When it comes to the need to talk about our mental health, we seem to put all of the responsibility in the court of the person who is already struggling. Sure, nobody can read minds, and people can’t expect specific help without asking for it. But mental health problems can make it harder to talk and ask for help in the first place. The responsibility of reaching out for help has to be matched with our shared responsibility to look out for each other - to provide safe spaces to talk, to listen, and to offer caring responses.
My experiences of thinking about suicide have taught me the difficulty of coping with unwanted and distressing thoughts. When I was suicidal, having to seek help felt like an overwhelming task when I was already just surviving. I felt extremely ashamed of the thoughts I was having and was worried that I would have to educate or reassure anyone I would talk to. At times, the idea of talking to anyone seemed even harder to deal with than the suicidal thoughts themselves.
I had good reasons to be scared of talking about feeling suicidal. During my long recovery from an eating disorder, I’ve had experiences of feeling completely unheard and unsupported when I was in distress.
When I was too unwell to go to school, they only saw me as a badly-behaved student.
When I sought help from doctors, some of them told me I was losing weight as a way of attention-seeking.
The specialist help I desperately needed came 6 years after I first struggled with my eating, by which time it was a problem that had swallowed up most of my life. I’ve only been noticed by professionals after suicide attempts, and have often had to fight for support at times when I was fighting just to survive.
It isn’t just specialist services that are failing to look after people in distress. Socially, we need to get better at offering and giving help, as much as we need to get better at asking for it when we need it.
During periods of emotional distress I have often tried to reach out to friends, but at times I have been left feeling very alone by responses which don’t acknowledge or engage with my pain. It can be very difficult for people to go there - to be with someone in their suffering - especially when they may not see the reality of it face-to-face, or don't feel equipped to talk about such things. But this isn’t about having a specialist knowledge of psychiatry, or even mental health awareness. It’s about being able to sit with human pain, rather than avoid it because it’s more convenient.
We all have a personal responsibility to take care of our health as best as we can, and to try and seek support when we realise we can't manage on our own. With my own mental health, my responsibility is to make sure I have people around me who I can rely on, be open with, and allow myself to be supported by. As a society, we must take responsibility for putting our fears aside when people indicate they are in distress, giving others permission to keep talking, and facilitating people in pain to share the load.
So instead of putting the onus on people to individuals to talk about their mental health, let’s educate ourselves about mental health problems, ask people about their mental health, and practice being good listeners - whether we have our own experiences of mental health problems or not.