It’s been while since I’ve put virtual pen to paper so being Time to Talk day there’s no better time. I’ve been working on a bit of a retrospective of my last year which is still a work in progress.
I hosted a lunchtime meeting on the subject to Time to talk and mental health. It was a really good session trying to cover as much ground as possible in an hour for me is nigh on impossible so. I kept it to a couple of key points and tried to open out the discussion. There were only 7 of us including me which I have to admit was a nice number, big enough to have a variety of perspectives and small enough to be personal. I wanted to stay away from the dreaded powerpoint slide and kept it to 2 flip chart pages.
While thinking about what I wanted to cover it made me reflect on how this all started. This time 3 years ago I was in the middle of psychotherapy, being treated for PTSD for childhood trauma and I was just starting the initial screening that ultimately lead to me being diagnosed autistic. Wind back 3 and half years and I was sat my desk, masking despair and trying to calculate the best time to go to the office toilets that we give the longest time frame for me to be found. That’s uncomfortable reading for some and others something that you just don’t talk about. The point is the fact we don’t talk about it is the problem.
How many times do you ask someone “How are you?” and invariably we get back “I’m fine” Is that just a routine pleasantry that we are expected to do? or do we actually mean it? What if the response was actually “I’m not okay”. Cue an awkward moment, a response we weren’t expecting. But what is the actual worse thing that can happen in that event? The solution to that is pretty straight forward you’ve pretty much got one of two reply’s 1.What’s up? 2.Do you want to talk? It’s perfectly possible you will get a response of no or I don’t really want to talk about it. In some respects the response you get doesn’t really matter. What actually matters is that you noticed and you asked. Looking back personally had someone actually noticed enough to ask and mean it ,it may well have come out earlier. I’m not blaming anyone else for that. We’re conditioned as a society to “Just get on with it” or “Keep calm and carry on” and so we mask it, we say we are fine when we aren’t and we make false pleasantries when we don’t actually care. I know a fair bit about masking and trying to fit in. It’s something that intentionally or otherwise I’ve spent most of my life doing (somewhat unsuccessfully I should add). I don’t anymore, simply because the effort and energy it requires is in itself exhausting, and this is a downward spiral. When you aren’t feeling great the last thing you need to be doing is spending the energy you have on keeping up the pretense of being fine. Yes it can be awkward for other people, unless they get exposed to different paradigms they aren’t going to learn or get used to it. That’s what needs to happen.
We’re stuck with a cultural mindset that was perfect for its point in history, but that was three-quarters of a century ago and we don’t have the threat of air raids or invasion anymore. We don’t need to simply exist to survive from day-to-day. We’re a bit further forward than that allegedly. So why can’t we show a bit more empathy, the thing lots of “experts” like to say autistics like me don’t have and can’t experience. Yes, it is challenging, processing emotions is really hard work for me. That doesn’t mean they aren’t there and in some instances the reason it’s so hard is actually the fact they’re felt so strongly. That’s why I talk and write about mental health and being autistic. The thought of someone else being in the place I was and thinking there was no one to turn to is something I find abhorrent, especially if I’m in a position to simply to make them aware that they aren’t on their own.
That leads me rather neatly to where I started, with me in a room talking about mental health with six other people. My two points 1. Mental health is a thing like physical health it can be good and it can be bad, we need to be able to identify in ourselves when we’re staying or moving to far towards the poor end of the continuum. 2. The best thing to improve mental health is ourselves as a collective. We have a responsibilty simply as human beings to look out for each other.
In the same way we would like people to look out for us when we need it, we need to look out for others. Yes we can have campaigns, awareness days, weeks and months, mental health first aiders like me and the entire plethora of professional support. We need to start being more honest to ourselves and others. Next time you ask a “How are you?” mean it, and when you are asked how you are, be honest. It’s not actually that hard once you do it a few times and worst thing you may need to do is listen for a bit. You don’t have to solve anything, but you may just make a huge difference to someone when they need it. It may not, but even then you can look at yourself and say you tried.