With the recent R U Ok day behind us, we now enter into Mental Health Awareness month. It’s a great reminder to not only self reflect on our own mental health and well-being, but to also be conscious of the well-being and mental health of those around us.
It’s great to see society making strides with the many initiatives on the yearly calendar, to prompt us into “checking in” on those around us. However, for many the days are being lost in platitudes and what would seem like a “checklist”, as opposed to genuine care and concern. We need corporations to get behind these days, but we need them to do it in a way that really matters to people, that really is authentic and paves the way for staff to be open about their struggles.
Whilst it is great to see strides in the right direction, we are still a long way off being where we need to be. In fact we still have a culture that stigmatises those suffering. We have a culture of “toxic positivity”, and if you are unsure what I mean, let me explain. Toxic positivity is the excessive and ineffective overgeneralisation of a happy, optimistic state across all situations. The process of toxic positivity results in the denial, minimisation, and invalidation of the authentic human emotional experience.
We have been conditioned to believe negative emotions are bad and that we should always be positive. That we shouldn’t show negative emotions, otherwise we are labelled a negative person. When in fact all emotions are valid, and all emotions need to be felt. Of course we don’t want to live in a state of negativity but negative emotions are completely normal and we should never deny them or be invalidated for feeling them.
As a therapist and a Lifeline Australia volunteer I see people struggling in all facets of life and to varying degrees, but some of the things they have in common is they feel isolated. They feel they cannot be open about what’s happening. Some have family, friends, colleagues and/or bosses that dismiss and invalidate their pain. They get told to “think positively”. They get told “there are people worse off”. They get told “being seen as negative will ruin their brand”. They get told “to get busy or distract themselves”. They get told “not to bring their personal problems to work”. They get told a host of things that are unhelpful, cause more pain, and actually cause more harm.
It’s so interesting that when a person is honest about their struggles and how they are feeling it’s seen in a negative light, and they are even frowned upon. Yet when people hide the truth, pretend and fake positivity- this is seen in a good light. Yet we all talk about honesty and authenticity being of high value, but we reward inauthenticity and dishonesty. What an odd way we look at things.
The reality is we value being comfortable and hearing another’s pain makes us uncomfortable so instead we’ve created this toxic, fake culture. This culture is destroying our psyche and in many ways our well-being. Hiding parts of ourselves is unhealthy.
We can all do our bit to change things and it starts with compassion. It starts with active listening– listening to hear not respond. It starts with encouraging a safe and open space for people to talk. It starts with self awareness of our own triggers and and what we can do to learn and become more open and compassionate. It starts with understanding that we will all struggle at some point with something, perhaps stress, anxiety, panic attacks, depression, grief, loss and it’s normal to feel negative emotions. Some will battle PTSD, bipolar, BPD, addictions, eating disorders and a host of other complex mental illnesses.
We need to stop the toxic positive culture. We need to stop invalidating peoples struggles. We need to stop shaming people. We need to stop thinking we know what’s best for someone. We need to stop comparing our own situations with that of others, we are all different, therefore the way we feel will be different. We need to stop thinking that struggling mentally is a weakness.
We need to educate ourselves enough to support others, or at least not cause them more harm. There really is no excuse with all that’s available today, to be ignorant. It’s not about “giving advice”, as that is not our place- how could we possibly know what is best for someone else?
From my experience most workplaces are ill equipped to support their employees and need to do far more around staff well-being. Even with the best intentions the genuine care is lost because training around mental health is insufficient, workplace practises are greatly lacking and people leaders are not rewarded for the well-being of their team. Essentially most workplace practises are a tick and flick exercise to justify they in fact have a practise in place. A practise that offers little if any real support to employees. An improvement in this area would make a significant difference.
So this October let your awareness of mental health grow. Learn something about mental illness or how best to support someone struggling. Take a moment to do some self reflection on your own well-being and mental health. Challenge your belief system around mental health so that you don’t react to another’s struggle from a limited, closed or judgemental place. Genuinely check in on someone with the sole intent to listen with compassion.
This October embrace the courage and strength it takes to be completely vulnerable and the ability to create a space for another to be completely vulnerable. When we can do this, we will start to make a real difference.
“If we start being honest about our pain, our anger, and our shortcomings instead of pretending they don’t exist, then maybe we’ll leave the world a better place than we found it”– Russell Wilson