The image above appeared on my Facebook newsfeed last month. And I thought – YES! Finally, someone has had the courage to vocalise what I have long been thinking!
I have battled with depression and anxiety most of my life, and know too many people who have lost a loved one to suicide, so I can honestly say that those statuses you copy and paste do nothing to help those who are struggling with depression and thoughts of suicide.
They are just an insincere way for you to feel like you’ve done something helpful, without doing anything of substance to actually help.
In today’s technology-reliant and socially-conscious society, every medical or ethical cause has its own designated international awareness day. Although these days were founded with the noble premise of educating the general public about medical or ethical causes of which they might not otherwise be aware, they are insulting to those who live the medical or ethical struggle everyday.
For a woman experiencing domestic violence, the blows from her partner don’t cease on November 25 (International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women); for a family with a child on the autism spectrum, April 2nd (World Autism Awareness Day) can’t be a day of “celebration” in case in disrupts the autistic child’s routine.
And R U Okay Day (the second Thursday of September) is particularly dangerous because it perpetuates the stigma that those suffering from depression exert enough control over their condition to reach out for the help they need.
By its very definition, a mental illness affects the way the afflicted individual behaves, feels, thinks and perceives their surroundings.
“People who are depressed and sad don’t have the energy to seek you out.”
Depression and fatigue go hand in hand. This is primarily caused by disrupted or excessive sleeping patterns, poor nutritional intake and chemical imbalances in the brain, all of which effects energy levels.
Some days, a person struggling with depression can barely get out of bed to have a shower. What precious little energy they do have goes towards any major responsibilities such as children or work.
When someone with depression reaches out for help, they’re depleting their shallow energy resources by explaining how they’re feeling, why they feel that way, what they think they can do to feel better, what you can do to help them feel better… and if they are having trouble putting their emotions into words, this can be twice as draining.
If you’re concerned about a loved one’s mental wellbeing, you need to seek them out. Ask what you can do for them. It could be that they don’t even want to talk about how they’re feeling; they might want you to distract them by going for a coffee and talking about “normal” things.
If they do choose to talk about how they’re feeling, always listen without questions and without judgement (see below), and be aware that they may be all over the place because they are trying to maintain pace with their own thoughts, emotions and demons.
“They aren’t going to seek out comfort.”
Usually, those suffering from depression don’t realise how much the condition is impacting upon their lives, or they believe their depression isn’t “severe” enough to warrant help.
Or perhaps, they feel like they don’t deserve to be comforted. They may believe that due to a past life mistake or some perceived personality fault, they actually deserve the pain they’re enduring. Multiple studies have indicated that low self esteem causes depression, and not the other way around; therefore, if a person with depression already had low self esteem, they’re at an increased risk of remaining in that depressive state.
Unless you’re usually a “comfort zone” for your loved one, somewhere they can go to receive a positive reflection of themselves, I’m sorry to say but they aren’t going to seek out your counsel or your comfort. It’s nothing personal, you probably have the best intentions; it’s just that your loved one needs a cheer squad that knows their strongest anthems and can remind them of the words.
“They are afraid that they will be met with rejection.”
Despite how progressive our society has become, there is still a stigma attached to depression and suicide. Too often, someone with a mental illness is labelled ‘dangerous’ or ‘crazy’ rather than unwell; and those who attempt or commit suicide are called ‘selfish’, ‘cowardly’, or ‘attention seeking’.
These harmful stereotypes are a form of victim-blaming. The fact is, someone with a mental illness is more likely to be a victim of violence rather than a perpetrator; someone who attempts or commits suicide isn’t seeking your attention, but a way to end their overwhelming pain.
Don’t copy and paste another impersonal status to declare your affinity with the mentally ill – use that time instead to educate yourself about the condition that affects your loved one. Educate yourself so that you can dispel myths and display your support in a more personal and effective way.
“They are afraid they will be eschewed by your busy lives.”
Given that their own busy lives may be causing or exasperating their condition, those affected by depression are acutely aware of how precious time and energy are and as a result, they fear appearing selfish by asking you to make the time and energy for them.
Also, because people with low self esteem are at higher risk of depression, it’s likely they feel unworthy of your attention.
If you are able, schedule regular quality time with your loved one. Include them in your life where you can but don’t push them to be social if they don’t feel up to it. No one likes to feel like a burden on others, so make it clear to your struggling loved one that they are anything but.
“They have been told no one likes to be around negativity. Laugh and the world laughs with you; cry and you cry alone.”
How many affirmations or inspirational quotes saturate your social media newsfeed on a daily basis? You may guilty of sharing a few yourself – I know that I have my favourites (“Get busy living, or get busy dying” – Stephen King, for example).
Unfortunately, like the awareness days, this in-your-face positivity is counterproductive. Research suggests that unreasonably positive self-statements can provoke contradictory thoughts in individuals with low self-esteem; not merely stubborn cognitive resistance, but an aggressive reinforcing of negative self-perception.
Additionally, it is another form of victim-blaming. These quotes and affirmations perpetuate the stigma that depression is caused only by a fixed mindset. We don’t tell a cancer patient to look on the bright side of life, and expect our sentiment to “cure” their illness.
Positive affirmations can be helpful – when they are part of a broader program of intervention. But because our society is uncomfortable with anything unpleasant, we unconsciously advocate for people to move through their sad feelings as quickly as possible.
Crying is known to have numerous health benefits, such as stimulating endorphins and shedding toxins that build up in the body during times of stress, so don’t try to stem your loved one’s tears. Just be handy with some tissues and chocolate.
“They don’t want to burden you with their sadness.”
Those struggling with mental illness usually feel guilt over their condition (or their inability to control it, to be more precise), and fear of disappointing and inconveniencing their loved ones. So they will often isolate themselves from their loved ones away in order to protect them from the ugly reality of their condition.
This is when it’s the most important for you to be compassionate, and reassuring.
Because – and I cannot stress this enough – those who attempt or successfully commit suicide don’t openly admit to their plans.
Often, they outwardly appear to have made peace with any previous life stresses, even making seemingly genuine plans for their future such as planning a holiday or purchasing a new car. Or the suicide is a sudden reaction to an unexpected and overwhelming life change, in which case, loved ones left behind had absolutely no warning that it was coming.
So although the aim of R U Okay Day is to create a conversation about suicide, the devastating reality is that those struggling are not willing to speak up due to the stigma still attached to mental illness.
Depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide; in Australia alone, it’s estimated that 45 per cent of the population will experience a mental health condition in their lifetime. Which means that if you haven’t been touched by depression, someone you love has or will be. Maybe your lover, your sister, your father, your son or daughter.
Surely we owe them more than the thirty seconds it takes to copy and paste a phrase that has basically evolved into a slogan for impassiveness?
If you are struggling with depression, anxiety, or any form of mental illness, please contact one of the mental health services below:
Lifeline Australia: 13 11 14
Beyond Blue Australia: 1800 010 630
MensLine Australia: 1300 78 99 78
Relationships Australia: 1300 364 277
Kids Helpline Australia: 1800 55 1800
© Tara Jenkinson 2017