The topic of mental health is one that has long been important to me. As someone who regularly struggles with his brain deciding to act out in ways which don’t appear to make any sense, as well as a family history of a wealth of different mental health issues, I find it a topic which crops up in my thinking all too often.
Obviously, the biggest concern many have when it comes to the topic of mental health, is about those who choose to take their own lives because of their struggles against their own minds. This is huge, for sure. Although I’ve been lucky enough to not lose any close loved ones due to such a tragic event, there have been too many times in which loved ones have made the attempt, only to (fortunately) fail at the endeavor.
Due to my loved ones failures in their fatal efforts, many of them have wound up in what appears to be a better place. They’ve been forced into treatment, finally getting that attention to their mental health they so deeply needed. But for those of us who haven’t gone so far as to try to make an exit from our own lives, well, a lot of us need a pretty hefty shove to get to the point where we actually seek out help.
The WASP-y nature of our culture means that it’s not acceptable to show our emotions in society. It’s not acceptable to show weakness, or anything less than being awesome. For a culture who has a custom of asking each other how we’re doing, we’re exceptionally good at not expecting a real answer.
I mean, I know why we don’t get real answers. It’s because it feels like no one really wants to know how we’re doing. Besides, the idea of burdening someone else with the truth that you’re currently spiraling into a deep dark pit of despair and can’t find happiness with any of the things that used to bring you joy, well, that feels like it’s a bit much to tell the gas station attendant at eight in the morning.
I suppose that’s why we don’t really expect a real answer when we ask that standard greeting as well. Because who wants to open up with their current distresses when you wish they would all just go away. And who even has the time to sit and unleash a torrent of the items that are currently stressing them out in your life. And really, how does one express of being in a state of ennui which doesn’t feel like it has any particular cause, but just sits there, hovering over us like some sort of dark demon devouring our very happiness.
Honestly, this is probably the number one reason therapy can be so helpful for those who have mental struggles. While good therapists will give their patients the tools and coping mechanisms to aid their mental health, the picture of the patient on the couch simply talking about their life is such a strong one because of how important it is to simply have a time in which we talk through all the things in our life, and maybe find out if any of them are the reason we’re in this place, or perhaps find something which makes us feel a little bit better about things.
There is at least a small portion of the mental health crisis which comes about due to us holding our emotions inside, so the world can’t see what’s troubling us, because we have to appear strong at all times. Showing weakness isn’t an option. For the few times I’ve actually made it to a therapist, and gained a pretty good relationship with the professional I was talking about my life to, I found myself on a number of occasions backing off from talking about things as I started to feel the emotions well up. So, even in the moment where I’m actively working to try to find the things that cause me the most trouble, I had to hide from them because I didn’t want to feel weak by bringing myself to tears.
As a parent, I find myself struggling with this exact issue all too often. My kids, well, two of them anyways, absolutely refuse to let anyone see their weakness. One of them will bury their head in a pillow if even a single tear pops out and will grin and bear through it until they’re able to get it to pass. The other has gained my amazing ability to take on a strong stoic gaze, refusing to even show the weakness of having to hide their pain, but, instead, becoming purely emotionless.
It’s difficult as a parent to see your children go through any sort of pain. But when it’s physical pain, there are usually some indicators available to help you identify at least a part of what’s causing the pain. If they’re bleeding from their knees, it’s a good possibility that they fell off their bike again and skinned them. Even internal issues, like intense abdominal pain can be diagnosed with a few simple questions like where the pain is coming from.
But also, in those moments, we’re all a bit more willing to show weakness, right? If we have a headache, we will straight up tell people we have a headache and that’s why we’re not necessarily acting like ourselves.
But when we’re struggling with depression or anxiety or any of the wealth of mental illnesses we struggle with, we will absolutely refuse to open up, even to our closest friends and family. My wife and I managed to come up with a bit of a short hand for each other to let the other know that we’re in a bit of an off mental state, which is usually to simply say, “Hey, I’m feeling off today.” Because, really, that’s kinda what its like. When you suffer from mental illness, you don’t necessarily even know what’s up. But you probably know something’s not right.
And I think this is probably the most important first step toward getting a better grasp of mental health, is simply having a better language about it. When we talk about being mentally ill, it has such terrible implications. While you’re just wanting to admit that you’re feeling off, others could take it to mean that you should be locked up in a psych ward somewhere.
And this becomes even more important with our kids. Because our kids learn how to express themselves through us, and so if they see us grinning and bearing through the pain of an episode of our mental illness du jour, they’ll be even more likely to do the same, instead of simply coming out and saying the thing you already know you should be saying, which is: Something feels off about me and I don’t know why.
I’ve been terrible at this…but I hope to get better. Mostly so my kids can get better at it as well. This morning, one of my kids told me that they had never seen me cry. As someone who struggles often with feelings of despair, he’s certainly seen me in a sad state, but apparently never quite to tears. And while I guess I don’t feel like it’s important for them to see me cry, the implication of him bringing this up (seemingly out of nowhere), means that somewhere inside his own mind, he feels its important to not let anyone see him cry. Which is made evident by the way he hides whenever he has a tearful reaction to anything. Which also probably means that letting him see me cry might help him become slightly more emotionally healthy, instead of feeling like he has to push all those emotions down inside himself.
Maybe. Who knows? Parenting’s a whole lot of experimenting and hoping what you do works out in the long run, isn’t it?