Two weeks ago, I opened up about my struggles with mental health and depression. I never really imagined the responses I’d get from my last post. I did want it out there, and I did want it to be the start of a conversation, but – and it seems wildly remiss of me, now I think about it – I never actually thought ahead as to what that conversation would look like. I had vague notions that maybe a handful of people would like the post, but I wasn’t really prepared for how much traction it got.
As a result, when the messages came in, I didn’t really have a handle on how to respond to that. Nearly a year of training myself to not engage in conversations about my own well-being (on top of nearly a decade of trying to hide that anything was wrong in the first place) left me woefully unprepared.
I’m still trying to word a ‘proper’ follow up piece, but in the meantime, I thought I’d share a couple of the things that particularly stuck me.
The post resonated with a lot of people
This, I think, was the most surprising thing. Within about half a day of me sharing the post on Facebook, it had more hits than the rest of my blog posts put together. And that number just kept going up. It wasn’t just the number of people who liked the post, but how broad that range of people was. Old friends from school, uni, various old jobs, people I’d barely spoken to in years.
The Google Analytics stats for my blog. Take a guess when I last posted…
I know, logically, that mental health is something that affects everyone – just as physical health affects all of us. But seeing the number of people who connected with what I said really brought that point home. I was also contacted by a number of people who had shared the post with their own networks, and that had started conversations entirely separate to the ones I was a party to. That was incredibly humbling to hear, and also a testament to the power of conversation.
People, instinctively or otherwise, know more than they think they do
I got a lot of advice from people over the last few weeks – things that they had done when they were feeling low, or things that they knew other friends did. I also had a couple of people right off the bat say to me that what they have found useful, when other friends have told them they suffer from mental health issues, was some kind of guidance on ways that they can help – things to say/do/ignore/focus on/whatever to make life that little bit easier. I am working on a post to that nature (it might take a little while – for a number of reasons I’m finding it trickier to articulate than I’d like), but to be honest, what this experience has told me is that people kind of instinctively know what to do anyway.
The obvious caveat is that neither I, nor (to my knowledge) the people who I’ve spoken to, are capable of giving actual professional advice, and that point is an important one. That said, we are all human beings, and that does afford us an inherent level of credibility to talk generally about feelings. There is a marked difference between feeling sad and being depressed, but that doesn’t mean that someone who ‘only’ has the first can’t relate to the second.
I’m still working out how much I’m willing and able to talk in terms of very personal thoughts, but what opening up in a general sense has reminded me is how freeing it is to have certain parts of yourself known.
“You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.”
— James Baldwin
Being open about a mental health issue doesn’t have to change anything
“It’s been a weird couple of weeks. Absolutely everything has changed… and absolutely nothing.”
— Me, to several people this past fortnight
Before I made the decision to post my last blog, I spent weeks worrying about the potential ramifications of doing so. In tandem with actually posting it, I also pinned the link to my twitter feed, and started being much more active on the platform. This, in itself, was also a daunting prospect – especially last week, where I was at a conference and spend a lot of time on social media, interacting with others.
There were two aspects to opening up that worried me – the first was the reaction of people I know well, and the second was the initial impression that I would make on others who came to know me through my online presence.
Now, I say that I worried, but looking back I’m not entirely sure what it was that I thought would happen. In the case of my ‘in real life’ friends, maybe I thought that hanging out in a group would be awkward in some way? That during lulls in conversation people would stare nervously at me in case I did something ‘mental’? Or maybe people would talk animatedly about me if I left the group about, only to awkwardly clam up when I returned. I don’t really know… (Sidebar: that I might have been worried these things would happen is in no way a reflection on my friends, rather on my mild paranoia on the subject.) In the event, beyond some incredibly thoughtful private messages and conversations (for all of which, I am thankful), and from one friend a gift of camomile tea, everything carried on almost exactly as it had done.
Retrospectively, I’m even more confused as to how I thought my online image would change. Despite how hilarious I can be on social media, for reasons unknown I haven’t yet risen to celebrity status. As a result, it wasn’t as if I had particularly far to fall should ‘the worst’ (whatever that might be) have happened. Instead, I’ve since become more comfortable online – for example, sharing posts about mental health that I find interesting – and as a result I’ve actually had more interactions with people. I realise now that what was stopping me doing that was some weird fear that people would find out ‘my secret’ because I was posting articles about mental health and depression. When you think about it, this is odd; no one in the history of the internet has ever worried that people might think they are secretly a cat, just because they curate a Tumblr account featuring GIFs of feline pianists.
And that’s the thing. We all, I think, live inside our own heads quite a bit. I know I do it a lot. Yes, people knowing about my depression has changed things, but not everything – and it has certainly not negatively affected anything that matters. One thing it has changed, and is definitely a good thing, is that I’ve been put in touch with a number of other people all wanting to talk more, more publicly, about mental health. I’ve had some great conversations with people, and have more to come, about ways to facilitate that dialogue. It’s a little daunting, but incredibly exciting.
My thoughts (such as they are) to those thinking of opening up
I’ve already talked to a number of people who also suffer from mental health issues, and who have asked my opinion on whether they should be more open. For me, so far, this has been a positive experience. But I am very conscious that this is one person’s account of a specific set of events. As I mentioned earlier, I am still struggling with what I am comfortable talking about, and what I am not. I certainly can’t speak for anyone else, and I have had very negative experiences of opening up before. I don’t wish to darken the mood, but I do feel compelled to say that.
That said, I do stand by the fact that we all need to talk more about mental health. For my part, I will continue to explore and write about the subject, and what I say will certainly be influenced by my own personal journey. That doesn’t, however, mean that I will necessarily be revealing all the details of my personal life.
My decision to talk more is based on the fact that I believe the conversation needs to happen. Ultimately, that is what I would say to anyone thinking of joining in. To paraphrase something I said to a friend a little while ago: the wider message is what’s important, and however you think you can serve that best is what you should do. There is no shame in terms of how much, or how little, you are willing to talk about personal experiences, so long as you are doing what you can to add to the conversation.