Firstly, I just wanted to again say thankyou for all the nice comments I’ve received since I started this blog, it means a great deal, and makes it all the more worthwhile.
Following on from my last blog about negative attitudes towards mental health, specifically depression and anxiety, I wanted to look at the flip side, in terms of peoples support towards sufferers. The worst thing about anxiety/depression is the fact that it doesn’t just affect the person diagnosed, but also the friends, families and colleagues of them as well. If your son or daughter/husband or wife/boyfriend or girlfriend has got pneumonia, then you know how to care for them, and help them get better. With mental illness, this isn’t really an option, as its such a complex issue, that perplexes even the sufferer, and therefore offers little signposting to the friends and family of what to do and what to say.
Over the course of my illness people have kindly said various things that they think will help, or will offer encouragement or a solution. I want to make it clear that these are completely understandable things to say, and if I were in the reverse situation, I would almost certainly suggest them to a struggling friend. But I just wanted to touch upon a few examples of things that have been said, and try and explain the reasons why they sadly don’t have the intended beneficial effect.
“There are people worse off in the world than you” – This is a difficult one, because it’s undeniably true that there are people in horrendous situations in the world, with tragic illnesses and circumstances. However, a person who suffers from anxiety or depression knows this, and often they already feel guilty about their illness, and the comparison with those in terrible situations can then further fuel that guilt or sense of inadequacy. Also, mental illness is not a rational illness, in the sense that it can rear its head for an unknown reason, and so its not possible to relieve the symptoms by rationally comparing it to another illness.
“What you are worrying about isn’t a big deal” – Anxiety sufferers understand that a lot of their worries are not justified, or are in themselves insignificant, but the whole frustration with the illness is that it can’t be rationalised. As Ally Boguhn says (see link at bottom) “The truth about anxiety is that it is all about getting caught up in minute little details and scenarios that are completely irrational”. Clearly some mental illness is caused by life events or can be traced back to a trauma as the sole cause. But generally its just there, lying dormant, waiting for the next moment to wake up and rear its ugly head.
“Think of all the great things you have going for you” – This is a very common remark, and I reiterate again, completely understandable. People often say “but you’ve got a great job, flat, friends/family, just think about that if you are feeling low”. While its irrefutable that many sufferers do have these (myself included), as previously mentioned the crippling thoughts and worries that come with anxiety, and the loneliness and hopelessness caused by depression, do not recede or distinguish because of the recognition of other positive factors of your life. If only they could! Robin Williams’ tragic suicide is a pertinent example of this. From the outside he had everything, but this didn’t cure him of what he was suffering, or allow him to deal with his ‘invisible illness’.
“Get some fresh air or exercise and you will feel better” – This was the very first thing the doctor advised me when I first saw him, and which other healthcare workers have also insisted upon. While this advice comes from a good place, and fresh air and exercise are without a doubt beneficial, they are not a solution, or a cure. For a start, sometimes you feel so anxious or low, that going out to exercise is not an option. But secondly, if you go for a run, or cycle ride etc, you may briefly escape the previously mentioned ‘Black Dog’, but once you stop, he soon catches up again, and you are back to square one.
“You’re bringing everyone down” – This is one of the hardest and most emotive of issues. As mentioned at the start of this blog, depression and anxiety affect two groups of people: suffers, and the people that know and love them. The families and friends who live with sufferers are without a doubt the unmentioned victims, and so being told that you are bringing them down can feed into the guilt of how your illness affects others, but also cause a frustration that they don’t understand what you are going through. Of course they don’t, but how could they be expected to!
These are just a few examples, and again, I can’t emphasise enough how this blog is not intended to be accusatory in any way, but merely a point of information, and a discussion on a labyrinthine topic. As intimated, these are logical, reasoned things to say to people when you don’t know what they are going through. And the knowledge that there are people who care enough about you to offer their advice and help is invaluable. But I thought it may be helpful to try and dissect some aspects of the illness and shed some light on the realities of how certain words sadly can’t be taken on board as they are intended to be.
I thought I would finish with a quote from one of my heroes Stephen Fry, who can put things into words much more eloquently than myself:
“If you know someone who’s depressed, please resolve never to ask them why. Depression isn’t a straightforward response to a bad situation; depression just is, like the weather. Try to understand the blackness, lethargy, hopelessness, and loneliness they’re going through. Be there for them when they come through the other side. It’s hard to be a friend to someone who’s depressed, but it is one of the kindest, noblest, and best things you will ever do.”
Here are a few links that I came across on the subject: