This is another of my mental health awareness themed posts and focuses on the support offered by friends and loved ones to those who are going through times of mental unrest.
Over the months, since I came clean about my mental health problems, the phrase for which this post is titled has been uttered and/or sent via electronic message more times than I could begin to keep count. It’s reached the point where I expect it somewhere within a conversation with half of the people I communicate with.
The sentiment behind the words is truly lovely. It’s their way of saying that they care and that they’re available if I need someone to reach out to.
The only problem with those words is that reaching out is part of the problem, and I’m sure that most people who suffer, or ever have suffered, from a mental illness will be able to relate to me there. A lot of the issues stem from a lack of confidence and the belief that our problem is artificial, thanks mainly to stigma. We feel guilty for having mental health issues because there are people who have it so much worse than we do, plus we don’t want to bother anyone. So, reaching out isn’t something we do easily or lightly.
This then causes something of a paradox: we really do want to reach out and talk to people; we don’t do it for the reasons mentioned above; we hope people will contact us off their own back and allow us the opportunity to voice our woes minus the guilt (or at least a great reduction in the guilt); we feel lost and lonely when people don’t reach out to us and this exacerbates our mental health issues. It’s the profound circumstance of one being one’s own worst enemy.
I’ve been told off by a few people lately for not disclosing my suicidal thoughts when they occurred. Questions such as, “Why didn’t you reach out to me?”, have been asked with the conversation ending invariably on the statement that titles the post. The simple fact is that I’m not going to talk to them off my own back. I just can’t. If I could then I would.
The suicidal thoughts seem to be behind me now. It’s been several weeks since the last time and I’m feeling much more positive now. Well, probably about the same as I was prior to the suicidal thoughts kicking in, which would mean I still suffer from depression and anxiety; however, at least I’ve picked my way through the trough and maybe there’s a zenith to come. I can’t see that zenith and have no way of knowing if it’s there thanks to the trees and undergrowth I’m having to cut my way through, but the incline of my path would suggest a hill lies before me.
I would say to those who have a penchant for uttering the immortal “You can talk to me” line not to stop saying it. Yes, it’s something of a platitude, but that doesn’t mean the person you’re saying it to isn’t grateful. What I would also suggest is that these supportive people check in off their own back from time to time just to show the struggling person that they do think of them without prompt and that they are important to them. Trust me; you have no idea how good that is for the self esteem of a person who thinks of themselves as worthless. The knowledge that we’re in somebody’s thoughts in a positive way is akin to turning on an endorphin dump valve!
There is one snag when it comes to a person with mental health issues talking, and, again, I’m sure my fellow sufferers will back me up on this one: we will rarely communicate the full truth of our issues. Be it through a lack of complete trust in the person we’re talking with, a fear of ill judgement, a secret we’re keeping for another, or whatever other reason, there will always be something that we’re too afraid to admit.
Further to that, the things we won’t admit to them we will admit to someone else, but then we’ll omit certain other details with them that we’ve shared elsewhere. What happens is that a bunch of different people are getting different versions of the same story. There isn’t a single person in my life who knows the full and absolute extent of my mental troubles because there’s always one detail or another that I’ll leave out. I’m wondering if that very fact is detrimental to the helpful nature of talking about my problems.
Despite that—talking to the supportive people again—don’t try to force the sufferer to say more than they feel comfortable with or there’s a very high chance that you’ll alienate them in doing so. Remember that you aren’t there to solve their problems for them. Knowing every intimate detail of their issues won’t change that fact. Only the sufferer themselves can fix what’s broken.
The conclusion to all of this then is that if you truly want to offer support to a person suffering from mental health issues then don’t just leave it at an offer for that person to talk to you whenever they want. The strong likelihood is that they won’t. Be prepared to make the first move every so often and they’ll open up to you a whole lot more. Also, don’t offer to be there for them to talk as a token gesture. We have mental health issues; we aren’t stupid. We know a genuine offer of assistance from a fake one. If you don’t mean it, don’t say it.
Watch this space for more mental health awareness posts in the near future.