This R U OK day, we should note that those who emphasise the courage necessary to speak about mental health are only fuelling the stigma they hope to destroy.
Today is R U OK day, and this initiative’s brilliance lies in its subtlety. The question we are instructed to ask is so significant and yet, it’s weight is beautifully enveloped in the secure casing of a catchup between two friends. There is no flag bearing or preaching, no medals for speaking about how you feel.
When I first identified an issue with my mental health, I was lucky enough to have one of these conversations. My boss and content director at the time – radio legend, Todd Campbell – found me crying in a sound-proof voice booth. He told me that it wasn’t a problem, that he took medication daily for his mental illness and had some shocking times. He then asked me the crucial, but never an easy question of whether I was considering suicide. I said yes. I was rattled. But he then did something I didn’t expect: he smiled and explained that sometimes he fantasised about it when he was flat. We then walked down to the local GP in Subiaco, he bought me lunch while we waited for an appointment.
Now the doctor was a shocker; she told me I was depressed and gave me some entry-level anti-depressants. I felt numb for months. But let that not be a reflection on Toddy. He was amazing. He didn’t tell anyone where we were going or why we were going. As far as anyone else was concerned, we were just going to lunch.
For me, the key to ending the greatest health epidemic of our time is simple: communication. Increasingly we are told that telling people about our demons, labelling them and discussing them, is the way to defeating them. And yet, I fear it is the great emphasis which is placed on this moment, the praise which is lauded and the courage which is identified which only adds to the omnipotence of the problem.
Importantly, I am someone who is quite vocal, even public, about their mental health. So I can’t help but think, how would the cavalry affect me if this was my first time experiencing it?
Just recently, I had to take a day off work with the same achy and feverish symptoms that strike most of us down at this time of year. This was just a run of the mill sick day; my team worked around it, I stayed in bed and arrived at work the next day. Conversely, if I have a mental health day, it’s a big deal. As one voice in a radio duo, perhaps my absence is going to attract more attention than some – but I get text messages and phone calls from the top down. It’s all the king’s horses.
I want to make it clear that I am not downplaying the efforts of my wonderful team, nor my employer, who are just concerned for my welfare and dealing with it in the best way they can.
But it instantly changes the way I feel about the illness. Importantly, I am someone who is quite vocal, even public, about their mental health. So I can’t help but think, how would the cavalry affect me if this was my first time experiencing it?
Try to imagine it yourself: you are dealing with a new sensation in your mind, it might be tricky to navigate, but nevertheless, it is only how you perceive it. Then suddenly, other people are talking about something which sounds pretty similar to what you’re going through. And yet, when those people talk about this thing, it’s a twisted and complicated leviathan. It’s not like talking about a common cold or a headache. In fact, it’s as if, just in talking about it, they have climbed a mountain. When you now think about your problem, how does it change the way you think about it? Maybe this thing that you’re experiencing is actually far more ominous than you originally thought.
In the famous short story The Dinner Party, a shrewd Indian hostess deals with a cobra under her dinner table by placing a bowl of warm milk outside. Conversely, seated at the table and equally aware of the danger, a brash British army General chooses the less subtle approach: taking the reigns, he announces the snake to the party and then proceeds to conduct a militarised drill to negotiate the threat. Eventually, the snake slithers to the milk outside, but let us focus on the two approaches.
On the one hand, the bowl of milk is the reason the snake leaves the table. The hostess is experienced, she knows how to handle it and she knows that if she makes a fuss, someone will get bitten. On the other hand, whilst the other approach may have alerted the guests to the danger, it does not actually help with eradicating the snake. In reality, the drill is superfluous. It’s noise. And without the milk, the General is redundant. He only serves to rouse a whole bunch of fear and uncertainty in the guests.
Also on The Big Smoke
Similarly, with mental health, I believe it imperative to adopt a practical approach to be paired with the noise. Awareness campaigns are important drums to beat on a large scale. But it’s important we’re beating the right ones at the right time and certainly to the right people. Because sometimes the noise of the militarised drill can cause fear rather than familiarity. Awareness campaigns will not, in and of themselves, cure mental illness. And as someone who experiences depression, the timing of them couldn’t be worse than when the snake is under the table.
That’s why I like today. Yes, it’s an awareness campaign, but it is a practical and normalised conversation which is at the core of its messaging.
In the days after Toddy took me to the GP, I had to tell a few more in the office about my condition; largely my team. But it was only Todd that knew the full story, and he was my reference point. He’d check in on me about my psychologist and we’d relay stories to each other of what it felt like to be feeling flat. He shared that sometimes he wrote at his best when he felt depressed, the advice I still hold dear.
It’s only now I realise that it was what Todd didn’t do – far more than what he did – which was so critical to how I felt about my illness. Basically, he didn’t make a big deal out of it. It was something we shared and if anything, he normalised for me. Now, whenever anyone talks to me about mental health, I always try and emulate Toddy: show them the way to professional help. But do it with poise, with balance, even with a smile.
As he would say, “it’s all good, baby”. Because even if it’s not, as long as it’s paired with practical and professional help, that’s the best thing someone can hear.