It is “Time to Talk” day today, a day of campaigning and raising awareness of mental health problems and how it affects people. It has been designed in order to encourage people to speak up and talk about their mental health and the flip side of that is that it is also there to encourage people to listen and try to understand it more.
I applaud the action because in my experience the most difficult thing about suffering with mental health problems is the fear of how people will react should I talk to them about it. It is far easier to keep things to myself than risk their reaction because again, in my experience, people tend to react one of two ways: they either shut down completely and reject me, assuming that I am totally incapable of anything, or they try and “fix” me. One reaction comes from a place of fear and the other is born out of a loving position, but both are as hurtful and destructive as each other.
People who know me know that I do suffer from depression from time to time but even those closest to me don’t fully grasp the depths that depression takes me to now and again. This isn’t the post for that particular discussion, but suffice to say for now that I have found myself at that point where it can be as bleak as can be and up to now I have not crossed that line. Obviously, or else I wouldn’t be here talking about the issue today.
My depression – and yes, I do own it as “mine” because depression and the whole plethora of mental health problems are different for everyone and the way I experience it is not going to be the same as someone else – can be triggered by lots of different things and there isn’t usually a pattern to it. What could affect me badly one time might just blow past me the next, and vice versa. It’s not even as black and white as that though because even though the triggers may vary, my coping abilities also vary and it’s difficult for me to explain all that to people.
Sometimes, I know my depression can be caused by hormonal fluctuations, but those same fluctuations can also cause me to come out fighting and screaming and other times they leave me cowering and hiding away. But other times, it can be triggered by something as simple as the sun shining. Or raining. Or being hungry. Or having an argument. Or not being able to pray. There doesn’t even have to be an identifiable trigger for depression to take hold. The last time was because I had had a throat infection which legitimately laid me up for nearly two weeks (I use the word “legitimately” intentionally). The trouble is that during those two weeks, a brick wall had been built at the front door of my house and to break through it became a bigger battle than the one I’d just fought with the bugs in my throat. Even stepping over the threshold to go and put rubbish in the bin outside became as big an event as planning a trip to climb Mount Everest.
Given those circumstances I can totally understand why someone would want to avoid “triggering” me and therefore assume that it’s best not to engage with me by not asking me to do things, or to take part in functions, or even just to give me a responsibility for something. But rejection isn’t the answer because making that assumption about me means that that person presumes to know me better than I know myself and that’s not fair. So we end up in a cycle of suffering and silence for fear of rejection, which, if I’m at a low point and struggling could push me further down and then which makes it ten times worse to come back from. Being that far down is hard enough without having to reassure those around me that I’m ok really, I just need to weather this particular storm and so on which to be honest is bloody hard work!
So yes, it’s easier not to speak out because getting past other people’s misunderstanding and assumptions makes recovery so much harder. If people didn’t react with aversion and rejection then half my battle is won already and I could just concentrate on getting through it.
But then there are the other people, whose reaction is to try to “fix” things, or bring about healing through “solving the problem” for me. As I said above, those people are reacting out of concern and love for me but in their way they too make the problem worse. I don’t want “fixing” thank you very much. I don’t want them to “solve my problem” by taking things away from me – my responsibilities and duties are what keep me going and give me a reason to get out of bed – and I don’t want them to feel guilty because I don’t miraculously jump up with a big smile on my face after they have “done their bit” in talking to me. Dealing with their guilt is as much hard work as dealing with the other people’s rejection, and when I’m in the middle of a black spell that extra weight of blackness doesn’t help one little bit.
My feeling is that the opportunity today to bring mental health into the public sphere should be grasped with both hands by all those affected by it. Statistics today say that 1 in 4 of us will suffer with mental health problems at some time or another in our lives. Just because 25% of us suffer with it doesn’t mean to say that the rest of the population aren’t affected. We all live in families, have friends, belong to clubs and organisations, churches, schools or colleges etc and it is inconceivable to think that nobody knows somebody with mental health problems.
You may think you don’t know anybody, but think again about how you would react if someone told you they were feeling “a bit low”, or that they said they weren’t coping too well. You may notice that someone isn’t behaving in their usual manner, or that their eating or exercise pattern has changed, but would you recognise those things as a sign that they are being affected by a change in their mental health?
How would you bring up the possibility of depression with them? If you don’t know how you would react, or how you would bring it up with them, then chances are that they already sense that and are not talking about it with you precisely for that reason.
If nothing else today, please try to think about the people around you and have something ready to say should you get the chance to speak to someone you are worried about. They won’t want you to try and pull them out of it. They won’t want you to understand how they feel. They won’t even want you to wave a magic wand and put right everything that’s affecting them. So relax, and just listen to them. If more people could just do that, then more people will feel more confident about speaking out.
There is still a stigma attached to mental health problems, but the more chances people get to talk about it, to try to understand it, to make it a normal part of life then the less that stigma will be and the less isolating mental health will be.
For more information or help please visit http://www.time-to-change.org.uk/talking-about-mental-health