I was in my early 20s when I first felt the need to get help for my mental health. As I began to learn more about why I felt how I felt, and how to help myself, I realised that my journey was going to be a lonely one because those closest to me did not understand what it meant to have a mental health concern.
Almost a decade later, much has changed and much hasn’t. There are more conversations surrounding mental health and more empathy, but a lot of us still don’t know how to reach out to and truly be there for people who have certain mental health concerns or psychological vulnerabilities.
As a consequence, those with mental health concerns still face stigma and find themselves isolated, being unable to speak about their feelings to even closest friends or family. This sense of isolation has only increased with the social distancing enforced by the coronavirus pandemic.
Huffpost India spoke to experts to find out what makes it so difficult for people to speak out, and how we can, in these dark times, help those who could do with a good heart-to-heart with a friend.
No space for vulnerability?
For those of us who experience mental health concerns, it’s often even difficult to explain to our closest friends about how we’re feeling. Mumbai-based psychotherapist and counsellor Rhea Gandhi told Huffpost India, that often, most relationships don’t give space to vulnerable conversations.
“People are unable to generally talk about it because the feelings are so overwhelming, there is a lot of stigma, and friendship groups don’t necessarily allow for vulnerable conversations, they allow for fun and gossip but not necessarily vulnerability,” Gandhi said.
Even in 2020, those with mental health concerns are perceived as being “weak” or “dramatic” by some. Often, when someone says they are feeling anxious, the general advice is “don’t worry” or “everything will be fine”.
But that’s not how psychological distress works. Having their feelings dismissed constantly or not having a safe space to share their thoughts and feelings can compel people to stop talking about their concerns at all.
Delhi-based psychologist Ruchika Kanwal said that scepticism from family and friends stops people from speaking up.
“Most people still think alcohol dependence is about poor self-control and moral weakness rather than seeing it as a disease,” Kanwal said. “Some clients have mentioned their families think depression can be dealt with by having positive thoughts and doing things that make you happy. In my experience, taking mental illness symptoms lightly especially by the family, makes the conversation around it difficult.”
Not only a dismissive attitude, but rationalising mental health concerns as just a “passing phase” can also be discouraging. Many are made to believe that how they feel likely isn’t even a symptom of a mental health concern.
Tanya Vasunia, a Mumbai-based psychologist told Huffpost India over email that minimising people’s experiences can do more harm than good.
“Symptoms of anxiety and depression are over-simplified and labelled as stress and highly sensitive. It continues to surprise me as how many individuals truly believed or hoped that their low mood was due to a thyroid concern or low vitamin D,” Vasunia said.
To be sure, thyroid problems have a role to play in one’s mental health and wellness, but seeking medical help for a thyroid condition is not a substitute for therapy.
Such circumstances make it difficult for one to speak about the complex feelings — like suicidal thoughts or self-harm — when sometimes we ourselves do not understand the full extent of what we’re feeling. However, Kanwal said that things are changing and people are opening up more and more.
“Clients do feel hesitant to talk about their mental health condition. But the trend is changing. People are opening up about their mental health condition. Even adolescents are coming out and talking about things they are concerned about,” Kanwal said.
There are times when we share our emotional pain with our loved ones, they too become overwhelmed. Vasunia said, “No one likes being the person who isn’t doing great.”
Shame, guilt and the fear of hurting others can also cause much stress and anxiety.