There’s a meme going around social media at the moment which I think is particularly worthwhile, called #itsokaytotalk. If you haven’t seen it yet, its primary purpose is to send a message that as individuals, we can and should, seek support from our friends, colleagues and family when we are experiencing problems, feelings or negative thought patterns (often collectively referred to as “mental illness”). The message also points out that, statistically speaking, the leading cause of death for people aged 15-44 is suicide. It has gained a substantial amount of traction recently, so you’re likely to see it if you haven’t already.
I’m usually hesitant about adding my voice to the chorus with these things, primarily because I don’t think I have anything important to add and I don’t want to minimise the stories of others whom I think should be listened to. I had some debate with myself about whether to add my thoughts to the mix, but I think I can contribute to the common good by adding those thoughts.
I should add a disclaimer here that the stories I will tell here are in no way intended to minimise the experiences and stories shared by other people. We should all take the time to listen to their stories and, if appropriate and called for, provide our words of support. I’m also not purporting to act in any capacity as a mental health professional. Most of the stories I will share with you in this post are either anecdotal or personal experience. As we all know, the plural of anecdote is not evidence.
Now some unpacking of this message and the answering of questions which may actually provide some support and insight to people.
Why should I burden others with my feelings, thoughts, fears or problems which just seem so irrational, uninteresting or commonplace?
The analogy I like to draw here is that depression and anxiety are not like a car crash. At least in my own experience and in the experience of others I know, they are experienced not as a reaction to a highly traumatic adverse event but usually start as a small reaction to something that might otherwise seem commonplace(1). Depression and anxiety are more like cancer. For some reason that we don’t understand yet, sometimes people get unlucky and that otherwise commonplace disappointment starts to infect their identity and sense of self-worth. The person starts to believe that they are defective, unworthy, useless or unloveable because of what may have happened to them.
Unfortunately, the human brain is wired to be very good at confirmation bias. The small “network” about our identity grows and as it grows, more thoughts become linked to it. The person afflicted starts to explain everything that happened around them by reference to the belief about themselves. Then they begin to act out the belief, which reinforces it even more. Soon almost everything begins to remind the afflicted person of how terrible they are and it becomes overwhelming.
Common examples of these small seeds that grow are relationship breakdowns, fights with friends, lack of employment or lack of success at work or education.
As an example to dissect, I’m going to pick unamicable breakdowns of a romantic relationship, because they’re common, they hurt like hell and we’re very embarrassed to talk about them. Usually when a romantic relationship breaks down, the person who wanted to stay in the relationship will search for answers and explanations as part of the grief cycle. It is quite likely that one of those explanations will start with “If only I …” followed by some sort of statement about a person’s internal characteristics, appearance, behaviour or the like. That explanation feeds back into the person’s sense of self-worth, perhaps because they feel the particular characteristic which they thought was the cause of the relationship breakdown makes them inherently defective or unloveable. And so the cycle begins and continues. This isn’t the fault of anyone in particular – it is just a thing that happens.
Because such unamicable breakdowns are a fact of life and happen frequently, we’re generally hesitant to talk about them, viewing them as “drama”. There’s a rather unhelpful adage of “block, gym, lawyer, move on” which reinforces this notion. The thing is that while the breakdown of the relationship might, objectively, seem insignificant to talk about, the consequential impact on identity and self-worth is very significant and could well be a life-or-death conversation. A good way to combat confirmation bias is to have an external source provide undeniable evidence that the internal belief is false. And it is far easier to combat a dogma in its early stages of formation than the point where it becomes well-formed and attached to lots of other things. If you had cancer, would you prefer to nip it in the bud or go through years of excruciating treatment later on down the track? I’m sure you’d probably pick the former.
(1) This is not to say that depression and anxiety can be experienced as a response to a highly traumatic or extreme events nor are the needs of a person in that situation any less important than they would be at present.
If I just exercise and take some antidepressants, the problem will just go away and I won’t have to talk to anyone right?
Actually, no, because depression and anxiety which are sourced from beliefs about yourself don’t work like that.
Both natural (in the sense of endorphins released during exercise and dopamine released during pleasurable activities) and artificial antidepressants have the function of lifting your mood and your energy levels. They reduce the effect of the the negative-self-worth network so that you can function without everything slamming that network and making you feel miserable all the time. But they don’t fix the problem, which is that the network exists in the first place.
Medication and exercise absolutely have an important place and if you are struggling with recurring negative thought patterns or generalised malaise, it never hurts to ask a doctor who can refer you on to the right person and to determine if they’d be right for you.
However, you still need to talk to your friends, family and colleagues if something is troubling you and you’re stuck in a thought loop. See above for why.
What if my friends, family and colleagues don’t care?
Put yourself in their shoes – if someone came to you and wanted to talk about something that was making them feel miserable, would you tell them to “get over it” because you didn’t care?
Of course not.
In fact, they’re more than likely to be humbled by the that you opened up to them and will likely encourage you to talk to them more.
I don’t discount the possibility that someone may well tell you to go away or minimise your feelings. To that extent, I would say that if you are the person being asked to give support, try to look past the particular problem to the internalised belief that the person has. To the person seeking the support, it may be easier for people to give you that support if you talk about the belief as opposed to the event. We can all relate to beliefs about ourselves, whereas it might be harder to relate to particular events.
What if I’m so far down the track that it feels impossible to talk about this stuff?
The more depression and anxiety grow, the more complex the emotions and circumstances behind them become. Often times things become cyclic and entangled and you just don’t even know where to start.
Start somewhere. Even if its just the bad day you happened to have at work. Your discussions with others may prove to be enlightening and help you to find the core belief that’s causing the entangled feeling of misery.
Of course, you can also ask doctor to refer you to a qualified counsellor who specialises in things like clinical psychology and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. Those professionals are there to help you unpack what’s going on and change the thoughts, beliefs and behaviours you have might may be reinforcing the negative self-worth. In Australia, you can get ten free private consultations and ten free group sessions per year with a doctor’s referral. That almost gives you one private and one group consultation per month.
I’m not a man and I feel like I can’t talk to anyone either
It would be folly for me to end this post without some discussion of how depression and anxiety affect people who aren’t men. I’ve deliberately tried to adopt a non-gendered approach in this post for reasons I’ll discuss below but I should probably note that it seems to be in vogue right now to talk about mental health as it relates to men and we seem to be forgetting women and other gender minorities in the mix too.
First of all, there’s a gendered assumption that women are better at leveraging their networks for emotional support and further that women are better at talking about emotions generally. Anecdotally at least, I’ve found that to be totally untrue. Now, I have no real way of verifying this, because I have no experience of being female. But out of the people who have come to me for support, men and women included, everyone told me that they felt that there was nobody else they could talk to about the challenges they were facing. Didn’t matter how large or small their networks were. So in that sense, one should not abstain from talking because a gendered assumption tells them that they should have networks which will automatically provide support and advice.
Second of all, there’s another (perhaps implicit) assumption that women face less stigma than men for being afflicted by problems in their emotional wellbeing. This is also totally false. The stigma just has different labels and consequences. Many women are just as concerned as men that talking about their own mental wellbeing and related problems for fear that it could have adverse affects on their career, social standing or future relationship prospects. All I can do in this post is acknowledge and validate the fact that, for both genders, the fear is there and it feels very real, and state further that talking to people you trust about what’s bothering you will still be beneficial.
The #itsokaytotalk meme is important and we should all take heed of its message. I only wrote this post because I think my own experiences with having been there and in supporting others who have been there could contribute some insight that others might find useful.
I don’t want this to become a post about me, so I’d challenge you to do this. Don’t click the “like” button on this post. Don’t reshare it verbatim either. If you think I said something that’s worthwhile to spread, then write about it in your own words and add your own thoughts. If I missed something, talk about that. Criticise me if you think I’m wrong. You don’t even have to tell me that you saw this post as inspiration to do so.
Mental wellbeing is a really complex and hard topic. It is complicated by all sorts of personal, cultural and social factors. The more people understand about it, the more they’ll able to help themselves, so lets make this an exercise in not just awareness, but understanding.