‘Just ‘cause you can’t see it, doesn’t mean it isn’t there’.
These are lyrics from Linkin Park’s ‘One more light’, which, having learned about their front man, Chester Bennington’s tragic death by suicide, become only more poignant. Because this is something we need to be more familiar with, more on-point with, and more open about.
Mental Health issues don’t have one face.
Mental health issues do not have a religion, a culture, a skin colour, a class demographic, a gender, or sexuality. There is no one group exempt from an experience of mental health challenges, of which there are many. At times these issues can be more visible than others – whether that’s from physical consequences you can see, self-harm for example, or that visibility comes from verbalising how we feel. But so often, issues are invisible – buried and hidden for so many reasons: the stigma, the uncertainty, the self-doubt, the internal confusion, the fear, the implication, or just a sense of the person simply not recognising it themselves.
This sense of hidden difficulties could come from displaying ‘unusual’ behaviours that we fail to read or which we misinterpret, or from a veil of pretend, forcing people into a ‘high functioning’ category of illness and struggle. Either way, all too often the support is lost. Those high functioning individuals are those like Chester Bennington and actor Robin Williams. The ones who make you stop when you hear of their tragedy and think, ‘wait, what?!’. They confuse us because they held their own, they performed, achieved, created, lived, and for all intents and purposes, succeeded.
No matter how visible your struggles are, the importance is to talk.
There will be people like this that you know too. You yourself could be one, because struggling with mental health difficulties does not mean feeling incapable all of the time and or the stereotypical image of struggles we may have been presented with in the media. ‘High functioning’ doesn’t mean you’re ok, it means you’re managing in areas of your life whilst others crumble. High-functioning anxiety for example, could mean you’re delivering a seemingly flawless work presentation whilst internally your heart is racing, the room is closing in and the self-doubt feels almost palpable – imposter syndrome, criticism, and spiralling negativity – knowing you’ll press replay on this moment for days as it keeps you awake with worry. The same is true across many areas of mental health struggles. You can tenderly care for a family whilst feeling utterly void of a capacity to love, and hollow of emotions. You can get up for work each day, despite drinking two bottles of wine each evening just to try and sleep. You can carry on with daily life despite a tiny amount of nutritional calories that would send most people sloping off to bed in an exhausting lack of energy. There are so many examples.
High-functioning isn’t a criticism to those who feel differently, that they can’t get up each morning, that they’ve reached the end of their reserve. It’s not a better or worse version, it is simply different; another manifestation to be mindful of. Simply another way of noting that no one-size fits all, that we shouldn’t dismiss another’s experience simply because of preconceived ideas of what mental health difficulties ‘look like’. Crucially, that we shouldn’t make assumptions based on external visibility of difficulties, or a lack of.
We each manage our emotions and challenges differently and do our best to navigate through an overwhelmingly complex world. No matter how visible your struggles are, the importance is to talk.
Openness is a remarkable tool in the war of disempowering the difficulties within our minds. Just this week, Mental Health Awareness Week, radio made history when over 300 stations simultaneously spoke about mental health. At 10:59 on Tuesday 15thMay 2018, a unanimous sentiment of openness flooded through the airwaves of the UK. This is what we, as a society, need to learn to be – a unanimous, supportive, and encouraging voice. We need to be open and accepting of all lived experiences. Because there is no one face of mental health and no one version of a struggle is more valid than another. One persons story is just one persons experience and it’s ok if you don’t fit that.
In fact, it’s simply ‘ok, not to be ok’.
So let’s talk more and give ourselves permission to be open and let people in. Today, ask someone you know, ‘are you ok?’ – and be genuinely curious in the answer. Or, answer truthfully and honestly. Let’s stop using this sentence as a meaningless greeting and start using it as a helpful tool to break down stigma.