Six Cats and a Black Dog: On Talking and Not Talking About Mental Health
Last year I made a Blog For Mental Health pledge. Sadly, there is no pledge in 2016 and the Blog for Mental Health site is no longer being curated, though it is currently still accessible. However, this was a wonderful project (and it ran for several years) and I’m truly glad it got me blogging about this subject, albeit less regularly than I’d like!
I’ve actually had a lot of reason to be talking about mental health over the past few weeks and I wondered how that would be. I’ve been teaching three hours a week on a particular unit and although I can apply knowledge, understanding and experience to it, it was almost painful how important it was to me that I teach it in the best possible way. By which I mean, making it about more than words on a page. I wanted to bring the issues to life – just as, to be fair, I want to bring any ideas or subjects or issues I teach about to life – but in a way that was respectful of what an overwhelming subject this can be.
I have wondered before and after every session if I was giving students too much information with the potential to upset, where the line was between educating and shocking, how I could balance wanting a happy class with a knowledgeable class. I wondered what might happen if I, having a (thankfully ever increasingly rare) bad day, might process the same statistics that left my class agape, if I had to confront them at a bleak moment.
I was fortunate that Time To Talk Day took place not only during the teaching of this unit but on a day I was delivering a session. After weeks of talking about stigma and how key it is to talk, here was something rock solid. We did a huge chunk of the session around it, tying it back to several previous discussion about stigma. ‘Three little words’ has become something of a class line, if you will. Understanding that saying ‘Are you okay?’ or ‘Cup of tea?’ or ‘Look, I’m here’ can more often than not be infinitely more powerful than paragraphs worth of clichés or ‘Well, what I think you should do is slap on a happy face…’ type comments.
As I near the end of the module, I hope they have learnt many things. I have refrained from self-disclosure about my own history, not through any sense of shame but because I think three hours a week digesting the amount of information they have is probably more than sufficient without any personal extras added. The sad point about that, though, is that I cannot tell them a key truth about what I have learnt over these weeks. I have learnt that perhaps you can’t teach compassion as such but with a little information, people’s natural compassion pours forth. That people’s ‘lack of interest’ about mental health problems is not actually that at all but a lack of awareness about many of the issues and much of the stigma. That some people are quite angry that they never realised what was happening to people and that they perhaps even wonder now how many people they have encountered who had a mental health problem that was invisible to others.
You might ask why, knowing that, I am still keeping up a barrier. There are certain professional guidelines about self-disclosure, true, but I could talk about a ‘friend’. Perhaps it’s that I don’t want that compassion to be directed towards one story, one cause. Perhaps it’s because I realise that there is compassion in abundance for many, many people who need some extra help and I don’t want to funnel it in any direction. I am so grateful to have taught this class, though. I am so grateful to have seen the number of people who do care and would care, even about strangers, if they only had the facts.
We have to keep talking.