A couple of months ago, I bit the bullet and ‘fessed up publicly to suffering with depression and anxiety. I mean, I’m not talking HiddleSwift public, but a blog on HuffPost is still pretty significant exposure for my journey compared to the small circle of close besties who were previously aware.
The nerves before hitting that “publish” button were palpable, but the outpouring of support I received was overwhelming. Friends, friends of friends, old acquaintances came back applauding my bravery, they said. I was so relieved ― not just for me, but for everyone else out there suffering in silence. Because tucked away among the well wishers were the hand raisers. Oft missed on first read, a seemingly throw-away sentence, these tentative hands were nonetheless raised with a quiet “me too.” Phew ― it wasn’t for nothing ― at least I’ve helped someone, I thought. But it also struck me to question why are they so tentative? Why don’t we talk about this more?
Then this happened, and I remembered exactly why.
Now, I know there are a lot of people in this world, the large majority of them with access to the internet. People can say what they want, and it probably says more about the person who wrote the comment than it does about me or my article. But it still hurt.
Because THIS right here is why we’re scared to talk about mental health. Because despite so much work on exposing the issues and raising awareness, there is still a stigma. It takes guts to share your story, and if, when people do, there are people who react like that, then it doesn’t paint a very encouraging picture for others to follow suit.
Getting to the bottom of it
So let’s shine a light on the monster under the bed of our society: what exactly is so scary about mental health? If we have a cold, we share it with all and sundry. We call in sick and don’t think twice about saying why. We openly use it as an excuse not to go out. It is socially safe to admit you have a physical ailment. Not only that, if someone tells us they are unwell, we gather round, not move away. We bring them chocolate and hot water bottles and emotional support. And we don’t think twice about it.
And yet when someone admits to a mental health problem, why can’t they be sure of this level of support? Why do we feel ashamed and embarrassed, as if we will be judged? It isn’t our fault any more than catching a virus or breaking our arm would be. And yet, as a society, both sufferers and supporters alike, we are nonetheless uncomfortable with it.
A close friend recently admitted out of the blue to a host of mental health difficulties leading to her seeking therapy. She then texted to say she shouldn’t have said anything, and please not to ask her any more about it. She felt she shouldn’t have shared. Who can blame her? After all, Sheridan Smith returned to the West End stage this month after weeks recovering from stress and exhaustion. Despite calls for sympathy from the press, fury and speculation ran amok on Twitter about her leaving for this reason.
So it is not surprising that we are scared to talk about it, because despite our best efforts, there is still a stigma and there is still judgement. And that is hardly the reaction you need when you are trying to recover. So we hide, we cover up. In public, we stick out a very stiff British upper lip.
No, Mrs. Comment Lady, just no.
However, Mrs. Comment Lady, I’m so sorry you feel this way, but you are not going to win. There are simply too many people out there who want to change the damaging dialogue to which you adhere. How about the next time someone shares a story about mental health, gently check your reaction. Think before you type. Imagine that person has just told you they’ve broken their leg ― would you react any differently?
If anything this incident has made me more determined to share my story, not less, and to help others do the same. If reading about it gives just one person the courage to share theirs too, then it will be worth it. Furthermore, if this article makes just one person (ahem, Mrs. Comment Lady) think twice about their reaction to said stories, then jackpot, my friends. Jackpot.