No really, Let’s Talk

painting of a person swimming underwater
Photo by Evelyn on

Today is #BellLetsTalk day, and I’m at the pinnacle of my Mental Health rage. I understand that the point of mental health campaigns are to create a safe space where someone who is battling can reach out to people they trust. It’s a time when celebrities can say “I fight this as well, you’re not alone”. So everyone changes their Facebook avatar and texts to support mental health initiatives. We sign up for school and workplace events and we congratulate ourselves for being supportive and helping to remove the stigma of mental illness. Go, us!

Sometimes, the words “Please help me” don’t sound quite like that. Sometimes they sound like “Want to come over”. Sometimes they sound like “Can we just pick up dinner tonight” or “I really need you to kiss me more often” or “I’m working from home again” or “Why the f*ck can’t you clean up your lunch mess when you’re done” or “I’m sorry I didn’t do the thing I said I would”

No one wants to be the asshole who says “FFS, pull it together, put on your big girl panties and carry on”. So, instead, we say “Please reach out if you need help.” But we don’t really want that. Not from everyone we broadcast it to, anyway. Certainly, we avail ourselves to those we love. But the rest? Feh. We care enough to want them to get better, but not enough to be the conduit for that.

Are you thinking “Holy shirtballs, how could she say that?” Because that’s what mental illness tells you. So feeling like the support isn’t really there (because why would someone care, really)  means you need extra courage and strength to even start looking for help. And then trying to find the words to articulate what your struggle means isn’t trivial. I have a huge vocabulary of words, and *my* mental health issues hide the words even from me. If a word nerd can’t do it, consider how hard it is for someone who doesn’t understand what’s happening to them, or doesn’t have the vocabulary in which to wrap their hurt.  Every year, some people hide in the shadows of mental illness because they don’t know how to see the hands held out to help. Some people hide in the shadows of mental illness because they feel like if you just hold on tight enough, you’ll squeeze the mental illness out of you, like juice out of an orange. We’ve all known mental illness, whether its our personal struggles with it, or the struggles of those we know and love. Perhaps you’ve been in proximity of it without knowing what was there. You just don’t notice that something is amiss until it’s too late. It happens.

A few years ago, there was a co-op named Cash in our work group. He was Connor’s age, and he sat beside me. For half a day for a whole school term, we talked about hockey and music and pets, and he was a good, respectful, soulful kid. He wore a collared shirt to work because his mom told him to, and he attended church services regularly and played guitar in their faith community. I would never have guessed that just few months after he finished his term with us, he was going to commit suicide. Maybe at that point, he didn’t know either. If there was something there that I could have done, I didn’t notice. It kicked me in the chest like I couldn’t have imagined. I was in Europe when I heard, and some of the kids with whom he played hockey were on the trip. I watched the news ripple out to them and to kids who never met Cash, who comforted their friends from the shock of the news and the loss of their friend and linemate. They didn’t notice either. In the aftermath, as my work team gathered to raise a glass to our lost former teammate (who wasn’t yet old enough to raise a glass himself), a woman on my team said “We’ve all had moments where we looked at a bathtub of water and thought hard”. Yep. Advantage: Demons.

So back to the big girl panties…

When someone tries to start a conversation with you and you can’t bother to show them that they matter enough to stop looking at the TV, or your phone, you give them a message that you perhaps didn’t mean to give.  When someone says “I feel overwhelmed and I need you to help me in $TheseWays”, and then you ignore the request for help, you give them a message that you perhaps didn’t mean to give. When you tell someone that they don’t really feel like they’re telling you that they do, you reinforce all the demons that they struggle with every day.

So if, because all the cool kids are doing it, you’re going to post something that says “If you need help, reach out”, please PLEASE make sure that you really want to help – anyone who asks – and not slap down or ignore someone who has mustered up the courage to reach out. Mental illness is a terrible beast. As a teenager, I was diagnosed with clinical depression, and a kernel of that lives in me every day. It’s OK if you don’t have the strength or the spoons to pull someone out of that darkness by yourself, but don’t wear the “Let’s Talk” day like a badge of honour if you don’t really want to be (or just can’t be) part of the conversation.

In many cases, people with mental illness think that they’re a burden on everyone around them, and that if they were gone, no one would notice. So if you’re going to participate in the Let’s Talk business on social media or in your school or workplace, make damn sure that you’re prepared to let someone who opens up to you know that you’d notice.

So, for the small struggles and the big struggles, for the struggles of the people who haven’t yet been able to put a name to what they feel, and for those who have a diagnosis and a treatment plan in place, take care, friends. Help is available. It’s OK to admit you need it.

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