Why is it so difficult to talk about mental health? Why do so many people stay silent? How have we ended up with a society that seems to encourage this silence? Although mental health has increasingly been in the spotlight in recent years – in the media, literature, entertainment, schools, and politics – it somehow still seems to be a taboo subject in so many ways. I sometimes feels as though it’s become something we can talk about in the abstract, as facts and figures and vague expressions of regret or concern, but not in personal terms. Discussions around the worrying trends of increasing numbers of young people struggling with anxiety, panic attacks and depression, or the alarming number of young men who commit suicide are one thing, but someone sharing a personal experience, trying to describe a panic attack, relay the crippling, smothering weight of depression, or voice their own suicidal thoughts, creates very different reactions. All of a sudden, there’s an atmosphere: people tense up, become visibly twitchy, and can no longer maintain eye contact. I get it. These are not easy things to hear. I suspect a lot of the discomfort has to do with just not knowing what to say; the worry that we might say the wrong thing and make it worse is palpable. But we have to remember that if these experiences are hard to hear, they are even harder to say and experience. In some ways, talking about them can be even more difficult than experiencing them.
For a long time, I was reluctant to talk about my experiences with anxiety, panic attacks, and depression. I worried that people would think I was ‘mad’; that people would judge me for feeling those things without a ‘good enough’ reason; or, possibly worst of all, that I would be seen as weak, be dismissed, and be discounted from the jobs, the dreams, the life I was chasing, because others would surely deem me incapable. The fear of judgement was overwhelming. I worked so hard to conceal what I was experiencing, which, ultimately, did far more damage than good. I am still working to undo the expectations I placed on myself to “just get on with it” without letting anyone know what was really going on. Being honest about that state of my mental health with my nearest and dearest (and even myself) still requires a deep breath before the plunge. And it’s not just the reactions of others that make it difficult. Speaking to the truth of these experiences means admitting to myself how much I’m struggling. I feel dismayed at my own inability to control my mental health.
But none of this makes any sense.
Mental health is “a person’s condition with regard to their psychological and emotional well-being” so it is something that affects every single person on the planet. We all have mental health. And, just like physical health, what varies is how mentally healthy we are and how we maintain our mental health. Unfortunately, some people hear mental health and think it’s a bad thing. It isn’t. Mental health is a good thing. It’s something we should all strive to maintain. And to find the best ways to maintain it, surely we should be talking about it? Again, just like with physical illness, if we want to know how best to manage a mental illness, how to care for ourselves when we are struggling with mental ill-health, surely we should be speaking to people about it? That might be just a friend or relative in the first instance. Maybe a doctor or other professional if what we are facing seems beyond the help of self-care. But, following this through logically, if we don’t admit the ill-health (physical or mental) it’s unlikely to get better; if we don’t ask someone for help we may make ourselves more ill through mismanaging our illness. We don’t berate people who get the flu, or recurrent tonsillitis, or some form of chronic, physical illness and we wouldn’t berate ourselves for them either. So why is it different with mental health?
It’s time to break the silence. It’s time to talk about, and respond to mental health and mental illness with the same gravity and compassion afforded to physical health and illness.
If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health then please don’t be afraid to reach out and talk to someone. You are not alone and help is available. By opening up and starting the conversation we can move forward together and look to a mentally healthy future. Below are links to a range of fantastic organisations that can provide information, advice and services.
The Samaritans – http://www.samaritans.org
Mind – http://www.mind.org.uk
Young Minds – http://www.youngminds.org.uk
Papyrus (prevention of young suicide) – https://www.papyrus-uk.org
Self Harm UK – https://www.selfharm.co.uk
Time to Change – http://www.time-to-change.org.uk
Rethink Mental Illness – http://www.rethink.org
American Foundation for Suicide Prevention – https://www.afsp.org
Please do not struggle alone.