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So, we need to talk…?

Mental Health

Talking is fundamental to our mental health. Yet, Paul Fjelrad writes, we need to do better at the way we talk about mental health - more aware and prepared to have those conversations, but also to elevate our offer to talk above hollow gestures.

There are few phrases that are as loaded as “We need to talk”. Those four words can engender curiosity, apprehension, or even abject fear. If you’ve ever struggled with your mental health, or kept a dark secret from your past that perhaps you’ve not even admitted to yourself, then even an indirect offer to talk, can seem terrifying.

Before I had come to terms with the abuse I suffered as a child, or the subsequent traumatic events I experienced as an adult, I had so many dark shadows hidden away in my mind that I had become a master at avoiding certain topics of conversation. If a chat with friends turned to the subject of our childhoods, parents, school years or previous relationships, I had an arsenal of tactics to avoid revealing details about myself, while also carefully concealing the fact that I was hiding anything.

But this was because for decades I had also hidden the truth from myself. I had become so good at self-deception, and it was so naturally integrated into who I was, that I often didn’t even know I was lying.

Looking back at this time, the worst lie I ever told was after I had lost contact with my daughter.

And look at the words I just used to describe that. Lost. Like I had mislaid her somehow. If you lose something, it’s not really your fault, right? Yet, that is far from the truth. The reality is that once I discovered her mother was being unfaithful, then I asked for a divorce. What I wasn’t expecting to happen next, was that she attempted to take her own life.

The hours that followed her suicide attempt were some of the darkest of my life. My abusive parents had convinced me I was a dangerous monster, and here I was, my worst nightmares realised. Had I just killed the woman I loved, and the mother of my child?

Witnessing a suicide attempt would be traumatic enough for anyone, but added to the untreated psychological damage from my childhood, I was completely overwhelmed. The vast majority of newly divorced couples with children will go through difficult times as they adjust to the new relationship dynamic, but I was totally unable to cope. The narrative in my head said they were better off without me, and it wasn’t long before I told my ex-wife, now living with her new partner, that I was no longer able to be a divorced parent, and I cut off all contact.

Why I am using this example is because years later, when asked if I had children, I said no. The simple reason for this, was because if I said yes, then it would open up a conversational can of worms that I just had no defences for. So better to avoid it entirely. It’s such a simple and innocent question to ask someone, “So, do you have any kids?”, but as soon as I answered “Yes”, it seemed inevitable to me that the conversation would get dark, very fast, and I’d be confronted with unbearably painful memories.

Why did I do this? Simply, because I was not ready to talk.

Years later, once I had been diagnosed with Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, I understood that this subject was a PTSD trigger. I had suffered numerous nightmares and flashbacks of my (now) ex-wife dying in my arms, as my screaming daughter clung desperately to my leg. Of course my mind had erected defences to prevent me from reliving that trauma by locking those memories away behind a lie.

And it’s true what they say. Tell yourself a lie often enough, and you’ll start to believe it.

Unfortunately, I had a library of such horrors locked away in my mind, so I hope you’ll understand when I say one of the most terrifying things I could hear was;

If you ever need someone to talk to…

Similarly, there were rare occasions when I did let some of my trauma out. In those rare circumstances, the poor person on the receiving end got one hell of a shock as I briefly pulled aside the veil I had thrown over the darkest aspects of my life.

It would take my complete mental collapse, a diagnosis, and 3.5 years of intensive therapy with a trauma specialist, to get to a point where I could talk (relatively) comfortably about my traumatic experiences. Before that, if I did ever decide to tell you anything, I would use the worst of my stories like a club, to bludgeon you into submission. It was a great way of making sure you never asked again.

I should probably explain at this point, that I’m not trying to discourage anyone from making that offer to talk. Just the opposite. All healing from trauma, and the beginning of any journey to improve our mental health, starts with talking. However, we all need some of the guidance given on the Mental Health First Aid courses, about both how to listen, and to create an atmosphere in which someone can talk, if they are ready.

During the mental health awareness and support workshops that I run, I use 4 simple rules for conversations with someone who is struggling with their mental health.

  1. LISTEN, don’t ASK
  2. OFFER, don’t TELL
  3. NO, you don’t understand
  4. DON’T try to solve the problem

And if you find yourself in a conversation with someone about their mental health, or you’re trying to let them know that you are there, should they want to talk, then I want you to remember the first two rules.

LISTEN, don’t ASK is all about never making it seem like you are prying or interrogating the person. There are plenty of ways of making it clear to someone that you are ready to listen, if they are ready to talk, without asking them directly about it.

Secondly, you have to appreciate that so often, mental health struggles include a large dose of shame, guilt, as well as feeling vulnerable, and out of control. So however it is you approach that conversation, make sure to OFFER, and don’t ever try to TELL them what to do. The last thing you want to do is put any more pressure on them, because they will likely already be terrified of opening up the Pandora’s Box in their head.

Finally, if you do make that offer, then make sure you are in a place where you are emotionally and intellectually as ready as you can be for what might come out. I have had first-hand experience of what it’s like when you open up because someone offered, and then to see that person turn away. It is absolutely soul-destroying, and can do very real damage.

One thing that 2020 has brought us, is mental health is now talked about in the media a lot more than I’ve previously seen. Unfortunately, as was probably to be expected, it’s not always in a positive way. The history of mankind has shown us that when any societal need arises, there are those who seek to fulfil it, whether for the public good, or as a way of making money, and unfortunately this includes a fair share of con-artists, and snake-oil salesmen, alongside the well-intentioned but misguided. It’s also true that there are those who seek to utilise it to further their political agenda, and we’ve seen the anti-lockdown and conspiracy theory brigade trying to use mental health in their propaganda.

Perhaps I’m being too cynical, but I would say for every person who is genuinely reaching out through social media, and offering for people to talk about their mental health, there will probably be someone who is just virtue signalling.

Yes, I am encouraging people who are struggling to reach out to someone and to talk. It is the first step on the road to mental wellbeing, and also such an important step. I’m also encouraging people to be more open to conversations about mental health, and, should someone you know be in need, to reach out to them and make sure they know that you are there if they want to talk. But I’m also asking you to be more aware, to educate yourself, to think about it when you make that offer, and also to look after yourself as these conversations can be hard.

Moreover, let’s not make “I’m here if you need to talk” another formulaic, empty expression we stick on our social media profiles, just so we can convince strangers that we’re more compassionate than we perhaps are.

If you say you’re there if someone needs to talk, then you better be there, otherwise it’s much better not to say anything.

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