“Can five of my friends share this please?” It’s usually accompanied by a praying hands emoji. For many, this is what doing their bit for mental health looks like. In the vast majority of cases, it comes from a good place. The act is well-meaning. It is a genuine attempt to show kindness, support and solidarity. I can’t write this without drawing attention to the minority. Sadly, there’s a group of humans that I call SPVS. ‘Semi-Professional Virtue Signallers’. This small but committed group share for the optics. Whether it’s LGBT, Animal Welfare, Black Live Matter, Feminism or, as will be the case today, Mental Health - their MO is sadly predictable. They attach themselves to a cause to show how much they care. It’s as if the serial sharing of noble thoughts expunges their other less noble characteristics.
“Yeah, that Kev’s a bit of a dick, but he did copy and paste that thing about the plight of the Nicaraguan Sea Otter, so he can’t be that much of a dick. Can he?”
Yea, he can and yes he is.
Whether you’re the well-meaning majority or the attention-seeking minority I’d like you to consider a different approach, particularly in relation to mental health. And, my hope is that this change becomes an everyday thing, rather than one attached to the singularity that is an ‘awareness day’. I’ve talked a lot about my mental health breakdown in 2014. But there’s one part I’ve not shared. It’s probably because I didn’t know how to express it without coming across as a grade ‘A’ tool.
When I was unwell, the sharing of ‘copy and paste’ mental health messaging did nothing for me. That’s not true. It actually made me worse. I’d see ‘friends’ from work sharing mental health ‘copy and paste’ posts expressing their desire to end the stigma of mental health. These were the same ‘friends’ that knew I was ill and never once checked-in on me. The story I told myself is that these ‘friends’ didn’t care about me. These ‘friends’ were at best ambivalent to my current condition. And, whoah, hang on, these ‘friends’ were actually just ‘work colleagues’ all along. Wow. What a revelation. That’s how I felt. I was hurt at the time and there’s definitely been a long, lingering hangover accompanied by a bitter aftertaste. Not now though. Now I understand.
What I realise is that it wasn’t their fault. It’s nobody’s fault. The truth is that the stigma remains. It is silent, unspoken and lives in the shadows. We all want to so desperately proclaim that the stigma no longer exists. It does. We’ve been conditioned that mental health is a private matter and that it’s none of our business. It’s a job for professionals. It’s not for us. And then, we tell ourselves the greatest lie ever told. We’re collectively complicit in keeping this lie going. And, we’re individually responsible for calling out this lie for the lie that it is.
“If he wanted my help, he’d ask for it.”
That, right there, is how we justify our inaction. It’s how we sleep at night. It’s how we rationalise away the responsibility we have to help a friend. Because, let’s be honest, we all know when something isn’t right. We all know when a friend is ‘off’ somehow. Yet, we don’t think it’s any of our business. This friend who you share a back catalogue of stories all of a sudden becomes a stranger. We know something is wrong, yet the words fail us. Together we can discuss anything. Well almost anything as it turns out.
It’s uncomfortable. I get it. Much like bereavement, we don’t know what to say, so we say nothing. Or, we revert to what sounds to us like cliche. There is no script for this. There is no perfect thing to make the pain go away. That’s not your job. Your job is to be present and to remind that person that you are there for them. There’s no playbook. All we can do or say is what we think is right in the moment. Does that mean you might say the wrong thing? Of course it does. I’ve stepped on many a word-based landmine. Not because I’m insensitive or cruel, but, because occasionally my brain is a bit of a dick.
Here’s what I do. If I sense something is up with one of my mates, I ask him if he’s ok? If I already know the answer to that, I just ask a really simple question - ‘what’s up mate?’. Whatever the answer I’ll then ask if he wants to talk about it. If he does, that’s what we do. If he doesn’t, we talk about something else. And, if my mate doesn’t feel like talking, I just go into monologue mode. I tell him about my latest moment of humiliation. #mintermoments Or, I delve into the archive of stories we’ve lived together. Stories I know will at the very least produce a smirk.
We can all do that. We can all be the friend that our friend needs us to be. Trust me regardless of the intention, sharing these ‘copy and paste’ mental health digital chain letters doesn’t help. It does nothing to move the conversation forward. It does fuck all to end the stigma. And, it most certainly doesn’t do anything to help anyone going through a difficult time.
The darkest moments for me was when I thought I was alone. I wasn’t. I never was. Not really. But, I felt that way. And when we’re not well, feelings are resounding truths. Feelings are painful and raw. In the absence of rational thought, feelings are all that remains. I am lucky. I feel better today than I have in probably ten years. In large part, that’s because many of my friends and family got comfortable being uncomfortable. They were the collection of torches that illuminated a path from a very dark placed. Without knowing it, they made a massive difference.
You can be a torch.
You can make a difference.
You just can’t do it by being ‘one of the five’.