After a recent increase in dialogue on mental health, Jen Bowey argues that the next necessary step must be to open up about our problems while they’re actually happening.
In recent years, particularly with the aid of social media sites like twitter, we have seen an unprecedented rise in the number of people speaking out about their mental health. Now, at the tap of a button, we are able to see people of all demographics open up about personal struggles that, in years gone by, would have most likely been swept under the carpet at the expense of people’s sanity. The result of such widespread emotional repression is all too familiar to a large portion of the student community. Students are reaching crisis point, self-harming and attempting suicide at alarming rates that student mental health services are simply unable to cope with.
Speaking out about these issues is indisputably a movement in the right direction. It helps begin the process of normalising them in a society that has historically treated mental health problems as something to be ashamed of. People struggling with mental illness are no longer considered a small percentage of lost causes within our society; we now know that they are our friends, our family members and our colleagues. Mental illness pervades every facet of society, and denying that only facilitates the survival of ignorance and silent trauma.
So, how do we progress from here? Now that we have broken our silence on mental health, it would be foolish to think that the battle has been fought and won when mental health statistics and hospital admissions figures continue to indicate the contrary.
Perhaps social media, and our tendency to only post a highlight reel of our lives, is partly to blame. Currently the discourse I see online is very much focused on mental illness from the perspective of recovery. This is perhaps because people only begin to feel confident enough to discuss their illness when they are no longer in the throes of it. Unfortunately, this has created a dialogue that focuses on the aftermath of the problem. Even more dangerously, it also presents ‘recovery’ as an end goal for those of us with mental illness to eventually achieve, rather than as a dynamic state that demands constant effort to maintain and that is often characterised by crushing setbacks. Words like ‘relapse’ and ‘recovery’ perpetuate the idea that mental health exists in definitive states and that you are either in one or another at any given time. The reality is that recovery is hardly ever linear.
I often see people tweet about how they have struggled with an eating disorder or depression and managed to graduate with a first class degree. Achievements like this are absolutely something to be proud of, however, when this is pretty much the only kind of public dialogue about mental health you are exposed to it is blatant to see how it could be unhelpful to somebody at their lowest ebb. There is, of course, another type of mental health discourse that cannot go unmentioned: relatable, ‘I want to die’ content on social media. It seems harmless enough and a lot of the time joking about our problems feels like the only way to ventilate them at all, which further proves the necessity to develop our communication skills on the matter.
As with any movement, powerful figures and people with a platform and large audiences often have to be the first people to make waves in a situation like this. Somebody who has never shied away from being candid about her struggle with mental illness is pop star Demi Lovato, who was recently rushed to hospital for a drug overdose after six years of sobriety. Lovato has opened up in numerous interviews about her experience of eating disorders, self-harm and substance abuse, even admitting to having been high on cocaine during previous interviews. Her radical honesty serves only to destigmatise mental illness and addiction which, despite undeniable progress, is still shrouded with a culture of shame and judgement in 2018. I imagine I am not the only one who has been told not to give spare change to homeless people because ‘they’ll just spend it on drugs’ or that ‘junkies’ shouldn’t receive benefits. It is vital that we not only display our support for Lovato at this difficult time, but that we also display our gratitude for her bravery to speak out about a topic that could leave her a target for torment and ridicule by the press, much in the way singer Amy Winehouse was before her untimely death due to substance abuse.
Lovato’s recent track Sober, which details her breaking sobriety after six years and was released mere weeks before her recent overdose, epitomises the type of conversation we need to be having more of if we want to further the mental health conversation. Joking about mental health online only serves a purpose up until a point, and in some cases trivialises serious mental illness. Discussing one’s mental health after crisis point demonstrates bravery and is, largely, what kick started modern conversations about mental health. We are, however, now at a point where the next, and potentially most difficult, step is to discuss our problems while they are happening. It can’t be easy to bare your soul when you’re at rock bottom like Demi Lovato has done, but if more of us take steps to speak out in our times of need perhaps, eventually, reaching out for help won’t seem like such an impossible task for so many.