Trigger warnings: suicide, depression, anxiety, abortion
I grew up in a family that was (and still is) irrevocably in love with conversation. Dinner tables were never quiet, and we rarely brought up the weather. My mother would set a gigantic bowl of pesto on the table and say, “Elliot, what are your thoughts on this whole abortion thing?”, or it would be watercress soup and “what do you think about sex before marriage?” It wasn’t really dinner if she didn’t, at some point or another, ask, “so, how was your day?”
But for all our noisy pesto arguments and watercress debates, the topic of mental illness never really came up. Part of it, I guess, was the Singaporean need to be “strong”, to not admit we “couldn’t control our feelings”. Part of it, I’m sure, was the fact that mental illness just wasn’t a hot topic. You don’t read informative news articles about psychological breakdowns. You don’t hear politicians advocating mental wellbeing the same way they fight for (or against) abortion bans. Maybe we should have talked more about it, I don’t know. What I do know is that I was comfortable with the silence. There was a sort of relief in knowing that I wasn’t burdening anybody with talk about my depressive episodes. Almost as if not talking about it made them less serious, made me more in control. As if the whirlwind of moral debates and movie reviews was equivalent to a cure, a sort of affirmation.
If not even our our relentlessly talkative family could start a conversation on depression or anxiety, how could anyone expect the entire nation to?
Apparently, somebody could. In a lead-up to World Suicide Prevention Day 2016, Samaritans of Singapore launched their #howru campaign. The concept was that less people would be killing themselves if they had someone to talk to. The goal was to raise $50,000 to fund suicide prevention programmes. By the time the campaign expired, it had raised $5,550. That’s about eleven percent of its goal. There are so many plausible explanations for the result of the campaign — maybe Singaporeans weren’t ready to talk about suicide openly. Maybe our mindset hadn’t changed enough.
Maybe I should have been bothered by the lack of enthusiasm surrounding the campaign. But the same soothing voice that had convinced me it was alright not to talk about those feelings with my family came back. I was sort of glad the movement hadn’t picked up. I felt safe, uninvaded. I could breathe, knowing I’d never have to worry about near-strangers nettling me about my suicidal thoughts.
When I got to university, my school’s Students Union launched a similar campaign called Are You OK? The concept was basically the same — that those struggling with mental illness need someone to talk to, and a simple “are you OK?” can change things.
I wanted so badly to feel good about this. I wanted my response to be, “thank god; someone thinks my issues are valid”. But it wasn’t. My response was cynicism and nervousness.
Don’t get me wrong, I know these movements come from a good place, and I guess it’s good to bring mental health awareness into a more public space, no matter how awkwardly we try to do it.
But on those days that I can’t bring myself to get out of bed, on nights I can’t fall asleep or eat, the last thing I want is to talk about it. One of — if not the worst — the worst things about feeling this way is that you constantly worry how your loved ones might feel. You worry you’re being a burden. You worry they’ll start worrying about you too much. You worry they’ll think it’s their fault. Talking to someone sometimes makes that feeling so much worse. You end the conversation feeling twice as nervous. You walk away thinking, “was that necessary? Have I hurt them?” Maybe it’s just me. I’m sure there must be people who always want to talk about how they’re feeling. I’m just not one of them, and it’s uncomfortable to look at mental health campaigns and realise they’ve lumped all of us together — one big group of sad people who just really need to rant.
I know it’s not always good to bottle things up. Some days, yes, I want to rant. I want to cry with somebody instead of by myself. And on those days, I go to the people I love. I go to them because we have a secure relationship built on trust. Not because they’ve asked me “how are you?” one time, but because they’ve been there for me even when I didn’t need it. They’re angels. And they know me. I don’t have to worry about our friendship changing because of the way I feel or the way I am.
And that’s what, I think, these campaigns fail to understand. When your campaign is more about asking a vaguely-defined “mentally ill” cohort a single, general question, then your campaign is more about making yourself feel good than thinking about the people you’re trying to help. Ask me if I’m OK, and I’ll say yes. Ask me “how are you?” and I’ll say “good, how ‘bout you?” Conversation doesn’t start with a question. It starts with a relationship.
It scares me to think about someone I barely know trying to get inside my head, trying to figure out if I look like “the type” who’d commit suicide. It terrifies me to imagine myself in a situation where I have to tell a new acquaintance (or even a friend I don’t want to talk about this with) that I don’t feel they have a right to know what goes on in my head. I shouldn’t feel obliged to tell you everything just because you asked. My mental health is important, and I’m thankful there are so many people who care, but there are much, much better ways of discussing mental illness or “cheering me up” than making me feel like I owe you something. Yes, start a conversation, but do it because you care about me, not because talking to me will help you prove that mental health is important.
I guess I’m criticising too much. I get the need to condense the complexities of suicide or depression so that the message comes across succinctly. We care! is a much easier tagline than a long explanation about why each individual is different. It’s easier to get the public to act when there are specific instructions on how to act: wear a plaster that says “how r u?” on it. Ask your friends how they’re feeling. It’s significantly harder to garner support for a movement when there are no clear guidelines on how to actually support the movement. And because of that, I can give these organisations credit. I’m sure lots of good conversations have been started because of them. I’m sure lots of good people approached the campaigns with appropriate subtlety, and started talking to already-close friends a bit more carefully. The good thing about these slogans is that they’re memorable. They’ll stick in the back of your head, and maybe start to change the way you think about mental health. Maybe they’ll serve as a subconscious reminder to check on your friend who you haven’t heard from in awhile. I don’t know. I’m not here to detract from the value of either campaign (or any other similar campaigns), I’m just here to share my own feelings about them. Objectively, I can appreciate them. But personally, they make me feel agitated. Perhaps I’m selfish.
The first time I called my younger brother about a panic attack, I was 7,000 miles away from him and we hadn’t ever spoken about mental health before. He talked me through it, calmed me down, and then we chatted for a bit before I hung up. We’ve never really spoken about it since, and he’s never brought it up at the dinner table.