When you start treatment for a mental health, alcohol, or substance use disorder, you might wonder how much – or even if – you should tell your friends about what you’re going through. If you’re in outpatient or intensive outpatient treatment (IOP), the question may never come up, because many of those programs occur after school hours, and your friends and random people at school might not even notice.
But if you go to residential treatment for a month or more, it’s different. Friends and acquaintances will probably notice when you’re gone for that long. They’ll be curious – and that’s totally natural. They may ask the following question, which to them is simple, innocent, and innocuous:
“Where ya been?”
At that point, you have choices.
Tell all? Tell nothing? Tell some amount in between?
Believe it or not, this is a common topic among people who have any kind of mental health or substance use disorder. In the language of rehab, treatment, and mental health professionals, it has an official name: disclosure.
Or, more specifically, disclosure to others.
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This article will talk about the what, why, when, and how of disclosure to others. Most of the information you’ll find in this article comes from this helpful page published by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).
Disclosing to Others: The Basics
The first thing you should know is that disclosure is absolutely, entirely, unequivocally, one hundred percent up to you. Let’s be clear: it’s your decision. Your mental health or alcohol/substance use disorder is your personal private business. It’s also your immediate family’s business, of course. But for the purposes of this article, we’ll operate under the assumption that your siblings, parents, grandparents, and possibly aunts and uncles are up to speed on what’s happening in your life, including the fact you went to residential treatment.
When you step outside the circle of people who need to know, however, you have some decisions to make.
To make sure we’re on the same page, the people we’re talking about now are friends. From close friends to acquaintances to people from school you may have known for years but aren’t really too close to – all these people may hit you with a random where ya been after treatment.
Think about these people in terms of how close you are to them. And although things in life are rarely black and white, in this situation it may be helpful to place your peers at school, in your neighborhood, and those with whom you participate in sport or other extracurricular activity into two categories: your inner circle and everyone else.
What to Tell People Who Aren’t Too Close
We’ll start with the easy group: everyone else. There are stock answers that people in your position – i.e. people finishing rehab or treatment – have been using for decades that work well. Here’s a starter list:
- I was handling family stuff.
- I had a health issue.
- A family member was sick and I needed to help.
- Eh, just dealing with some personal stuff.
- I needed some time away from school.
You get the idea.
Here’s something to consider: all those answers are truthful. Read them closely and you’ll see how. Therefore, you don’t have to worry about your personal integrity with regards to honesty – which is something you may have worked on during rehab.
In response to follow-up questions, you don’t need to elaborate. A simple “It’s personal” or “It’s a family thing” will suffice. Also, after you deflect their question, you can proactively redirect their interest before they ask a follow-up by adding a simple phrase and a question of your own at the end.
“I needed some time away from school, but now I’m back. What have you been up to?”
You decide, and any variation you choose can work.
Now let’s move on to the next group – which can be tricky.
What to Tell People Close to You
This group can be tricky because there’s a difference between telling them what you think they’re entitled to hear and total one hundred percent full disclosure. But let’s back up and think this through for a moment. What you need to decide involves at least five things:
That’s what most of this article has been about so far. But within your inner circle, there may be degrees of closeness. You decide who gets to know the facts about your treatment, based on:
- Your level of trust with them. If you know they’ll respect your wishes about who to share what you tell them with, then you can probably be open and honest with them about your treatment.
- Your history with them. How long have you known them? Have you ever told them something really sensitive before? Have you seen how they behave around others who may have had some trouble, too? For instance, you may have developed an instant and awesome rapport with a brand new friend – but you don’t have much to go on with them, as far as firsthand experience. We advise caution with people you don’t have a verifiable history with – just to be on the safe side.
- How you think they’ll react. You may have a friend who’s in your inner circle but has different views than you on many issues. Those issues might include mental health, addiction, and treatment for mental health and addiction. If you think disclosing to them would trigger an adverse reaction, then we advise a serious edit of what you tell them.
Within the context of total honestly and full disclosure, there are limits. For instance, say you went to residential treatment for a substance use disorder or major depression. During treatment, you may have learned that your current mental health issue – which includes the drug problem – has roots in an early trauma you experienced. While you may want to go into detail about your depression or your drug use with a close and trusted friend, specifics about your early trauma may only be appropriate for your very closest friends. And even then, please be mindful: it’s difficult to predict how people will react to this type of disclosure.
One good reason to disclose your treatment experience with a friend from your inner circle is for support, encouragement, and sympathy. By sympathy, we don’t mean you want an “Oh, you poor thing” reaction. More like this: if a close friend knows about your experience, they can better understand how to be a true friend and give you the support you need when you need it. Having allies that understand the challenges you face can make all the difference in the world.
The experts at NAMI offer this advice about when:
- When you feel well. This way you can tell them the facts about your experience without the symptoms of your mental health issue preventing you from saying what you want to say, how you want to say it. This will prepare them to support you if you do go through a rough patch in the future, and they’re there to help.
- When it has a purpose. You may want to tell a friend to explain why you haven’t returned calls or texts, to explain to them why you can’t spend time with them on certain occasions, or to enlist them as an ally when you may need support in the future. All these are practical, valid reasons for disclosure.
- When you’re ready. What this means is that no matter how close you are to a friend, you decide when the time is right. You, and only you.
If you decide someone should be privy to this personal information, the best way to tell them is in a simple, honest, and direct manner. If you think they need additional information about treatment or your specific challenges, you can provide reliable and factual resources so they can learn more – and therefore, support you more fully.
One of the most important things to take away from this list is that when you disclose, you don’t have to disclose every single detail. You decide, based on the specific relationship, what you want them to know and what you don’t want them to know.
We’ll say it again: it’s your decision.
Having Supportive Friends Can Help
After residential treatment, or treatment of any kind, it’s helpful to have a solid support group. That group starts with your treatment team, your family, and in some cases, peers you met while in treatment. It can also include a close and trusted group of friends. Or just one friend – you decide. You can let these friends – or friend – know exactly how to support you by setting appropriate boundaries and being honest about how you feel in the moment. Some days you won’t feel like going there, and some days you will. They can learn to respect that, but it helps if you give them instructions. In addition, it can help to tell your friends the positive things you learned during rehab. We bet you learned things about yourself, about your addiction or mental health issue, or completely unrelated life-lessons.
It’s possible you learned a mindfulness practice while in treatment – share that, share how it helps you, and who knows? While sharing something of yourself with someone who’s supporting you, you may just give them exactly the support they need, but didn’t know they needed it or how to ask for it.