We’ve all heard the message, ‘It’s OK to not be OK’, to reach out, to tell someone how you feel… but the response to such a statement can perhaps be as vital as the admission itself, for the one who is seeking healing.
I recently watched a documentary called ‘The Weight of Gold’ narrated by five time Olympian and winner of 28 Olympic medals (no that is not a typo, yes 28!), Michael Phelps. It looked at the high suicide rate amongst successful Olympic athletes, and tragically how, when these athletes told someone on their coaching team that they were struggling mentally with the pressure of having to perform, that in general they received no mental health supports. It seemed particularly tragic that while they could access the top surgeons, dieticians, physios, trainers, and numerous other medical professionals to look after their physical health, that when it came to their mental health, they were all alone. It was, in fact, this lack of response to their admissions that caused them the greatest despair, because it left them feeling not just in a mental health struggle but completely alone in their struggle, like no one cared. For many it suggested people were only interested in them as a physical athlete and not as a human being. So, when their athletic days came to an end, many felt they had nothing left to offer, and tragically that their life from there on was not worth living.
But mental health struggles are not just a problem for Olympic athletes, they are a problem for every sector of our society. Even without a history of mental health issues in a family, or a trauma, or anxiety and/or depressive experiences, there are a plethora of social conditions including poverty, debt, poor, or lack of, housing, or even poor diet that can contribute to mental ill health (see feature Future Learn ‘World Mental Health Day 2021’ for more). Add to that, that we have, over the last two years, seen the addition of Covid 19, bringing with it added anxiety, fear, isolation, job loss and uncertainty, so of course we can expect to encounter people in our everyday life experiencing mental health struggles.
And then there are ourselves. We have all had dark moments in life, and if we are lucky, have had a comforting response to them… maybe a kind text, a hug, or a phone call that helped us feel thought about, loved, worth the trouble. But what about the opposite response… the sigh, the shoulder shrug, the non-response, or the dismissive attitude that tells us to just pull ourselves together? How often do we encounter these and how much lower do these responses sink us?
I ask this with mind to a conversation I had with a heart patient recently who told me he feels his family are “over” his heart issues, even though, he lives with ongoing heart failure. His illness, being largely invisible to the outside world has left him looking ‘normal’, but he feels anything but. Getting quite emotional he defended his family’s right to be “tired” of living with someone not as capable as the other husbands and fathers but accepting that reaction from them has left him feeling like the Olympic athletes… only as good as his last performance. He was diagnosed with clinical depression a year ago yet feels he can’t discuss this with his own family, because they have already had enough of him not being well and this will “add to their burden”. Thankfully, he reached out to a heart support group that understands only too well that any physical diagnosis is an issue for the mind as well as the body. He says such support has been a “lifeline”.
Of course, not all families have this reaction to their loved ones physical or mental health struggles, indeed many offer the complete opposite reaction, but seeing the anguish on this man’s face, I recognised that this was not the first time I had come across someone pained by the negative reaction they had received to ‘not being OK’.
I am part of many online heart support groups for many years, and yes, over those years I have seen many posts where heart patients felt, like this man, that their family, were ‘over’ them not being OK, or where the patient themselves felt their family had been through enough and that they couldn’t burden them further.
Illness is not easy on families, for sure, and it can be hard going to continue to provide support to the ill person, especially where there is a degree of permanency to the situation. Families too struggle with ‘not being ok’ in the aftermath of illness visiting any one member, but the important thing is that everyone remember its ok for everyone not to feel ok, and that maybe when this happens everyone needs to support and guide each other to getting the help they need.
While none of us are responsible for another’s mental health recovery, or for ‘fixing’ or ‘saving’ anyone from themselves, we do perhaps need to consider that we are responsible for our own response to any admissions they might make to us. But it’s not easy to be that person, because we are often not sure what to say, or when to say it.
Because of that, perhaps we need to actively learn how we can respond positively, should the moment arrive that someone comes to us and tells us that they are not OK, like learning a first aid course, only this time for mental health issues, instead of just physical health issues.
Pondering this very idea, I googled the options and was amazed and thrilled to see, that this form of preparation really does exist. Mental Health First Aid International www.mhfainternational.org runs programmes all over the world, to help family members, friends, work colleagues and communities prepare for that moment when some person in their radar admits to not being OK. Initiated first in Australia in the year 2000, these programmes have become available in many countries around the world now, their website showing a global interactive map, through which viewers can access a mental health first aid course in their own country/area. And individuals, companies and communities can, and are signing up, such that approx. 4 million people worldwide have completed a mental health first aid course to date.
We are living in times of great isolation and challenge. Perhaps it is time that we prepare to be first responders for each other when the isolation or the challenges become too much, by signing up for courses like these. That way we might help elevate not only the one who is struggling, but humanity itself, by demonstrating how we can all offer a helping hand to others on their journey towards healing.
© Pauline O’Shea
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