Are you OK today? What kind of year have you had? Was it OK or has it been a wild ride of unexpected challenges that I know it has been for so many. They have not been OK with the events of 2016, some have tackled it head on, some have tucked their heads in waiting for the chaos to pass and some have been really shaken to their core.
You might be surprised to know that…
- Depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide?
- 45% of Australians will experience a mental health issue in their lives?
- Men are 3 times more likely to complete suicide than women?
- 1 in 5 new mothers will experience some form of post natal depression?
- Only 35% of people with a current mental health concern accessed health services?
As a community we have made incredible advances towards discussing mental health and making support available. We have now well known organisations such as Beyond Blue , Lifeline and Yourtown (previously Boystown) providing guidance to those struggling with mental health concerns. We have awareness raising initiatives such as R U OK and Roses In the Ocean to encourage people to approach the subject of mental health. Yet the statistics highlight that we still have a long way to go in connecting with and nurturing those engulfed by mental health issues.
I personally think we need to reach further than making it OK to struggle with mental health issues. We need to be OK with sometimes not being OK. It is my strong belief that we need to be OK with talking about the fact that life is really tough sometimes and that the sometimes can last for a long time. We need to acknowledge that we all experience struggles, every single one of us and that this is perfectly OK. The lollipops and rainbows that we see on social media make a great story but it is only one side of it. Furthermore when we project these one dimensional images of perfection we close ourselves off to opportunities for meaningful connections and a truly authentic expression of ourselves as unique and remarkable people.
Have you ever had something really difficult to deal with like a miscarriage or the death of a beloved pet or divorce? When we share the difficult elements of our lives it is surprising to see how many people have experienced these heart wrenching moments and these people really get what we are going through in a way not many do.
The genuine and meaningful exchange of our raw lived experience is what truly creates the powerful connection necessary to release suppressed pain and allow the healing to begin. Over decades I have personally and professionally witnessed people releasing profound levels of pain held deeply for sometimes decades and the magic ingredient was the person on the other side of the conversation, holding a space of deeply compassionate empathy for the other persons suffering.
So why are we not talking about our pain? Well for a start Australians are particularly good at making light of another’s difficulties. It’s often a clumsy attempt to use humour as a panacea but in those tender and vulnerable moments this humour can have a real sting. I remember as I was starting fertility treatment a friend (who has 3 beautiful children) sent me a humorous email about all of the great reasons not to have children. Needless to say I was heartbroken not only that he could make light of one of my greatest challenges but that he so completely missed the mark when I desperately needed support. The end result made me feel less willing to share my experience so openly not only with him but many others too. It was too much to manage and mitigate other peoples inappropriate responses on top of what was already an overwhelming time.
Secondly pain is not pretty. In fact it’s awkward, inglorious, messy and often embarrassing. Naturally we don’t want that stuff to stick. We don’t want to be reminded of it years down the track when we feel that we have left it behind. We don’t want it to be used against us in an unexpected power play. We also don’t want our pain to diminish all of the good in us or in our lives. So we bury it hoping that it will decompose and go back to the nothingness from whence it came from. If we are lucky it does but if our internal landscape becomes a graveyard of buried emotions it can tend to leak out and sometimes hemorrhage into our external lives through physical pain, explosive emotions or mental health conditions.
So how do we dig our way out without getting covered in the debris?
Choose your audience wisely
As I discovered not everyone was great at listening. Some people are as distressed by your pain as you are and we can find ourselves taking care of others when we were hoping for some nurturing ourselves. Sometimes people jump into judgement when what we really need is understanding. Some jump into fix it mode when all we need is to download so we can let it go. Others switch off, change the subject or interrupt with their own stories and again we miss that opportunity to be heard.
When I need to share something difficult and I am unsure how it might be received I personally like to test out my audience with a smaller less challenging issue and see how they handle it. If I don’t feel the level of engagement, acceptance or support that I was hoping for I find someone else.
I am constantly surprised at how many people say that they come to me as I am one of the few people who will listen to them without judgement, without interrupting and who will sit with them in whatever it is they are going through with the intent to helping them find their own way. When we allow people the opportunity to express themselves freely, the emotion can flow and instead of feeling stuck in a bad place suddenly acceptance and resolution arises and recovery begins.
Choose your timing
Time and place is everything. Sometimes our courage to share what’s going on doesn’t show up with the right person at the right time. Making sure that the other person is unencumbered by task or their own immediate challenge is key to allowing the best conditions for a supportive conversation. That is not to say not to open up to those in our lives who are struggling as they often are the best people to offer us our much needed listening ear. The experience of mutual vulnerability is fertile ground for some of the truest and most enduring friendships. Just be mindful that your timing and their timing is compatible.
Choose to be changed by your experience but not defined by it
When we are up that creek without a paddle we can feel consumed by what has or is happening to us. For the record I do not believe that everything happens for a reason. What I do firmly know is that out of every painful moment we can learn more, do more or become more.
When we can derive meaning from our experience we are strengthened, refined and actualised. The most inspiring and successful people I know are the diamonds who have been forged under pressure, they choose in those life splintering moments to hold their ground, grow from the experience and ultimately shine.
Let’s move beyond a model of mental health services that encourages us transparency of mental health struggles and lets embrace the roller coaster of life with all it’s ups and downs. If we can make it not just OK but normal to have times of anguish we might just mitigate the rising mental health crisis and create a more supportive and encouraging culture that sincerely supports us when we are not OK.
And finally it’s crucial to allow these experiences to be a part (not our singular point of focus) of the rich tapestry of our lives. We must deliberately drink in and hold onto the goodness of who we are and the people and practices that sustain us through our storms because after the rain there is always the warming glow of sunshine to bask in.
About Emiline Duncan
Emiline Duncan is the creator of The Nurture Foundation and provides clinic based Counselling sessions at Well and Wise in Wilston Queensland. She also offers Skype and Phone Counselling sessions for those unable to make it to the clinic. Enquiries can be made directly by calling 0419 101 665 or please enter your details below