I’ve been reflecting on World Mental Health day, as I lie in bed with the tail end of the Fresher’s lurgy and, in the interests of honesty and topicalness, while feeling quite low too. This year’s theme is depression, a problem that is very close to my heart, having suffered in some form or another since I was 15 years old, and loving many people who do too. The combination of a month or so of various stresses, and little to no sleep due to my susceptibility to undergraduate germs, has knocked me off kilter and upset the very careful balance of structure and order in my life that keeps me mentally well. I’m not going to say much more than that, but even typing those few sentences makes me feel exposed and like I’m oversharing. This is one of the stigmas of mental illness. There’s no shame in sharing with you that my lungs feel like they’ve lost a fight with a cheese grater, and that when I breathe I sound like Darth Vader in an echo chamber, but the moment some element of our mental and psychic wellness comes into play, so flows in the quite understandable fears and doubts that pervade such an illness.
The sense of panic that many feel when sharing experiences of mental illness is not without a basis in reality. I could reel off a ton of micro aggressions from friends and family when discussing or responding to my depression. From the ‘helpful’ attempts to rationalise illness - “come on, pull yourself together”, “it’s not ALL bad!”, “there are people much worse off than you, you know”, through to the ignorant and ill-thought-out, “well, I just think anti-depressants are a cop out” - what these responses share in common is a failure to recognise that mental illness exists as a very real and actual experience. Depression is as real as the pain in my chest, the swelling of my glands (another Freshers’ scar - mumps from my first year of teaching leaves me chimpmunk-like at the sight of a virus…) and the Darth Vader impressions.
I feel like I’m perhaps wasting my breath though, because people DO seem to engage with the rhetoric, and yet far less often do their actions match their words. There are lots of hashtags, lots of well meaning posts, well organised events and socials that all aim to bring forms of awareness to the day, and ostensibly to mental health itsself. Yet, I do wonder if people who engage in this, retweet some Stephen Fry, and wholeheartedly throw their support behind a facebook viral about how depression means you’re actually stronger than the ‘average person’ (does it? I think it just means you suffer from depression…), see depression and mental health as something ‘over there’, that happens to ‘other people’, to famous celebrities that we can all chat about and feel some form of empathy for.
It doesn’t. It happens right here. It happens to your friends, to your families, in your communities. It’s the friend who is the life and soul of the party (not because of their depression, just because they are!) for months on end and then disappears from the scene without anyone really noticing. It’s the lad who you really enjoy gossiping with after your lecture who doesn’t turn up in the second semester. It’s your flatmate who is leaving their washing up whilst not leaving their room. It is all around you, and often, we close our eyes to it. Maybe its because we don’t see it? Maybe we don’t want it to become our problem? Maybe its because, in actuality, dealing with someone who is having a bad time mentally IS seen as a burden?
If you do just one thing on World Mental Health day, don’t make it retweeting a quote. Don’t make it hashtagging some profound comment on disability. Pick up the phone to someone, or send a text. Tell someone that you love and care about that you love them, and you care about them. That you’re there to support them if they’re feeling down, and then - do it. It doesn’t take much. A soft word, a hand on a shoulder, watching a horrendous Rom-Com and sharing some sickly sweets… Just a text message to let someone know that you’re there can make the biggest of differences for someone who is feeling emotionally stranded and broken. Even if you suffer from depression yourself, ESPECIALLY if you do - because you should get it, more than anyone. I’m going to send a text right now, and I hope anyone reading this does too.