This week was mental health week here in Australia. I think it’s important that we have these recognition and awareness raising weeks, because mental health still carries with it a great deal of stigma. I am not sure how much success things like this have in changing that, but I think just the act of getting people talking about it can be beneficial. It’s a reminder that you’re not alone in what you’re going through. Throw a pavlova into a crowd and you will hit somebody with a mental illness. Go on, try it.
I think a large part of the problem is that depression is still a nebulous and inexact science. There’s no such thing as the certainty of diagnosis that accompanies a lot of other illnesses. Diagnosis mostly consists of the patient telling the practitioner how they feel. Maybe in the future there will be simple tests to map our brains or measure our chemical imbalances, but for now it’s mostly a subjective thing. I’m not trying to take away from its seriousness by suggesting that; something can be subjective and still be really affecting. But you can’t measure it objectively, the way you can measure how badly a leg is broken (it may be that mental health experts will disagree with this, and it is possible that it is contingent on the extent of the illness).
What this means is that, when somebody tells us they are depressed, a large part of how seriously we take them depends on how we perceive them as a person. After all, we know that not everybody assesses themself clearly or honestly. Some people judge themselves harshly, some people with generosity. Some people refuse to acknowledge that they are ever not in control, some people see themselves as permanent victims. The way we “see” somebody’s mental illness depends a lot on the sort of person we think they are.
I guess mental health week and its ilk are a reminder to step back and give people the benefit of the doubt, because the truth is that, because it is such a subjective thing, both to the person suffering and to those looking on, it’s really easy to misdiagnose or to “write off” somebody’s pain, or to misinterpret the signs and how much they are hurting, how serious it is.
What it means from the inside is that saying you are depressed always feels slightly charlatanish. You never know whether what the people outside you hear is the thing you are trying to express, or just some awful parody like Neil from the Young Ones or Marvin from Hitchhikers’. Most of the time it is better and safer not to admit how you feel, because admitting it just makes you feel more disempowered and it can become a vicious circle where the way you think other people are perceiving your depression makes you feel worse about yourself, and so on…
Which may be why most of this post is written in third person, when I have dealt with mental health issues for most of my life. I think I am largely happier now than I have been at other times in the past, but I still have those dark days, and those corridors of the mind where I can see the doorways to the rooms where I used to spend so much time. And it is always something that I feel I could fall back into, like letting go of a window-ledge and falling into a field of marshmallows. Like any other addiction, going backward feels so much easier than moving forward.
And the vast majority of the time I would rather not talk about it. Because it is easier to be happy and “normal” when you are acting normal and when other people are treating you as normal. And really what would be worse than people coming up to you saying “So how’s the mental health going” all day? That would depress anybody.
Also… and this relates to the above… I am never sure how other people will take it. And the fact is, if you have suffered from depression, and even if you haven’t, you probably aren’t that confident about the way other people perceive you to begin with. Part of the whole shebang is often thinking through worst-case scenarios in your head, and feeling isolated and alien to the rest of humanity, hopeless about connecting with other people. So telling people the details of your non-compliance with normality isn’t always the best way to alleviate that.
So often it’s better not to go on about it. But the thing is, and this is where raising awareness matters so much, sometimes, not often, not the majority of times, but sometimes, the person really needs somebody to reach out to them, or else the consequences can be serious. I’ve never reached that point myself, thankfully, but people do, and that’s the reason it’s not something people should feel ashamed to speak about.
So how are you supposed to tell when it’s the time to leave someone alone, and when it’s the time to reach out?
Buggered if I know. Sorry, hope you weren’t expecting a big revelation at the bottom of this post. But the ugly truth is it’s as subjective and unpredictable as, well, people are in general. You never know what the right way to treat somebody is. You can only do your best.
But what we can do is have these kind of days, and conversations, where we recognise the struggles that people go through, admit our own failings, and try to reduce the stigma attached to it all. That way, even though our own subjective perceptions of how other people are feeling are unreliable and flawed, there might be times when somebody feels confident enough that they can say how they feel, and maybe admit that they are in need of help.
I’m not suggesting the kind of naive optimistic view that we will ever be able to prevent sadness, depression or suicide. I don’t believe that bringing things out into the open will make everything okay and that we’ll all have unproblematic discussions about our feelings that will resolve all our issues. Part of being depressed is the struggle to communicate, to talk to other people, to trust other people, and to express yourself in healthy ways. Any conversation that gets opened up is still going to be fraught with miscommunications and misunderstandings and frustrations.
But maybe even one person will read what you have been through, what you have felt, and just for maybe ten minutes they might feel a little less alone in what they are feeling. And that has got to be worth something, right?