Recently I wrote a blog about how we can make a difference in the strange and febrile political environment that we find ourselves in. Today, I’m writing about another way that we can make the world a better place – by supporting each other’s mental health.
I guess it’s worth starting with a disclaimer – this post sets out some personal thoughts and experiences. These are, of course, unique to me. Other people may have different thoughts and experiences – and may even disagree with some of mine. That’s to be expected – if we all agreed, life would be boring. Do feel free to comment (politely!)
So, let’s start by framing the subject. Mental health is gaining increasing public acceptance, effects everyone (see Prince Harry), and is completely normal. But in particular, due to outdated models of masculinity, it is something that we men don’t talk about. This is one of the reasons why male suicide is so high (as has been in the news this week). But the notion that talking about how we’re feeling is weak is just so wrong – some of the hardest conversations in my life have been the ones where I’ve told people that I’m hurting and that I don’t know why.
I’ve written in the past about my mental health, about growing up with a mum with MS. I’ve written about tears, about uncertainty, about unfairness. I’ve written about going to counselling, about my struggles to tell those closest to me, about the hopelessness I’ve felt. I’ve written because everyone faces shit in their life, and we need to make talking about this normal.
But until recently, I’ve never felt like I’ve had a mental health problem. I have always been someone who understands mental health in theory but without significant personal experience. I support people by listening, by volunteering for an anxiety helpline, and by trying to give people the space they need to talk. I knew it was crap, but I didn’t know it was crap.
That changed, recently. Due to a number of factors I’ve been facing a lot of uncertainty and a lot of stress. I reacted, as always, by having a logical plan – plan A, plan B, what I would do if X happened. I was prepared.
But this time, it didn’t work. My interest in hobbies waned. My desire to speak to people decreased. I avoided some of the activities that make me happy. Pulled out of ongoing commitments for a breather. I started spending a lot of time alone, but I still felt like I had everything under control. I’m me, I thought. I’m strong, I’m resilient, I’m ready for anything the world could throw at me. Other people have it worse. No need to tell people. No need to make a scene. I am a rock.
It was when my wife – who has much more experience of mental health – told me that she was worried for me and I needed to go to the doctors that I knew something was wrong. I started noticing myself welling up at random. I fidgeted, wringing my fingers and flexing my hands like I was playing a piano hidden in my palms.
I didn’t go to the doctors, not yet. I still felt like this was just a few bad days. But things didn’t get better.
I started feeling guilt that I wasn’t doing as much as I should be. I was underperforming at work, and this made me stressed, reducing my contribution even further. I didn’t tell anyone. A cold stayed for a week, and queasiness didn’t go away. I was having Rennies (antacids) more often than suggested. I was never sick, but I was always unsettled. I was going to the toilet 3, 4, 5 times a day. I was flaring up in conversations. I started being unreasonable. I wasn’t enjoying life.
Then one night, in the shower, for the first time in my life I thought about whether people would miss me if I just disappeared. I considered just walking away from everything, walking out into the countryside to escape all the pressures I was feeling. I was scared at what I was contemplating – I had dark thoughts that I never want to have again.
The next day I went to the doctors, thinking we’d have a chat and maybe I’d get some stronger stomach pills. Instead, I found myself crying. Explaining the stresses, the guilt, the constant overthinking.
Irritable Bowel Syndrome, they said. Anxiety with depressive tendencies, they said. Would you like medication, they said.
I’m a rock, I thought. This doesn’t happen to me. I’m a man, I’m strong. I was President of a Student’s Union.
Oh, how weak the façade of masculinity is. How deeply runs the belief that we are masters of our own destiny.
Eventually, I had to talk. To tell bosses and colleagues. To tell friends. Things were rocky – acknowledgement was hard. I’ve learned that trying to do a comedy show when you have no self-belief is possible but painful. I’ve learned that you have to force yourself to be busy, even when you don’t want to. But most of all, after years of being the listener, I’ve learned what it is like when you are the one that is being listened to, and I’d like to share some reflections – because we each have the power to make the world a better place for others.
Firstly, listen. If someone decides to open up to you about a mental health problem, listen. Pay attention to what they are saying. Ask open, follow up questions. Don’t give solutions – I just wanted people to hear what I was saying, and acknowledge that I was hurting. Don’t rush people – allow them space to finish a sentence and reflect on it. Opening up is hard – and often a few seconds of silence will give them the space they need to carry on speaking. And please – never, ever, ever speak over someone who is talking about a mental health problem. When you do that you are shutting them down, and making them feel invalid. Sometimes they are working up to a bigger revelation that they wanted to talk about. Several people I talked to shut me down before I could tell them I’d felt like ending things, which made me feel stupid for even trying to talk about it.
Secondly, never, ever tell someone that you know how they are feeling and that you have the solution. The phrase “you just need to do XXX” reduces all of the complicated thoughts and emotions they are feeling to a simple problem, and suggests that they are making a fuss about nothing. I know that going for a walk is a good idea, but it isn’t going to magically cure me.
Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, take the time to check in with people regularly and make friendships. I’m lucky to know lots of incredible people who have mental health conditions. It took a while to build my confidence up enough to speak to people, but knowing I had a support network who would listen, understand, and not judge me was really helpful. By building these relationships in advance you make it easier for people to open up when they need to.
Ultimately – when someone chooses to speak to you and trust you with something personal, don’t consider it as a normal conversation. You are part of their coping and recovery mechanism, and can make a real difference to their lives – and making the world a little bit better.