This week, I read a moving post on social media by a friend of mine describing his struggle with mental health. I was surprised because I had no idea he’d been struggling in all the years I’d known him. He works in sports and has always shown as much zest, enthusiasm and energy as the events he covers.
I was impressed by the courage he showed in sharing his experience, and the vulnerability he expressed. Although mental health awareness is improving around the world, there remains a discomfort in reacting to people who find the strength to reach out.
Among the many friends who offered support, some gave advice to “keep your chin up” and “think of the blessings you have – so many people lead tougher lives”. The hidden meaning in these messages seemed clear: “I want to help you but I have no idea how and it makes me feel uneasy.”
I could understand their helplessness. Even with the awareness that anyone can struggle with mental health, I was caught off-guard that this person with a good job, close circle of friends and comfortable lifestyle was finding it difficult to deal with life.
None of that matters. It feels counter-intuitive, given that we’re constantly fed the idea that happiness is found in achievements like wealth, status, material and everything else that goes into a “successful life”.
More people than we realise are struggling. Recently, I was contacted by a reader who shared that he found it difficult to cope, though he was seen as “an accomplished professional who always helps others.” He couldn’t reach out to anyone because he was “the person whom everyone looks to for support”.
It made me wonder how many others find themselves in a similar position. When anyone shares their problems with me, I see it as a privilege because I know from my own experience how hard it can be to open up and talk to someone.
Part of that difficulty can be down to the person knowing they have a good life, and therefore they feel it’s a sign of ingratitude to ask for help. “Other people have it worse than me” is a common refrain.
When I messaged my friend to see how he was doing, I told him how much I admired his courage to speak openly about his troubles. Later, he thanked everyone for their support, adding that he wasn’t sure whether to share his feelings in case he’d be seen as “attention seeking”.
His uncertainty moved me as much as his story because it emphasised a truth faced by so many going through a hard time. We can be too quick to judge and too slow to listen. It’s simpler to assume things than it is to give time to understand it. We compare one problem to dismiss another because compassion is easier said than done.
Whether it’s Warren Buffett, Jeff Bezos, Alice Walton or the fresh graduate next door, mental health problems don’t care about your status or wealth. Whether we’re high on the ladder or on the first rung, when someone is struggling, it’s the same reality: there’s a person in need of help.
Their lifestyle doesn’t protect them from physical injury. We can accept the possibility of Mark Zuckerberg breaking his leg and needing medical help, but we struggle with the idea that anyone with a comfortable life can be vulnerable to stress, depression and anxiety. This has to change.
The alternative is that people continue to suffer in silence as they struggle with problems that are frequently denied and dismissed. When they find the courage to speak about their issues, they’re helping to create a much-needed shift in our mindset as they empower others to share their experiences.
Talking about mental health is uncomfortable because they have been viewed as aberrations to fear instead of being a normal part of our experience. Those who share their stories do so often without knowing they help us understand more about mental health, which inspires conversations about what we can and should do to improve services and support.
Perhaps the best kind of support starts close to home, by listening to people without judging or leaping to offer well-meaning advice. In a hurried world, listening becomes a luxury when we could all do with someone to just listen to the problems we hide.
Scottish author Ian MacLaren wrote, “Let us be kind to one another, for most of us are fighting a hard battle.” It’s advice that’s easily forgotten as we shoulder our own burdens. But if we can take time to talk, listen and be kind to each other, many of those battles would surely be halfway won.