'Mental Health Awareness' is becoming a popular term, with society shifting towards a more open and accepting stance on mental health. Social media has been a powerful platform for people to be able to share their experiences, learn about mental health conditions, and connect with others online, all behind the security of a screen.
Whilst we have come a long way since the days of repression, inhuman mental asylums, and bizarre and shocking diagnoses and treatments, we still have a long way to go. Shame, fear, anxiety, negative beliefs, and misinformation are just a few of the many roadblocks to openly and comfortably talking about what's going on in our minds and our bodies. The weight of historical baggage still hangs heavy upon our collective unconscious and feeds into our modern-day perception and education around mental health and mental illness. Moreover, we still have so much to learn. Being able to talk about mental health is just the first step towards individual and collective healing, but it's an essential step to take if we want to understand, diagnose, and actually recover from the things that hold us back.
With that in mind, here are 5 reasons why I think it's so important to open up about our human experience.
1. Talking about our mental health allows us to authentically connect with other people, reducing feelings of loneliness and isolation.
The topic of this year's 'Mental Health Awareness Week' was loneliness. On a basic level, talking and connecting with other people is a basic human need. Humans beings are by nature social animals, and need meaningful connections in order to live happy and healthy lives. Talking about what's really going on in our minds, and opening up about what we think and feel, allows us to build a mutual relationship of authenticity, trust and connection with another human being. In many cases of mental illness and trauma, such as depression, anxiety, and PTSD, feelings of trust and interpersonal resonance are obstructed or lost, leaving the individual stuck in a vicious cycle of withdrawal, isolation, loneliness, and worsening mental health.
The reasons for withdrawal and isolation are not always simple. For example, I suffer from c-PTSD and find it extremely difficult to socialise for a number of reasons: (1) my trauma symptoms are easily triggered, and the anxiety that socialising brings makes an episode of dissociation and panic more likely, (2) I don't want to burden other people with my difficulties, therefore I isolate in order to protect others, and (3) being around people that are healthy and happy can be difficult at times, reminding me that I am not always ok and triggering grief for my experiences of mental illness.
As well as the common feeling of loneliness, there is also a deeper form of isolation that comes with many mental health difficulties - the feeling of being alone. This feeling, which accompanies numerous mental health difficulties and trauma, makes one feel somehow 'other', 'different', 'alien', 'abnormal', or perhaps even just 'wrong'. This is perhaps the deepest (psychologically speaking) form of loneliness - the kind that, no matter where you are or who you are with, you somehow feel different and forever separated from others.
Since a very young age, I have always had the feeling that I was somehow different or alien. I never felt that I fit in at school, at home, or even in the world. It was a theme that carried itself throughout my teenage years, when I would throw myself into art, philosophy, alternative music, and slightly obscure interests such as reading books on psychoanalysis at 16 and meditating to analyse my subconscious. Having come a long way towards understanding myself and healing this persistent feeling through therapy, I realise now that these were forms of escapism and dissociation I used to deny my own reality and the painful emotions which came with it. In an attempt to shut out trauma and emotions, and carry on with my life, I would isolate and escape into a bubble of my own making. This is a common coping mechanism used by children who cannot physically escape from a difficult or traumatic situation.
When used long-term, disconnecting from reality becomes less of a choice and more of an involuntary psychological mechanism, developing into symptoms of dissociation, de-realisation and sometimes de-personalisation. At their most extreme, this kind of disconnection from one's experience can develop into psychoses, where a connection with reality is lost. Although the word psychosis (and its oftentimes derogative counterpart 'psychotic') can trigger feelings of fear and discomfort, it is understandable that dissociative symptoms and disorders arise from a mind that disconnects in order to protect itself from reality.
I recognise now that, had I had the opportunity and freedom to connect with my real feelings, and talk about them in a safe environment, my need to dissociate and disconnect would no longer have been necessary. This would likely have saved me from developing quite terrifying c-PTSD symptoms of dissociation, panic attacks and flashbacks which are the delayed results of unrecognised and unprocessed emotions and experiences.
Talking about our emotions and experiences with other people allows us to feel grounded, safe, seen, and heard. These are cornerstones of mental health, which are crucial to both human happiness generally and mental health recovery. When painful emotions and experiences cannot be shared and processed outwardly, they are forced back onto their only possible refuge: oneself.
There is only so much an individual can carry alone; in order to help release the burden of pain and suffering on individuals, we must encourage the natural process of allowing our emotions, thoughts and beliefs to flow outwardly. The human mind, and the cultural-historical baggage it carries, barricades its own content from outward expression in an effort to repress and deny. False information about mental health, which denies the most natural and common experience of intelligent life, leaves us in both individual and collective suffering. The human body knows how to process our experience in the same way it knows how to breathe. It is only when the mind denies its natural right to 'be' that our health suffers the consequences.
2. Sharing our thoughts, feelings and experiences with others allows us to understand ourselves better.
We have already said that human beings are social animals, and this means that our relationships are co-constitutive; we are moulded by the fabric of the socio-historical conditions and the people we are surrounded by.
Psychologically speaking, human beings often act as mirrors to one another - we see ourselves in other people. Our personalities are crafted in the relationships we have to each other and the world. Since humans are relational, social beings, the thoughts and feelings we hold are often only revealed to us through interaction with other people. This is why therapy can be so illuminating and shocking; aspects of ourselves and other people are suddenly revealed to us in the process of opening up in conversation. How many problems, worries or difficulties are resolved through the simple act of talking through our thoughts and emotions with a friend?
Talking about mental health is a mutually beneficial act. When both parties are open, honest and sensitive, it is possible to explore, understand, and heal from experiences we thought we had left behind us. Sometimes the weight we carry becomes invisible to us due to the simple fact that we had gotten so used to carrying it. But when we talk with someone about our pain, our grief, or our worry, we find that something hidden seeps to the surface and looks for an outlet. Not only do we connect with other people in an authentic and meaningful way, strengthening the bond of trust and mutual respect, but we also connect with ourselves, grasping a new perspective on our experience and reshaping its interpretation and meaning.
When mental health experience is shared with compassion, sensitivity, and honesty, deep healing can be achieved. That is not to say that sharing our difficulties should always involve the disintegration of boundaries: it is always ok to assert your limits, and likewise, we must always respect when others assert their boundaries with us. There is a difference between talking with a friend and talking with a trained therapist or counsellor. With a friend or family member, the interaction is reciprocal, and one should always be respectful of the other's boundaries. With a mental health professional or advisor, the focus of the interaction is on you, meaning that you have no responsibility to offer personal advice or guidance the other way (therapy is a safe space to share whatever you wish with a professional who is there with the specific intention to listen to you, helping to process and re-interpret your emotions and beliefs).
CBT (cognitive-behavioural therapy) was an indispensable part of my healing which allowed me to uncover deeply repressed content from younger versions of myself. The power of feeling safe and validated in a space specifically designed to allow your body and mind to release their emotional content is truly amazing. Of course, therapy isn't easy - digging up the past and re-feeling or re-experiencing emotions and events that were too painful to manage in the first place is challenging to say the least, but certainly worth it for a lifetime of feeling safe, healthy, and happy.
Talking about our mental health is a huge step, not only towards healing from our buried wounds, but also towards understanding and building strong and compassionate relationships with ourselves and others.
3. Opening up about our mental health allows healing to take place.
Talking about our emotions, thoughts, and experiences is so much more than just talking - it's processing, letting go of the heavy and oftentimes unbearable weight which encumbers us.
Experts in mental health are beginning to recognise the important role of the body in the healing of trauma and other mental health issues rooted in traumatic or painful life experiences. There is so much to be said for releasing, letting go, or processing experiences and emotions in the recovery from mental illness.
In therapy, buried emotions and mental content are brought up from the depths of the body and released. Anyone who has committed to therapy, meditation, yoga, or body-based therapeutic approaches such as TRE (trauma-releasing exercises) will know the very physical sensation of the body letting go. One feels like a weight is lifted. In CBT therapy, I remember feeling shocked at just how powerful the physical experience of releasing repressed trauma was. When I finally spoke the words of my experience, recounting a repressed memory, I felt a great 'whooshing' weight lift straight off my chest. I think I actually laughed a little at the sensation, which I could only describe as an elephant being lifted off my chest.
Mental health is deeply rooted in the body, and just by talking and connecting both physically and mentally with another human being, we can let out some of those long-buried emotions. Most of the time, we don't even know what emotions are buried. Trauma and painful life experiences do not simply disappear when they are ignored or repressed; they always show up in our lives in other painful ways, whether that be in the form of physical pain, toxic relationships or unhealthy behavioural habits. Our repressed emotional baggage seeps unnoticed into the deepest recesses of our being, negatively impacting all areas of our lives.
When left unprocessed, the weight of painful emotions and trauma is passed from one generation to the next, building into a cumulative effect (I will discuss intergenerational trauma in section 5). This is why talking is important. Without talking about mental health, there is only repression and denial - a vicious cycle of buried pain which grows and trickles down into every aspect of one's life. Insofar as it is necessary to eat healthily, exercise, and get sufficient sleep for a healthy life, it is necessary to get in touch with the content of our minds, talk about our emotions and share our human experiences, in order to lead a full and happy life, creating a safe environment for ourselves and the generations to come.
4. Breaking the stigma around mental health reduces negative thoughts, feelings and beliefs about our experiences.
Those who suffer from mental health difficulties are not only weighed down by their own negative thoughts and emotions, but also by the weight of the collective mentality surrounding mental health. For example, here are just a few of the emotions which accompany depression (as well as a number of many other mental health issues):
Fear and anxiety
On an individual scale, there is often no shortage of negative thoughts and feelings which accompany mental health issues. The same is true on a collective scale. The stigma around mental health means that any individual born into our society is affected by a number of negative emotions and beliefs which act as roadblocks when it comes to talking about how we feel. For example:
Collective shame around being mentally ill, crying in public, being 'overly emotional', etc.
Collective fear and anxiety around having a mental illness or others having a mental illness
The collective belief that sensitivity is a weakness
The collective belief that 'strong' men shouldn't show their emotions
Perhaps the most crippling emotions, both individually and collectively, are shame and fear. These emotions prevent people from talking about how they feel, and therefore prevent them from getting the help and support they need.
Once upon a time, people were ostracised or locked away in asylums for suffering from their thoughts and emotions. Collectively, we believed people were simply 'mad', under a spell, or possessed by evil spirits, and therefore dangerous and a risk to society. Those suffering were swept under the rug, pulled out of sight, and deemed 'unhealthy', 'unsafe' and a danger to both themselves and society.
With today's knowledge, it is shocking to witness the insensitivity and fatal misunderstandings of our history. It is no surprise that today, we collectively feel a large amount of negative emotional and mental content surrounding the topic of mental health. The process of uncovering the truth is underway, but in the same way that individually one seeks therapy to open up to one's own emotions, and process the past, collectively we must recognise the traumatic events, misinformation, and false beliefs which have brought us to this point.
Breaking the stigma around mental health means healing from our socio-historical shame, guilt, fear and confusion. Perhaps one day, when mental health difficulties are no longer feared or demonised, but accepted as a natural part of human life subject to pain, trauma and grief, then it will be a little easier for those struggling to live with their challenges, knowing that they aren't the 'sick', 'dangerous', 'feared' mental patients history tells them that they are.
Healing the collective mind by processing our societal traumas and misunderstandings, and replacing them with sensitivity, acceptance, and knowledge, is a huge step towards healing the individual - and it all begins with confronting our fear to open up.
5. Opening up about our experience lays the foundations for future generations to live in a happier, healthier and more accepting society.
Talking about our mental health isn't just beneficial for us today. It's a crucial step towards leaving a safe, accepting, and sensitive society for our children to grow up in. As we have already said, if left unprocessed the weight of emotions, negative thoughts and beliefs, and traumatic experiences, don't just disappear. We need to heal from our wounds in order that our children aren't made to suffer from them through our subconscious patterns of parenting and educating. The way we raise our children, the way we speak to them, nurture them, and teach them, will be the way we were spoken to, nurtured and taught (unless we do the work to disentangle truth from lies).
If we were told (directly or indirectly) to be silent, to not feel our emotions, and to keep our worries to ourselves, will breed another generation that does the same. Self-awareness, insight, and knowledge are bred through disconnecting from our collective-cultural upbringing and deconstructing the false information we were told. Growing up and becoming who you are is about undoing inter-generational patterns and disentangling from everything you are not. Healing is hard work, and healing from generations of hurt is even harder; but I believe it is our responsibility as individuals and as a society to do the work (as best we can) to set the foundations for a healthier and happier future, a future that rejects repression, misinformation, and false beliefs, in favour of acceptance, truth, honesty and freedom of expression.
Talking about your mental health is so much more than just talking. It's a step towards creating a better future for our children. Breaking the stigma of mental health and mental illness means laying the foundations for a society free from shame and fear, and accepting of the human experience in all shades of emotion.
Thanks for reading!
Rebecca Garrard is a Resource Development Executive for the Youth Mental Health Foundation and has her own blog and website here: https://www.rebeccagarrard.com/