Dec 19 2020. views 115
Are we helping create a safe, judgement-free space?
“I told my parents I was struggling. That I felt like I was drowning. I tried and tried to explain to them that I was depressed. They laughed and told me I was being dramatic like everyone in my generation” Namali* shared. “Then one day, I self-harmed”.
If you logged onto any of your social media accounts on World Mental Health Day on the 10th of October, you would have been met with an aggressive barrage of posts on Facebook, Instagram and even Twitter - in sum, selflessly declaring that: ‘If you need someone to talk to, I am a phone call or message away’. Namali too came across numerous similar posts. “I saw so many of these and it made me so happy. I actually dropped a message to 3 friends who had posted it, saying that I’d love to talk and also thanked them for offering. Of the three, two of them replied, promising to get back to me later because they were busy. The later never came”. Unable to get any support from her parents or friends, and too nervous to reach out to a professional, the shy and timid Namali continued to self-harm.
The Flip Side of the Coin
Although discourse on the topic of Mental Health is comparatively widespread, it is still misunderstood. Why is it difficult for people to accept the reality of mental illness? Hansini Gunasekara, Psychologist, answering the question elaborated that “Even though the conversation about mental wellbeing has gained traction in the past few years and many young people are gaining awareness and treatments are becoming more and more readily available, accepting mental illness, especially when a loved one is affected is still very difficult for people. As human beings, we don’t like to appear vulnerable. Vulnerability is often perceived as a sign of weakness, but the truth is that we’re able to openly embrace who we are and say ‘this is my authentic self, I’m struggling mentally, but I am resilient’. That is a sign of strength. Unfortunately, this mindset has not been cultivated in us. We come from a culture where maintaining a specific socially constructed image is really important and mental health struggles don’t fit into this narrative”.
While Namali’s own parents did not take their daughter seriously, treating her “claims” with indifference, this experience is not uncommon for many Sri Lankans living with mental illness. “Accepting that a loved one is going through mental health struggles or even mental illness is especially hard for those around them. There are multiple reasons for this. One common reason is that people have this very specific picture in their mind what mental health struggles should look like. I remember personally sharing my own struggles with depression with a friend of mine a few years ago and she said to me ‘but you look like you’ve got it all together. You look soo happy’. In some cases, if you’re attuned to someone enough you can notice the signs that someone’s affected by mental illness or that someone’s going through a mental struggle. Even if its something covert like depression, anxiety or even a personality disorder that you can’t really see on the outside, if you just listen, or if you’re attentive enough, you can see it”.
Gunasekara adds that it is important to remember that there are no set behaviours associated with mental struggles or even mental illness. “For some people, it may be crying all day. For some other people, it might be anger outbursts. For some, they just look like they’ve got it all together and they don’t behave differently, but they may be struggling and they may be carrying a lot of burden on the inside. It’s about creating that empathetic environment where the people in your life can feel safe to share their authentic self” she reiterates.
The challenges of acceptance
“I have often seen that accepting a child with mental illness or accepting that a child has a mental illness or that they are facing issues mentally and emotionally is really tough for parents. It makes some parents feel like they need to do something right. They feel like it’s a failure on their part, but in most cases, it is not. Our response to situations depends on hundreds of unique factors that include our resilience level, perceived social support, environmental stressors like losing someone or something like a job for example, and in some cases, it really doesn’t have to have a reason. Sometimes we just feel down, and sometimes it can come in the form of depression and anxiety. On some days we strive and on some days we struggle. And that is simply the state of being a thinking, feeling human”.
“Having said that, there are some cases where mental struggles are propagated by parents or the home environment, and in these cases, accepting mental health status of the loved one will also mean that you need to take a deeper look at yourself and the environment you provide for them. It will sometimes force you to take a deeper look at yourself and change your beliefs and behaviours. And this can be really hard for parents. But in order to assist your child with mental health struggles, creating that supportive environment rather, even if it means you have to change certain things about yourself or the way you do things is really important”.
“Another reason that a loved one may struggle to accept mental health issues is that we don’t know how to help them, we don’t know what to say or what to do, whether we’re doing or saying the right thing. We worry that acknowledging the mental health struggles of our loved one will in turn change our relationship with them”.
“There is also the lack of awareness and of course this is the most common reason. It’s hard to acknowledge something if we don’t know about it. Our vocabulary around mental health is very limited, and therefore the more awareness we gain, the more research that we do, the more open and understanding we become and this is why talking to children about mental health at a very young age is absolutely important”.
Misinformation and misrepresentations
Despite many awareness programmes seeking to demystify mental illness, a large number of people are still unaware or refuse to accept that mental illness is real. Additionally, the stigma associated with it has seen only a slight decline despite the untiring efforts of mental health campaigners. To this day, the subject is treated with utmost confidentiality, with families ensuring that it remains a private matter handled behind closed doors. Movies such as M Night Shyamalan’s Split do not help the cause either, wrongly portraying those living with mental illness resulting in an inaccurate, and grossly exaggerated caricature of a protagonist. The movie is not the first, and certainly won’t be the last to show individuals living with mental illness as being peculiar and dangerous. What is overlooked is that this blatant misrepresentation and negative portrayals are detrimental because they contribute to the stigma surrounding mental illness, while also making those who need help less likely to seek the help of a professional.
Considering such misinformation is not only prevalent but widely accessible, offering support to someone living with mental illness might be unchartered territory for most people, and Gunasekara offers up suggestions as to how you can do your part to help. “When someone does approach you and starts sharing a difficulty, create a conversation where they feel heard and empathised with. This will allow them to come back to you and confide in you and in turn, you can help them access the help they need. And in certain cases, especially during these time of uncertainty that we’re going through, a lot of us need someone to be there for us and listen to us and show us that they understand what we’re going through”. The key to becoming a Mental Health ally is to educate yourself - talk to mental health professionals, seek out reliable resources and make a conscious effort to unlearn the negative stereotypes and fallacies.
How do we circumvent misinformation? “Awareness. Awareness. Awareness. The key to changing our perceptions is enhancing awareness. Also increasing and teaching good communication skills is really important. Learning how to be empathetic, listening with attention. Sometimes it is asking the right questions, the way we speak and make someone feel like they can trust us and be open with us” Gunasekara explains, adding that “some things we can do to change the stigma and the big wall we built around this topic of mental health is - in addition to cultivating awareness and enhancing communication skills - understanding that mental health struggles are multifaceted and that it can happen to anyone at any time due to a range of reasons and sometimes with no reason at all”.
“There is help available, sometimes those who are struggling will not acknowledge that they need help or in most cases, they might not have the strength to reach out to get that help, and as a loved one, we can create a supportive environment where they feel safe and seek the right help from a professional”.