I am ashamed to say that most of my life I have ignored mental health stigma. I am even more ashamed to say that what has woken me up to it, has been my personal experience.
Why so ashamed you might say? We all only tend to care about something once it affects us personally.
Better Late Than Never
True, but it did affect me personally. My twin sister battled mental illness for twenty years. That was twenty years of witnessing it up-close-and-personal. Twenty years of attempting to support her. Twenty years of seeing, hearing and feeling her pain.
Yet it’s only now that I am angry about the stigma that surrounds her illness and millions of others. It’s only through plunging into a severe depressive episode and coming out the other side, that I’ve realised I was a part of that problem. It’s only now that I’ve chosen to fight it.
I’m so sorry about that sis. But better late than never, I guess.
End the Silence
Fighting the stigma doesn’t have to mean placards or speeches or rallies. It doesn’t have to be the big, public gestures or brave declarations. It can simply mean talking: putting an end to that agonizing silence.
Although I supported my sister through many challenging stages of her illness, what I never did was openly talk to her about her experiences. I’ve realised now that the silence was compounding the stigma that already exists and adding to her sense of shame.
Having been through the hardest eighteen months of my life, I am now on the way to recovery from severe depression and PTSD. In my efforts to reach out, to talk and to write about what I’ve been through, I have been met positively in so many ways.
Encouragement. Support. Gratitude. Admiration. I’ve been shown it all. And I’ve been so grateful for it. Every. Single. Time.
But there have been other responses that have surprised me. Intrigued me. And, yes, disappointed me.
When unwell, I was met with silence to texts or emails in which I reached out for company. Nothing else. There was no drama in those messages. No desperation. Just simple suggestions. A walk. A coffee. A conversation. Anything to end the intense isolation and loneliness that comes with depression.
Having shared brutally honest articles I’ve had published on Facebook, I’ve had some lovely feedback in the comments section. Intriguingly though, I also get private messages. They are positive, encouraging and supportive. Yet private. I totally understand the need for privacy when someone shares something personal, but I find it difficult to understand when they are purely supportive.
I have been constantly congratulated for my courage in speaking up. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the support. Especially as it is hard to be so open, and it does take courage. But it shouldn’t need to take courage. It’s that damn stigma again making courage necessary.
How Can We Help?
We don’t all need to become self-declared mental health advocates who shout about it from the rooftops. But there are things we can do.
If someone talks about their mental health to you, be receptive, be open. If you don’t get it, fine. Just by listening you will show acceptance and help to reduce the stigma. And, unless they do it, don’t feel the need to shut the door or lower the volume of your voice. If they are happy to be open about it, don’t discourage it.
Make mental health a normal part of conversation with children. Help them learn to name and identify their emotions. If they cry, avoid your protective instinct, and allow them to feel and express their pain. Discuss how they deal with anxiety or moments of stress. Model having time out when it all gets too much. Children observe and learn from our every move. If we show it is ok to talk about metal health, they will hopefully be more open.
If you connect with an article, a quote or a meme about mental health, like it, love it, share it, comment publicly and encourage others to do the same thing. It’s amazing how often I get a limited response until one person comments. That seems to open the floodgates and others comment too. Don’t be afraid to be the first person – take the lead!
When you ask someone how they are, really listen to their response. Look at their body language, follow your gut. If their “fine thanks” wasn’t quite right, suggest a walk, a coffee or a chat. And don’t be afraid to start the conversation:
- “I’ve noticed you’re not yourself these days.”
- “You seem to be struggling at the moment.”
- “Are you sleeping and eating properly?”
Little things really help
If someone reaches out to you, please try not to be frightened by it. Check that they have the support they need, make your boundaries clear but don’t just disappear. Even the odd encouraging text message can make such a difference to limiting loneliness.