I noticed that it was Mental Health Awareness Week while poking around online the other day. It’s been hard not to notice, in fact. That in itself, I believe, is amazing progress. I remember when I was writing my book about grief in 2013, I had a conversation with my editor about whether or not I should include a passage on depression. Looking back now, it was such a huge part of my ‘grief story’ – one that I was otherwise offering with such unashamed and unreserved openness – and yet I felt nervous about how I might be judged. Was I really depressed? Was I depressed enough? Was it latent or consequential? Would it last? Would I seem weak?
In the end, I decided that the most important parts of this autobiographical tale were the ones that I felt the most uncomfortable about sharing. They were the things that other people might need to hear: the words that could potentially make others feel like they weren’t the only ones unable to get out of bed, tales of falling out with loved ones, channeling anger at all the wrong things.
Six years on and the world looks like a very different place to me. Social media – whilst sometimes toxic – has presented itself as an amazing forum for empathy and understanding; online, everyone can find someone going through something similar. But the wildfire-spread of messages and the transience of news has the potential to make things appear fashionable. Some of us – including me – sometimes fear speaking out in case we might appear to be jumping on a bandwagon.
Reflecting upon my own candour, however, I now realise that we don’t need to present ourselves publicly to be present with who we are. I chose to at first, but what I eventually learned was that it was the act of writing for myself – not publishing to the world – that made me feel more able to cope. Transferring words from mind to page was the principle form of therapy I needed – that I’m aware I still need – to remain mentally agile. It was all about articulating things. Some of us need to talk out loud, some chat online; some paint their thoughts and some draw. Others need silence and stillness to allow their minds to formulate thoughts to themselves that otherwise have no order when their lives present chaos. Many of us haven’t worked out what works for us yet. For some, just like physical health and fitness, it’s never addressed.
I learned for myself that sometimes what feels like the hardest thing to do is to speak out – be it to another individual you trust, someone you’ve never met before, or an undefined and unlimited audience online. But actually, the even harder thing to do is live with it all bottled up inside – growing, festering, always spinning itself into longer thread until it feels like there’s no more space inside your skull. A pressure that builds and ultimately needs to be released.
There’s a lot being said about listening this week. And yet to be heard, we need to say something. That’s the first step. To articulate something to someone through whatever means we feel able. And this not a fad – human beings, after all, were communicating with one another long before they could even talk.
I can say from experience that I regret more of the time I’ve wasted overthinking and keeping things to myself than I have ever regretted the eventual airing of the thoughts that tortured me. It’s almost always better out than in.
What I realise looking back over the last few years, is that there has never been a better time to just say it – whatever ‘it’ is and however we choose to get it across. Sometimes sharing the most difficult things we can ever imagine having to share is the best way to move forward. And in a modern world that, on the one hand, makes it easy for anyone to be a critic, there will always be someone out there, on the other, who will empathise enough not to be inclined to judge.