The danger of expectation

The danger of expectation

Unfortunately, speaking about mental illness in an online space doesn’t cure you of that mental illness.

Sometimes people ask me to talk about my anxiety in a public forum. I have no anxiety about being the centre of attention or speaking in front of a large crowd, but I am reasonably open about my agoraphobia. And they say, “Can you come and speak to these people 1000km from your house?” And I say, “Well, not really.”

For the most part, the person writing about their mental illness on the internet can’t separate the two spaces. One doesn’t punch out a blog about how dark the world is and then go and have the best time with their mates at the pub. The person behind the piece about coping with mental illness is, in fact, trying to cope with their mental illness.

If this seems obvious, kudos to you.

(I hope this doesn’t apply to me, but I suppose there’s every chance that it could, given that I do go through periods of being quite unpleasant.)

In the past 24 hours, more than one person has made a comment that effectively suggests that people who talk about their mental health issues in their own space (e.g. their blog or social media) should be prepared to step up and give back that support to other people who need it.

Yes, ideally we would all give each other exactly the same level of support and recover from our mental illnesses at the same rate.

The danger is that we are suggesting that if you receive support for a mental health issue, you will be obligated to give back (sometimes proactively) equal or more support to others who are suffering with mental health issues. And therein lies the extraordinary challenge of a supportive community around depression, anxiety and other common mental ailments: sometimes you just can’t. 

By their nature, these kinds of mental illnesses can be solitary, introspective, isolating and alienating. If you are a person who is struggling to keep your own head above water, where is the part of you that has the wherewithal to offer support to someone else? Do we actually want those people to spend the energy they would–and should–be spending on themselves to invest it in someone else’s issue? It would be great if everyone experiencing these kinds of barriers to life could just collect their wits and invest in others going through the same thing, but sometimes you just can’t. The fact that someone has had the guts and motivation to write openly about the issues they are facing does not separate them from the illness that has got hold of them.

If we are people who are empathetic and able to offer support to those who are suffering, and who have had our own issues to cope with and work through, surely we also understand that we are not helping anyone by heaping on our expectation that they will give back? Immediately, if possible?

It is not a game and it is not a competition: if someone you care about is going through a period of difficulty, you offer them as much as you can, however small. If you share your support for people in the hope that you can then get some back then, frankly, you’re not helping at all.

A group of people all experiencing mental health issues sometimes doesn’t have the external strength to be collectively buoyant. And sometimes it does. But the expectation should always be that people will do as much as they are able. If someone is in a pit of despair with no conceivable way out, we should cut them some slack. If someone is in an up cycle and has lucidity and levity in their life, maybe they can go a little extra way. But they don’t have to.

My aim in writing about my own mental illness issues and writing about mental health generally for other publications is to open a dialogue. That’s a dialogue that people take up at their own pace. I am very open about my mental illness and have been for years. Others are just starting to come to terms with even saying it out loud. There are many people who might be sitting on the fence, those who need our (or anyone’s) help but who are not quite ready to ask for it, who we (or others) risk alienating because of their perceived obligation to those who support them.

“I want to talk about how some days I feel like I’m dying, but I don’t think I have the emotional strength right now to even say thank you to everyone who is nice about it, so I guess I won’t talk about it at all.”

Is that what we want?

Putting qualifiers on the support we give to people who are suffering is to the detriment of everyone: those who do a lot, and those who do little. Because we’re all just pushing our own cart as fast as we can, and speaking openly about it doesn’t change that.

8 Comments
  • Rose Wintergreen

    March 5, 2013 at 12:21 pm Reply

    You hit the nail on the head Anna. Great topic, and something that’s been bugging me too.

    I recently had a radio interview (as a singer-songwriter – to talk about my music, shows, upcoming recording project etc.). The hosts had checked out my blog, so knew that I suffer from depression pretty regularly, and that I write fairly openly about it on my blog. They asked me before we were on air if it would be okay to raise that topic in the interview. I said “yes” because, like you, I think if I’m up to talking about it on a given day, I’d like to, to be able to encourage people to discuss it, to seek support if they need it.

    But, it doesn’t mean I’ll always be up to talking about it. It doesn’t mean I have the solutions. And it doesn’t mean I have the energy to “rescue” other people from their mental health challenges. Although I love helping people, work as a coach, and have studied psychology, I chose not to be a psychologist for a reason – I don’t want to be burnt out – and staying on top of my own stuff is enough.

    Real support is volunteered out of a desire to help each other when we can, not out of obligation, or in the hope of racking up karma points.

    • Anna Spargo-Ryan

      March 5, 2013 at 1:44 pm Reply

      Thanks Rose :) I absolutely agree with you – karma points are the wrong reason to help! Expect nothing! Be pleasantly surprised when the love and support is reciprocated if and when the time is right.

  • Sarah

    March 5, 2013 at 1:41 pm Reply

    For a long time all I ever heard was this notion of ‘giving back’ or the american push of ‘paying it forward’. I think that in speaking out about yourself you dont have to then speak out for the wellbeing of others or swoop in with a ‘me too’ to help them feel better. Retelling can retraumatise for some and its not the sum total of people.
    Blogland has been awash with mental health discussion of late – we need to be careful that we dont unintentionally create a code of blog etiquette around the topic. Its too big for that.

    • Anna Spargo-Ryan

      March 5, 2013 at 1:44 pm Reply

      I totally agree with you Sarah – when we start putting rules around blogging about mental health, we give people reasons to think they’re doing it wrong or they shouldn’t be doing it or, worse, they’re not welcome. Please, please, please let’s not do that!

  • Carly Findlay

    March 5, 2013 at 7:27 pm Reply

    While its not mental illness that I have, I can relate to the expectation that I’ll help out others with the same condition that I have. I get emails of desperation from parents of children, and tweets from middle aged people who told me they thought they were the only one in te world with this condition until the Internet came along. Two yeas ago I received an email from a young man (I had never met) with Ichthyosis who hoped I could talk him off the ledge. I couldn’t, I had just come out of a relationship where I talked the man I loved off the ledge a few times. This email mentioned suicide and used condoms in one paragraph, and an expectation I could help, that I knew what he was going through. The truth is, I didn’t know. I gave him advice to contact lifeline and find a dermatologist.
    Sorry for the round about reply, but I think the expectation of a collective community to help those with a condition can be difficult for those just trying to stay afloat. We can’t be everything to everyone.

  • amber

    March 5, 2013 at 10:12 pm Reply

    This is such a timely post for me (how did you know?!).

    I have been ‘in recovery’ from a major depressive episode for the last three years. Now that I have improved somewhat and am able to talk and write about depression with some perspective and without all the shame, I’ve discovered that some people almost prey on my experience, expecting me to give and share at every turn.

    If that sounds a little melodramatic, well… I haven’t been doing particularly well lately.

    I was recently talked into participating in a depression recovery program in my hometown as a group facilitator. The director of the program has grand ideas about how to ‘use me’, but I’m just so exhausted. I am withdrawing from an SNRI, which is, in itself, a daunting experience. But I’m also anaemic, arthritic, fatigued, and trying to make my small business work.

    Last night, before the first seminar, I received the bad news that somebody I knew had passed away under extraordinarily tragic circumstances. Then I had to put on a happy face and fumble my way through a two-hour support program.

    This morning, I could barely get out of bed.

    In my spare time, I research about depression and hope to use the material in the next three years to write an e-book or book about surviving those dark, dark days. I feel like I ‘give back’ by doing the best I can with what I’ve got — just like anybody else who suffers from any other illness or trauma.

    I wish that the obligation part of the equation could be removed.

    Every time that I start to feel better, people seem to avalanche me with a range of responsibilities that I now have to have because I am a survivor of a disease.

    I don’t demand this of anyone else.

    In other words… I heartily agree with what you’ve written here, and I commend you for sharing and helping out in your Anna way. Which is good. And is enough.

    A x

  • Sam Stone

    March 9, 2013 at 4:53 pm Reply

    Lovely post Anna.
    I have suffered from depression and anxiety since my early 20’s and have been seeing a psychiatrist since then….14 years I realised the other day.
    It is only recently that I can talk about it openly.
    When I was first diagnosed I didn’t want to get out of bed or leave the house so talking to others about it and supporting others was certainly out of the question. I was struggling to support myself.
    I have learnt a lot about myself in the last 14 years! however, I still have depressive episodes. I suffered badly from PND after the birth of my first baby 4 years ago. So it never leaves you.

  • Karen

    February 25, 2014 at 9:39 pm Reply

    This was really good to read right now. More than one of us have felt, in the last few days, that we are expected to speak out loud, publicly about mental illness to ‘beat stigma’ but, not so much of a call for ‘non-sufferers’ to be accepting and, do something to fight stigma and, offer their help. A lot can be expected of us in the toughest times when there are others better suited. I do encourage people to talk to me if they are in trouble but it would be nice for non-sufferers to offer as well, rather than telling people to ‘get help’.

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