First off Happy World Mental Health Day!
I’ve been thinking a lot about what it is that I want to talk about and I’ve decided I want to talk about talking.
Anyone who has experienced any kind of mental health challenge will almost certainly have had someone say something deeply offensive or at best insensitive to them at one point or another; it seems par for the course that there will be at least one person you want to punch straight in the face. Whilst possibly useful for releasing anger or tension this response will do nothing to foster positive relations or break down the number of violent stereotypes surrounding mental health so I figure it’s important to respond in a more healthy or ‘educational’ way.
A couple of gems I have recently had are:
‘I sometimes just want to tell people to go and sit in the concourse (of the general Hospital) and get a bit of perspective’ – A healthcare professional
‘It’s better for you to be at work though right? Rather than just sitting moping about the house’ – in relation to my feeling low and struggling with being at work
‘i’m just challenging you on it’ – in regards to querying the effectiveness of medication
My thoughts are this; people with mental health experience generally do not: imply mental health is inferior to the trauma experienced by physical health conditions, describe depression as ‘moping’ or choose to ‘challenge’ someones intimate personal experience. This is because if you have any understanding of mental health challenges you know: mental health can be physically painful, feeling immobile from low mood is not a half assed attempt at functioning and that taking medication is challenge enough without someone challenging you on whether you should be taking it.
So what this says to me is that we are entering a new era of talking about our mental health experiences honestly but the world isn’t fully equipped to handle them yet. There’s a huge number of resources aimed at supporting someone in talking about low mood or expressing suicidal thoughts but there’s not a great deal about the general day to day discussions which we’re trying to promote as being part of normal conversation (I know, we’re British so we cannot say the truth but we… must… try!). So here are my top 5 talking tips:
1.There is a difference between challenging someone on their experience and asking them. Challenging is annoying and doesn’t really encourage the person to feel supported, asking will usually still answer your questions without asking them in a direct or confrontational way. For example ‘Don’t you think medication is being handed out too easily’ is different to ‘what are your views on the use of medication for mental health’, yes you may have to converse a little more to discuss the topic you want to know more about but that’s life and you may even form a connection. When you don’t ask someones opinion you devalue their personal experience so it’s useful to show someone their experience is valued and important to you, even if the conclusion isn’t something you agree with.
2.It’s ok to not know what to say! There’s a tendency for us to get uncomfortable and shirk conversations away when we don’t know what’s a helpful or useful response but this only makes the person feel uncomfortable too when they have allowed themselves to be vulnerable. A human response to someones pain or discomfort is to want to do something to alleviate it but that’s not always possible so we need to be comfortable with saying ‘that’s shit, i’m really sorry you’re feeling that way, let me know if I can do anything to help’. It sounds super mundane and unhelpful but if that’s the most you can offer that’s good enough and is certainly better than shutting it down or awkwardly sidling off to take an imaginary phone call. I recently saw on Facebook that a colleague had gone to A&E as they were really struggling, I don’t know them that well so I messaged and celebrated the fact they had recognised they needed help and I hoped they got what they needed. Afterwards I went away feeling hugely underwhelmed at myself, I was a blogger for gods sake why was I unable to come up with a better response! But when I saw them next they thanked me for reaching out and I realised that with the constraints of having a professional relationship and not knowing them well that was the best I could offer at that moment and that was good enough.
3. Don’t assume! Don’t assume your mental health experience is exactly the same as others, don’t assume you understand someones experience because you share common features, don’t assume you know where someone is at now, don’t assume someone is comfortable to talk about it if they haven’t raised it. This blog works on the fact that Bipolar has specific elements to it that are unique to the diagnosis but also on the fact that I make clear these are my experiences and opinions. Where I may have made generalisations in the past I’ve since learnt how varied people can be and whilst I find diagnosis helpful for rounding up some difficult and unique experiences I acknowledge that those are still felt in different ways by different people. I now try to use ‘I’ statements or over use the term ‘generally’ when talking about mental health to ensure people feel included and given a space to voice their opinions. The dream is of course finding people who share these experiences in a similar way and then you no longer need to be too uptight and you can make royal ‘we’ statements like true kindred spirits.
4. Get comfortable with every day conversations about mental health. I’ve noticed recently if I talk about suicidal thoughts or some of the more ‘hardcore’ scrapes I’ve got myself into people will do this serious face where they nod a lot and look very concerned because they now know It’s important to engage in these kinds of conversations; but if I colloquially talk about everyday mental health like low mood or something upsetting me people get weird . This is silly because the every day conversations should help us to avoid the big serious conversations by fostering a healthy, communicative environment where people don’t bottle up or lose access to support they need early on.
We’re so hard wired to not be open about our real feelings that all this media and publicity has gone straight to the stuff we’ve deemed super important (suicidal thoughts for example) and bypassed the stuff that effects the majority of us. The other day a friend called who had been trying to get hold of me for weeks because she knew I wasn’t feeling great, when I answered she said ‘how are you doing’ and I quickly responded ‘yeah I’m fine’ and then realised ermmm hang on no i’m not that’s literally why she’s calling and quickly corrected myself with ‘actually I feel shit I dont know why I said that’. It’s all about promoting honesty and this applies not only to those with significant mental health challenges but to literally everyone, if we all do it then it becomes weirder to not say what we actually feel.
5. Ask people questions! Ok so not everyone is going to want to open up about their stuff but the internet is a weird, gross and beautiful place and the awesome bit is that there are SO many mental health bloggers who will be more than happy to answer your questions so go to town! As long as you’re polite and respectful most people who put themselves out there to share their experiences accept a certain amount of curiosity in return! This means you’re much more equipped to talk to people who maybe don’t want to be as open if they reach out to you.
I am an exceptionally open person and have learnt to be very upfront and frank about where I’m at and how I’m feeling because I find it easier to process and far more empowering than keeping my mouth shut (basically an impossibility for me anyway). That said even I have times where I think actually that’s quite an intrusive question or I really didn’t like the way that was phrased and everyone is entitled to say ‘hey now, that’s not cool I don’t want to talk about it’. The idea is that if everyone is comfortable having these conversations in the first place those that want to talk can and those that don’t will have been spoken to in a polite and respectful way which makes it easy for them to say no. Similarly if someone reaches out, even if it’s just about having a crap day, people should feel comfortable to respond openly.
I hope you have a great day, here in the UK it’s meant to be a balmy 23c which is ideal considering the sun is meant to make you feel good!
As always if anyone has any questions you can always pop a comment below or ping me a message and I’ll make sure I get back to you!
(Image credit: https://www.buzzfeed.com/kirstenking/have-you-tried-herbal-tea)
Just a few of the people that make it easy for me to talk…