From the outside looking in; living around mental health

Guest blog by Ed Syers

I’m lucky. I read articles about mental health, on this blog and elsewhere, without ever having a full understanding of it.

I’m lucky because, in a country where one quarter of its population experience mental health problems, I’m not one of them.

That leaves three quarters of us ignorantly and idly strolling past the injured minority, right?

It feels like reality, quite harshly, dictates that people who don’t suffer from mental health problems are therefore completely unaffected by it. If one in four people suffer, that leaves three quarters of us ignorantly and idly strolling past the injured minority, right?

Well, no. At some point, everyone hits that George Bailey moment where they realise their lives are interconnected with those around them. So just because people don’t suffer, doesn’t mean people don’t suffer.

The suffering is, of course, incomparable. It’s not a crippling depression, rather a crippling concern. It’s not a blissful ignorance, it’s a desperately confusing ignorance.

My mother being admitted to hospital meant long months without, well, any mothering.

I started experiencing mental health problems in my family while I was too young to understand it. My mother being admitted to hospital meant long months without, well, any mothering. Constant takeaways. Dishes piling up. Late night television binges. Nothing a 14-year-old couldn’t handle.

But there was one thing I struggled with. The not knowing.

When we say “it’s okay to talk” it normally, and rightly, refers to the victim’s need to unload some weight from their shoulders and “break the stigma.” But the benefits of talking go beyond that.

I had no real clue what was happening with my mum, because I wasn’t really told and I didn’t really ask. The conversation didn’t exist. It meant sleepless nights, it meant constantly being unsettled. It’s not a patch on what my mum went through, but it’s my own little slice of suffering.

It was borne out of ignorance. And ignorance kicked in again when my mum attempted suicide eight years later.

I couldn’t understand why she’d want to leave us.

I was annoyed at her. And that sounds awful. But remember that thing I mentioned earlier about never having a full understanding of mental health? Well I couldn’t understand why she’d want to leave us. I couldn’t understand why go through so much effort, and pain, to do so.

I feel guilty for feeling so selfish, but the months that followed taught me a valuable lesson on the subject of mental illness.

Understanding it can be like knowing first aid. We don’t need to be doctors or surgeons.

Understanding it can be like knowing first aid. We don’t need to be doctors or surgeons. We just need to be ready to support whenever we’re needed. That’s not easy, but it’s a hell of a lot easier than suffering it directly, isn’t it? So it’s the least we should do.

I accept that I’ll never fully understand mental health until I experience it directly. Unlike a broken leg, mental illnesses can bend the rules and defy logic. It’s the quantum physics of the medical world. I may not be able to solve the equation, but I can support the people who can.

And that, in a way, is what sets mental health problems apart from the rest: there’s no visible scar to wince at. No bruise to poke and no cast to sign. We, the ‘unaffected’, can’t engage, comment or sympathise properly because there’s often nothing to see.

Unless you talk.

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