Tuesday, 1 March 2022

The Mental Health Stigma

A broken leg is not the same as anxiety; a heart attack different from depression. Aside from the obvious, a more subtle difference presents itself. We know what to do when someone turns up on the tube in a cast (offer them our seat) or when someone clutches their chest and collapses to the ground (call 999). But if a friend started displaying signs of struggling with their mental health, many of us have no idea how to respond. We probably mean well, but it's not immediately obvious what to do. Being anxious does not just go away after a few weeks. Depression isn't cured because your friend bought you a stuffed animal. 

Part of the problem is, of course, ignorance. What having anxiety or depression or mental health issues means. How it affects people. How it comes in waves. How there's nothing 'wrong' one minute and then, all it once, absolutely everything is wrong. How what helped last time, may well be the worst thing in the world this time. How everyone experiences their struggles differently. How it's impossible, sometimes, to put your finger on quite what is wrong but dammit, somthing is wrong. And if you knew, you'd tell someone, of course you would, but you just don't know. When your leg hurts, you can point at it. Tell someone your leg hurts. But how do you explain that your brain hurts. That your mind hurts. That voices inside your head won't shut up or go away. That you do not feel anything or that you feel everything and that sometimes it's somehow both. At the same exhausting time. 

How are you supposed to help in such circumstances? I think it's a fair question. I don't have the answer. I write only as someone who has struggled, and continues to struggle, with mental health. Who has tried - and sometimes failed spectacularly - to help others with their own struggles. I know it starts with going easy on yourself. As someone struggling - you do not need to be okay all the time or even trying to be okay. It's okay not to be okay. As someone trying to help - making mistakes is okay. In my experience being there for someone is littered with errors, words said better left unsaid and actions done regretted almost instantly. Don't be discouraged. You never know when a hug offered makes the world of difference or a letter written changes the course of someone's day. Sitting in silence near someone is often the best thing you can do and requires nothing but time and patience.

If you're struggling, reach out. To me, to your friends, to someone. Or don't. Just know that you could. If that would maybe help. Especially then. But even if you're not sure. The world needs more people talking about their mental health. If you can manage it. 

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