinary person who discusses their story.

And that’s where you come in. I’ve previously noted that the most important thing I felt I did when it comes to mental illness was share my story with the world. I want to take this opportunity to encourage you to do the same. Not only is it good for everyone else – mental illness needs a human face – but it’s good for you as well! I know that sounds strange, but trust me on that. There is something deeply freeing about letting lose your deepest, darkest secret in public – particularly when that “secret” is nothing you should be ashamed of.

In the coming weeks, I’ll discuss this concept further, including tips on the best way to share your story. But for now, please, if you are able, consider going public with your mental illness. It’s the best decision I ever made in my life, and I’d encourage you to do it if you can.