Years ago a good friend of mine – let’s call him Trevor – crossed the road to avoid our mate, Phil. Phil was going through a rough patch at the time and Trevor wasn’t in the headspace to talk to him. In fact, it was more than just a rough patch. Phil had bipolar and schizoaffective disorder – a debilitating illness which affected almost every aspect of his life – and because of the stigma and misunderstanding attached to serious mental illness, it made Trevor feel uncomfortable. It was easier for Trevor to pretend he hadn’t seen Phil, than risk having a potentially awkward conversation with him.
Unfortunately, not long afterwards, Phil took his own life. And although it wasn’t related to Trevor’s actions, Trevor has never forgiven himself for crossing the road that day. Having gained a better understanding of how isolating a mental illness can be, he regrets not having been there for his friend. We both reminisce about Phil when we catch up, and do what we can to champion mental health in his honour.
An invisible illness
Phil was one of my closest friends in high school, and we remained close long after graduation. He was one of the most good natured, friendly, fun-to-be-around guys and we always had a laugh when we caught up. He was smart, good looking, and very athletic with a particularly keen interest in cricket. From the outside looking in, Phil had everything going for him; his future couldn’t have looked brighter.
But you can never really know what’s going on in someone’s personal life – especially if they choose not to tell you about it. Phil was diagnosed with his condition in his late teens, and yet he managed to hide it from his friends until his early 20s. It wasn’t until years later we realised that all those times he’d told us he was away travelling or spending summers fruit picking, he had actually been undergoing intensive mental health treatment.
Unlike a broken leg or other visible physical injury, we couldn’t see what was going on with Phil. He chose not to tell his best mates that he was battling a psychotic illness, because he was afraid of what we might think. The stigma attached to mental illness meant that Phil – and countless others like him – opted to suffer his condition in silence rather than risk being ostracised.
The problem with not talking
Societal norms tell us to say that you’re ok when someone asks. But what happens if someone says they’re not ok? Many of us aren’t prepared for a negative response, so to avoid being caught up in an awkward conversation, people tend to avoid asking altogether.
“But what happens if someone says they’re not ok? Many of us aren’t prepared for a negative response, so to avoid being caught up in an awkward conversation, people tend to avoid asking altogether.”
But the problem is, by not engaging with people, we’re contributing to the problem. Being too scared to talk to people about their mental health leaves too many things unsaid. If a work colleague came to work with their leg in a cast walking on crutches, the whole office would surround them to get the juicy details of their accident. But if a work colleague returned to work after a mental breakdown, it’s likely their colleagues would have trouble looking them in the eye.
Mental illness is the elephant in the room that no one wants to talk about. And for people suffering a mental illness, this silence compounds the problem. Not only are they dealing with their own personal – and sometimes frightening – health issues, they’re also feeling external societal pressure to keep those issues to themselves.
It’s a catch-22 – people feel isolated due to their condition, but that isolation can sometimes make their condition worse. We all have a responsibility to reach out to those around us; to make connections every day that help prevent people from feeling isolated, whenever possible.
“It’s a catch-22 – people feel isolated due to their condition, but that isolation can sometimes make their condition worse. We all have a responsibility to reach out to those around us; to make connections every day that help prevent people from feeling isolated, whenever possible.”
Just strike up a conversation
As much as I love the idea behind RUOK? Day, asking someone if they’re ok isn’t always as easy as it sounds; especially in situations where the response will might not be ‘yes’. Personally, I think that simply striking up a conversation is a far easier way to break the ice. This can be as banal as making comments about the weather to strangers, to going out of your way to have conversations with people you don’t normally speak to. It might seem strange at first to just start chatting to people, but the more you practice the easier it becomes (trust me - I now chat to strangers all the time!).
The most important thing is to not be afraid to speak to people who you know have been having a hard time. Asking if they’re ok might feel too personal, but this shouldn’t prevent you from speaking to them altogether. You don’t need to have a deep and meaningful conversation – you can just ask them about their weekend. Ask them about what they’re eating for lunch. Or even better, make an effort to find out what they’re into and ask them to tell you about that – getting someone to talk about their hobbies or passions makes their whole face light up; and it might even help get their mind off their troubles for a minute.
For people who are isolated, spending most of their time alone can result in them losing their frame of reference. Phil would sometimes ask me, ‘Do I seem normal today?’, because he had lost the ability to judge for himself. He relied on having conversations with friends and family to help regain a sense of his place in the world.
Make no mistake – talking to someone isn’t going to cure their illness. But reaching out and having conversations can help people feel less alone. And for me, if I can make one person feel less alone, it’s worth having a thousand potentially awkward conversations.
The dark angel is beckoned when the lowest feeling has fallen beyond,
Passion swirls to compare romanticism with a contemptuous bond,
For the deepest depression implores intense dissection,
While times of joy are too busy to mention,
We dwell and we hate,
We regret and we spate,
We ride high on the wave that takes us away,
For all the dwelling is done when we feel no joy.