World Mental Health Day

Today is World Mental Health Day. I’m not a health professional; nor have I ever been diagnosed with any recognised mental health condition. But, like most folk who’ve survived fifty-odd years on this planet, I’ve been through some tough times. Life is good, now, but it hasn’t always been that way; I’ve had my share of tough times. Toughest amongst those was losing a child… And a lot of what’s written here is based on that particular experience of grief.

I thought that I’d chat a little, in my non-expert way, about what has helped me in tough times. And what didn’t help!

I think that, top of the list for me, are dependable friends. Folk who will just be there. Tough times can be incredibly lonely. Firstly, you’re trying to cope with the most awful, gut-wrenching feelings of grief, or other pain - it can feel as though you’re totally alone. And there are a lot of people, even close friends, who really don’t know what to say, or to do; so they say, or do, nothing - they simply disappear. And then you feel even more isolated. The sense of isolation can be almost as painful as the grief itself. Avoiding hurting friends only serves your needs.

The friends who count are the ones who rock up, say ‘This is flippin’ awful, I hate that this has happened to you. And I really don’t know what else to say.’, and then they stay. There may be silence, and it may have felt to them like the awkwardest thing ever…

But, to me, those folks were solid rocks. They were there; there to be silent, with me in my grief; there to listen - if and when I was ready to talk. And they were willing to do stuff - to shop if I couldn’t face it; to provide distractions (like organising a trip to the cinema) for a bit of respite, a bit of escapism, from the unrelenting awfulness, even if only for a couple of hours. I can’t remember the film at all, but I remember the gesture; the feeling that someone cared enough to take us out.

They were also there to spot and ‘fend off’ the well-meaning but unhelpful before they waded in… Those who, they knew, would unerringly home in on exactly the wrong thing to say and who they knew, once they’d started excavating a hole, would turbo-charge the digger.

Hugs. Human, physical, contact can make a big difference (to some folk!) when life is tough (you have to know your friend though to know if it’s the right thing!). To me (but maybe not to you!), a hug is almost the ultimate ‘I’m here for you’ statement. But it has to be the right person. See the paragraph above! But seriously, a big hug from someone close, who you know really means it, can make the biggest difference. There are hugs which I still remember years later - I can almost still feel them. Two seconds is nice, but it’s barely getting started; twenty seconds is getting on for ideal; I know one person who would hold on for minutes at a stretch when they knew I was really hurting - completely lovely and utterly unforgettable. If you’re thinking of hugging someone you know is hurting, and your thought at reading that is ‘twenty seconds sounds a really long time, and I’d feel way beyond awkward’, then don’t go there; don’t even start - you’re not the right person to give that hug. If it’d feel like the most natural thing in the world though, go right ahead.

Listening. Just listen. If the person has questions, answer honestly - including admitting that you’re completely clueless. But do listen. And don’t judge. In bad times ‘gallows’ humour sometimes comes to the fore (I’m good - or bad - at that - I can be really, really, inappropriate sometimes when life’s going particularly badly). People who’re hurting sometimes say the oddest, meanest, things too - often seeming to be acting right out of character (and they are).

Taking into consideration that it’s better to say something (even the wrong thing) than to disappear and say nothing at all, be aware that there are things it really is best to avoid saying. Try to avoid saying things like “Everything happens for a reason” or “I know just how you feel.” How do you know there’s a reason, and what difference would it make to a hurting person, anyway? And how do you know how they feel - are you inside their head?

There’s a Christian variant on “Everything happens for a reason” - it is “God has a perfect plan for our lives.” Believe me when I say that, when someone said that after we lost our son, they came pretty close to losing teeth! That was, in effect, telling me to be grateful to God for taking away my son. See also Intimacy, Mystery and Pain.

You don’t know how they feel - only they do - even if you’ve been through the exact same trauma, they aren’t you; their life experiences are different, so they’re bound to feel differently. And by saying ‘I know just how you feel’ you put up a barrier, closing off any possibility of them ‘opening up’ and telling you how they really do feel.

Offer to help. But be specific. Someone who’s hurting doesn’t have the headspace to work out a job for each visitor to do. Keep your eyes open and your brain switched on… Is the sink full of unwashed dishes? Are they running out of milk? Is the food cupboard empty? Offer to cook meal (on a specific night). Bring them some home baking.

Copyright Phil Hendry, 2022