A number of years ago, when I began to share the story of my journey, I recall one of the first articles that were written about that. It mentioned that “On the outside, he was a successful Wawanesa-area farmer and pork industry leader. On the inside, he was drowning in a black hole.” I chuckled when I first read that. Perhaps a nervous chuckle. Perhaps a shameful chuckle. My first inclination was to declare victory. I had fooled people on both counts. Nobody knew. But then the reality of that statement sunk in.
As I “came out” I began the conversation with people around me. I came to a quick realization. I was able to mask the darkness I felt within. At least I thought I had. I really had not fooled anyone. Others recognized that there were issues. However most, if not all, had no idea on how to approach me or the situation. Concerned? Yes. Able to help? Not so much. Did they care? Absolutely, without any question.
There is a stigma about mental health. People that are experiencing mental health issues are loathe admitting it. People that see someone experiencing mental health issues feel helpless. Don’t know how they can help. Many times the signs are not clear. Someone you may know comes across as being lazy. They may seem withdrawn. They are irritable. They isolate themselves. There may be an increase in drug or alcohol use. They have a litany of physical ailments. Often times you feel like giving them a swift kick and telling them to “get over it”.
Allow me to bore you with some statistics. According to the Canadian Mental Health Association mental illness affects 1 in 5 people. In 1998 it is estimated that the cost to the economy was 7.9 billion dollars. That is mind boggling. An additional 6.3 billion dollars was spent on uninsured mental health services and days off work. And to think that 49% of those that feel they have had mental health issues have never sought help.
How would I know, whether at home, with extended family, friends or in the workplace, when someone does have mental health issues? How can I recognize the signs? With increased awareness many of us feel we should recognize it. We watch. We make our own diagnosis. We have this pressure on us to be a mental health expert. We feel an increased need to watch for it. And when we meet a friend or colleague who is not “up to par” we are quick to jump to conclusions and make the diagnosis.
Let me give you my two cents worth. Don’t do that to yourself. Don’t put that pressure on yourself. It is quite simple. When something is beyond our field of expertise, but we want to make it that, we have a tendency to become judgemental. Often times that is not helpful. Rather try to become curious. Part of being curious is to become interested. Become interested in others. Practice your listening skills. Become more adept at constructive communication.
I recall, and never quit telling the story, a neighbor who dropped by when I was going through an exceptionally bad time. He sensed that I was not okay. He asked a simple question. He asked how I was doing. Instead of giving him the usual “not bad” answer I spilled the beans. I told him why I was feeling down, why I was feeling helpless and alone. He listened. He did not pass judgement, and with my story he might well have, he normalized and validated my feelings. It felt good. It helped. It literally set me free.
There is a lesson here for all of us. Whether we are the one suffering in silence, or whether we know of someone who seems to be, we need to engage in conversation. We need to show curiosity. We need to recognize the benefits of curiosity, being interested. It is that simple. So if you know someone, or you are that someone, let’s get talking. It helps. I know. I have been there. Make it a good one.