We often see that famous statistic around – 1 in 4 of us will experience a mental health problem at some point in our lifetime (though I recently read an article that said that figure could be higher at around 50%). This should suggest that all of us will know at least one person with a mental health issue. So why is it so hard to talk about and why can it be so hard for others to understand?
I think the answer is not a simple one.
For many of us, it may be our mental health itself holding us back. Why would I want to talk about it? I want to hide it. I don’t want to burden someone else with my problems. I don’t want anyone to worry about me. What if the person I’m speaking to reacts badly? What if talking about it actually harms me instead of helping me? What if the person/people I talk to start treating me differently? Will they hate me? That is only some of the thoughts that go through my head when trying to decide if I should talk about my own depression and anxiety which, ironically, is part of the anxiety itself. It can be so difficult sometimes to fight those thoughts in your head that it is powerful enough to stop us being more vocal about our mental health.
Thankfully the stigma around mental health is reducing and it is becoming more and more acceptable to talk about it. We are getting closer to being able to talk about mental health in the same way we talk about physical health. We’re not there yet. I’m hoping someday we will be. The more people that talk about mental health the more we can see we are not alone. That there are other people in similar situations to ourselves. By more and more of us standing up and talking about our mental health, we can unite and support each other. We can close that gap.
Battling past the first hurdle, how then do we choose who to talk to and how to talk about it? For some, talking those closest to us can feel the safest option. Talking to our loved ones, our family and close friends. For others it can feel safer to talk to those not directly linked to ourselves, whether that be professional support, a service such as the Samaritans or through peer to peer support networks such as our fabulous Spark Support group. No matter who you are talking to it can feel a little daunting. Especially when you can’t find the words. I find it very hard to put my emotions into words and conversations. Almost as though there aren’t enough words in the English language. It can often be easier to explain physical pain – it can be sharp, throbbing, burning, inflamed, tender, aching, uncomfortable, amongst others. There is a range of words that can be used to describe a range of pain from a minor ache to severe agony. When trying to explain mental health it can be a bit of a minefield trying to find the words to explain what you mean. We use words like ‘sad’ or ‘depressed’, but those words are often used interchangeably and to mean different things. It’s not uncommon to hear a blasé phrase similar to ‘I’m so depressed, I’ve ruined my favourite jumper’. Or one I hear regularly within my household and friendship groups ‘my sports team has lost, that’s depressing me’. When the same word is being used to describe those days where you can not get out of bed as well as ripping an item of clothing or a sports team losing, no wonder it can be extremely difficult to explain to others exactly what you are feeling.
There are many ways to talk about mental health and there is no right or wrong way. It can feel like a daunting task and that you are sharing something very private and intimate about yourself. I think that it is important to make sure that you are ready to talk about your feelings. You can take as much time as you need to think about talking to someone. If it will help you, you could try practising the words you want to say either by saying them out loud or writing them down. It can sometimes be easier to not talk about things face to face. Writing a letter (either by hand or digitally) explaining your thoughts to a loved one, or even a phone call if you are okay with calls. You could try and start
a conversation over text if that’s what you feel comfortable doing. You could even try to explain your feelings through pictures. You don’t need to be artistic. An abstract scribble can be enough to help you explain what you want to say.
If you can, choose a time and a place when you’re feeling okay for an initial conversation. If you’re at a point where you’re feeling at your best you may be able to articulate your feelings better than at a time when you’re not feeling so great. Once the person you’ve spoken to about your mental health has an awareness of what is going on they may be able to respond better when you are at a low point and reaching out for help.
As part of my job, I have to give others feedback on their progress. I always ensure to mix positives in with the next steps that they need to take. I feel as though this model may also help when talking about mental health. For example, potentially starting the conversation with a close friend/partner along the lines of ‘I love and trust you and you support me. I want to tell you something, but it is difficult for me’.
It is important to be realistic. The person you’ve chosen to talk to may find it initially tricky to understand that you are going through such a difficult time. Especially if you’re able to put on a persona that makes things appear to be okay on the outside. You may need to give them time to think about the information that you are telling them and they may have questions. There is also a possibility that the person you have chosen to talk to has a lot on their own plate and may not be able to support you at this particular moment in time, even if they may wish to. On the other hand, it could be a case of realising that they are also suffering from issues they have been keeping quiet and you may help them to talk about their feelings in return for sharing yours. You may find that you are able to support each other. This also has the benefit of both of you realising that you are not alone.
Sometimes it can be difficult to find the words that you feel you need. I think this is where analogies can come in useful. It can be easier to describe thoughts and feelings this way. In my next blog post, I’m going to share a couple of my favourites that I find others are able to relate to and understand. I find that analogies can almost be used to paint a picture of feelings, and pictures are easier to describe and for others to see.
No matter who you decide to talk to it is important to realise you are never alone when fighting the battle of a mental illness. If you feel you are alone, please reach out. If you don’t feel you are able to reach out to anyone in the ‘real world’ remember there are many ways of getting support virtually, including the Samaritans, and of course, Spark!
You most definitely are not alone, even during those dark times when it really feels as though you are!