Let me preface this with the following: if you’re reaching out to a mental health sufferer like myself, thank you. If you’re supportive through the trials and tribulations that mental health sufferers face, thank you. If you talk frequently to someone you know that suffers from a mental health condition, thank you. Talking about mental health should always be encouraged, it benefits not only the sufferer, but if we can erase the stigma around mental health and its emotional impact (especially in men), then perhaps it will benefit society altogether.
We need to talk about “It’s okay to talk”.
“It’s okay to talk” is a well-intended phrase. The message is simple, it tells the sufferer it’s okay to talk about their feelings, what they are going through, and how they’re coping. Talking about feelings and emotions is often viewed as weak and vulnerable, erase that stereotype from your mind.
But recently I’ve felt the phrase to be troublesome. It feels like an easy way to avoid supporting people suffering from mental health issues. “It’s okay to talk” is the equivalent to “thoughts and prayers” after witnessing a sad or horrific event. Well-intentioned, which might make the person saying it feel good, but ultimately it provides little to no aid to the sufferer.
When I hear the phrase “It’s okay to talk“, I cringe a little. The situation is paradoxical. I know the person asking is being thoughtful, but “It’s okay to talk” often comes across as “What’s wrong with you?“. Not in an accusatory context, but it’s a question that requires an answer, and the sufferer must validate what they’re feeling and hope the person asking accepts it.
The pressure to provide an “acceptable” answer to how you’re feeling can be incredibly damaging for a sufferer, especially since they often cannot explain to themselves why they are feeling how they are feeling.
So, what would I recommend to someone who wants to help and talk to a sufferer without doing further damage?
Invite them out somewhere, your house, their house, a park, wherever. Don’t make a big deal of it, don’t preface the invitation with “Let’s meet up and talk about your feelings”. Invite them out casually, chat to them like a human being with passions and interests and bring up the subject if it feels necessary or beneficial. Often sufferers are stuck with nothing but their own thoughts, rumination, so getting out for an hour or two can be helpful. Breaking the cycle of thinking or talking about their condition can be incredibly beneficial both in the short-term and the long-term. It reminds them that they can get through the day without having to think about their condition.
Inviting someone to talk when they’re depressed, rather than telling them to talk, is better. It can be hard to channel what they’re feeling to someone who might not be prepared or familiar with their condition. Having someone there as a lifeline is helpful. But do not offer this assistance if you’re not 100% willing to give it. Sufferers know that, rationally, they can’t expect a response back in an instant, but if you leave multiple days as a gap between the sufferer’s message and your response, you’re not helping.
When I opened up about my anxiety and depression, plenty of people told me it was okay to talk, either face-to-face or online. That was nice, and I appreciated their thoughts and well-wishes. But many others told me that if I ever felt down or depressed, I could talk to them without judgement; this is better. Just saying “It’s okay to talk” makes the sufferer feel less than human as if we don’t know how to talk. It puts an enormous amount of pressure on sufferers, who are already struggling to deal with other situations. As much as we should try to help sufferers help themselves, telling them to “talk” as if their condition is a show-and-tell presentation is degrading. Not everyone is comfortable with talking about themselves and what they’ve been through.
This might come across as pedantic to most people. In the end, getting someone to talk about their mental health is a step forward. I’m not discouraging that. But just take a minute and consider a different perspective. Consider how you talk to your friends and loved ones about what they’re going through. Consider that there’s always room for growth. Consider that no-one is perfect, but we can all try our best.
Together we can help each other heal. Together we can erase the stigma surrounding mental health.
Here are some resources if you want to learn more about mental health issues or you think you may be suffering from one: