There’s been a lot of talk the last few years about the stigma of mental health. The public, media, politicians, doctors and various mental health organisations are all in agreement. We need to talk openly and supportively about mental health issues. Perpetuating the mental health taboo only adds to feelings of isolation for people who are struggling. They can come to believe that there’s something wrong with them, that everyone else is great and only they have these difficulties.
So if everyone thinks we should be talking about mental health, both our own and other people’s, why is it still so difficult to broach this important subject? And believe me, as someone who has experience with stress, it can be very difficult to talk about. We love to talk, text, tweet, whatsapp, Instagram, Facebook, blog and snapchat about the good times, but opening up about our struggles is a very different story. I have a few ideas, based on my own experience, as to why this is the case.
Firstly, telling the truth about the tough times we have is a bit like exposing an open wound. Kept bound up under our outer layer of seeming contentment, the wound is hidden from others and we can downplay its severity to ourselves. It’s an illusion and it does nothing to heal the hurt, but the prospect of acknowledging that struggle is often terrifying. ‘What if I can’t feel better? What would people think if they knew? If I open up, will the dam break and overwhelm me?’ These are the kinds of questions hovering at the edge of a mind too scared, too caught up in the struggle, to ask for help.
As much as our own feelings can overwhelm us, the fact remains that the mental health stigma still exists. When you do open up about these issues not everyone is helpful, some without meaning it. It’s an awkward conversation, the proverbial elephant in the room. Casual friends and acquaintances ask vague questions that feel loaded with subtext. How do you answer them? (Seriously, if you have an answer I’m all ears)
To me, what is worse than the vague query is the inevitable ‘But you look great’ comment. I’m never sure about the intention behind this particular remark. Perhaps they’re trying to be comforting, as if somehow looking well trumps feeling like crap (it doesn’t). Mostly it feels judgemental, as though if you look well you should cheer up and get over it or worse again, that you can’t be feeling that low if you’re looking so well. Not really a supportive message to send, whatever the intention. The fact is mental health issues often don’t have visible symptoms, unless a person is supposed to dress shabbily and neglect their appearance just so they can look sick. Also, the things we do to look good (new haircut, nice outfit, bling, carefully applied make up etc.) are often the only armour we have when facing the world, the veneer hiding the truth so we can get through a difficult day. If we’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover, then it’s high time we stopped judging the illness by the outfit.
Another counterproductive response that can also feel like judgement is the litany of questions and advice. ‘So what are you doing about it?’ ‘Have you tried ____?’ ‘You know what you need…’ ‘If I were you…’ This can feel accusatory, as though you’re not doing enough to address the issue. The thing is when someone has opened up like that they’ve taken that all-important first step and admitted there is a problem. They’re already working to get better and unfortunately these things take time. Asking questions is not going to magically speed up the healing process, any more than telling a broken bone to mend will negate the need for plaster casts. My advice is to avoid giving unsolicited advice. You don’t know what someone’s story is and chances are anything you suggest is something they’ve heard before.
What it comes down to is this: other people don’t get it. Often times a person going through an emotional rough patch will think irrationally. Even when they know something is irrational or untrue (and I have some experience with this), their thoughts are being influenced by hurt and even toxic feelings. When you’re in a bad place, it’s hard to block out your inner demons and comments like “That’s not right, what would you think that?” though perhaps true only contribute to feeling like you’re alone and there’s something broken or wrong in you.
With family, talking can also be a challenge. First of all, the stakes are too high. These people love you and they want you to be happy, so finding out you’re hurting can cause them pain as well. They’re invested in your wellbeing more than most people and while they might be supportive, their first instinct may be to try to fix the problem. Of course there is no simple or quick fix and family can be too close to the issue to think clearly about it. It’s a complicated balancing act – on the one hand telling too little leaves too much room for a worried imagination but on the other telling too much can lead to emotionally complex, exhausting conversations that you might not be ready for.
I don’t claim to be an expert on the subject but I will say this much: I have needed someone to talk to during past difficulties. The challenge was finding the right approach for talking about it and the right person/people to talk to. I found a way that works for me and I’m not sure I’d be doing as well as I am today without the support I received. Whatever your approach (and as with most personal matters it’s not a case of one size fits all), knowing you have a family and friends who love and support you can give a person great strength when facing tough times.
Wishing you blue skies, lovely views and happy days xx