Why is it so Hard to Talk about Mental Illness?

Even to the people we trust.

Photo by Liz Sanchez-Vegas on Unsplash

My grandmother had depression, which led to her drinking too much and ultimately passing away far too young. I was nine when it started, so I understood what was happening in that perceptive, imagery-filled way that kids have.

I saw it as a dark cloud which had settled around Grandma and distorted her view of the world, like those halls of mirrors that make everything longer and shorter and wider and upside down. The cloud Grandma was looking through made everything look darker and less hopeful than it was really. I knew it must be a powerful kind of a micro-climate, this depression, because it transformed my loving, cheeky Grandmother into an empty presence, day in and day out in the same armchair, whom people would discuss in hushed voices and anxious tones.

Because of this, depression was something I was aware of from my childhood, and what I was also very aware of was the difference between different generations when it came to dealing with such matters. My Mum had a hard enough time convincing her siblings that depression was what was wrong, when it came to Grandad, an illness of the mind was inconceivable. It didn’t enter into his world view. They were of the stiff-upper-lip; make do and mend, musn’t grumble generation of Brits. Grandad was convinced something must be wrong physically — couldn’t understand that an illness could come from the mind and have such a far-reaching effect. My Aunt and Uncle, meanwhile, were more open to the idea. They had a vague idea of what depression was, even though they were skeptical that someone like Grandma, with a happy life and a loving family, could be suffering from it. They still struggled to see why, if nothing was “really wrong”, Grandma could still be so poorly, why she couldn’t snap out of it. And then there were my sisters and me — millennials from a privileged background. We all suffered our own times of anxiety and depression during our teenage years, and knew what it was.

Our society has made a small amount of progress on the matter of mental illness. Nowadays, I’m pretty sure that if I talk to a friend about my depression, they will know what I am talking about. There are articles all over mainstream media about depression and anxiety and mindfulness and therapy.

So why is it still so hard to talk about?

Because the taboo hasn’t been lifted

We still can’t tell our bosses we need a sick day because we feel depressed. We still wouldn’t bring it up over dinner with acquaintances or relatives. When someone tells us they have mental issues, we still don’t know what to say to them. There is this uneasy silence that comes after such announcements. It makes you feel like you have just said something indecent- even if that isn’t what people are thinking. We’re just terrible at these conversations

This is one of the factors making it hard to talk about mental issues, the fact that that silence is hard to bear, and the fact that you don’t want to make your interlocutor uncomfortable, either. You don’t want to put them in that situation where they are at a loss for words. Nor do you want the people you love to worry. Especially when you feel like there is nothing they can do to help.

When these mental issues linger, as they tend to do, it feels like you have to shut up. It feels like there is nothing more to say, nothing new, just this ongoing sadness or anxiety. Like it is so unbelievably tedious, it is better just to keep it to yourself. Because people enquiring as to your progress makes you feel like a failure. Like you aren’t getting over things fast enough.

The other thing is, when you do discuss this issue, people often say the wrong things. Not purposely, it’s normal, because we are just so bad at this. A lot of responses sound a lot like “get over it”, even if that isn’t what the person had intended to say.

Like when you are told to look at all the good things in life.

I am acutely aware of how privileged I am. My life is objectively going very well. When I look at the facts of it, I’m moved by how good things are. When someone asks me how are you, I often have to pause and think because everything is great, and everything isn’t. I’m not fully out of my depression. And when you are depressed that sadness isn’t an emotion, it is a symptom.

It can’t be brushed off. So telling someone to look at the bright side shows a lack of understanding, and makes them feel guilty and like their illness is illegitimate. It’s the same thing with Pep talks. Things will get better. Be strong. Fight it. Pep talks don’t fix mental issues. And too often, they feel like an accusation, like you are being told that you aren’t doing enough. It negates all the fighting mentally ill people are doing every single day.

So what should you say?

Thank them for telling you. Acknowledge that it wasn’t easy. Say you are there, in whatever way s.he wants you to be. Ask questions about the strategies they have developed, about how they feel, about when it is better or worse. Make suggestions based on that, not in an imposing way, not in an “I-know-best way,” because you don’t. Tell them that they can feel however they feel, right now, but that they should know it won’t last forever. Tell them that they are more than their mental illness and that you will be there to remind them of that, for as long as it takes.

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