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.