Saturday, October 2, 2010

A Mental Health Campaign I Can Stand Behind

In Google News today there was a link to an article/announcement from a Bathurst newspaper.   Apparently it's mental health month.  I guess all over Australia?  Anyway, Bathurst is responding to this with the theme Good Friends Help Us Bounce Back.

I really LIKE this theme.  I much prefer it to the theme of seek professional help and/or end the stigma of mental illness.  If you want to stop something from having a stigma, then stop calling it an illness!   Illness is full of stigma.

I'm sure the Bathurst professionals still want people to seek help.  Professionals believe people need professionals. But my feeling is if more people had good friends than less people would need psychologists and psychiatrists.

Do most of us have good friends?  Probably not as many as we imagine.  It's really impossible to know if you have good friends until you have a problem.  Then you'll see who sticks with you, and who runs away.  And even those who stick with you might not be the greatest of friends.   They might stick with you ONLY if you make sure not to talk about that weird problem you have. They might stick around only if you keep that smile glued on your face.

I'll be honest here. I do have some good friends. But I don't really have friends I can consistently turn to when I'm feeling confused or blue.   

I'm probably overly picky. Maybe I have very high standards. I don't know.  But here's my list of things I'd expect from my idealistic friend.

1. Someone who doesn't purposely ignore stuff I've put in an email. They don't avoid certain subjects.   For example....someone in my family had a health scare.   When it was over, I mentioned it in an email to a few friends. I talked about how it had stressed me out, and I talked about how I'm relieved my family member's okay.   When the friends wrote me back, all except one completely bypassed the whole subject.  And that's why I say ALL illness has a stigma.   Many people don't want to talk about diseases and stuff like that.  But anyway, it's hard to rely on friends for a psychological boost when they fail to respond to certain subjects.

2. Someone who doesn't constantly change the subject back to themselves. Sometimes this behavior is actually helpful.  I think when it's nice is when you write about something embarrassing, or something you're ashamed of.  Once I was furious at my sister, and I threw a plate on the ground.   I felt so ashamed over this, and later told a friend.  She told me she has thrown plates several times.  She managed to make me laugh AND feel relatively normal.   

But let's say you write to your friend and tell them your dog died.  Instant of giving you an email full of sympathy, they give you a Sorry about your dog.  I remember when my dog died.....  And they go on for five paragraphs about THEIR dog and THEIR loss.    You needed someone to be the listener for you, and instead you've turned into the listener. 

3. Someone who doesn't invalidate my feelings by saying things like Oh, you know it's not that bad. It could be a lot worse!  Aren't you being a bit dramatic?   Just let it roll off you like water on a duck's ass (or however that saying goes).   There's a big difference between trying to cheer someone up, and trying to convince them that nothing is wrong in the first place.  In the latter, you usually just end up making someone feel worse. Now they still have their problem AND they have to feel stupid and guilty for feeling bad about that problem. 

Sometimes we do blow things out of proportion, and we need someone to help us get some perspective.   But this needs to be done in a gentle compassionate way.   And what's really crazy is when someone is often complaining about their problems.  Then when a friend has a problem, they are quick to dismiss and invalidate their friend's feelings.  Yes, I can complain about how I'm terrified of germs. But don't you be so silly to talk about how you're afraid to drive on the highway.  

Sadly, I'm guilty of doing these things to people myself.  And I DO feel very guilty about it. When I was with a friend she was stressed out because the toilet overflowed.   I was amused.   And I shouldn't have been.  I mean it IS funny sort of.   But I was amused that she had never had the experience before.  It's something that's happened to me several times.   So I kind of dismissed her feelings in the sense that hey, no big deal.  These things often happen.  And I can't believe this is the first time it happened to you.

That was rude of me.   Toilets overflowing ARE stressful....and gross.    I'm sure it's even worse when it's your first time experiencing it.

4. Be around and available on a consistent basis.   This is my biggest issue probably.   I have a handful of fantastic friends, but I don't talk to most of them on a regular basis.    We talk every few weeks, and sometimes we have months of silence between us.   When I'm feeling upset, I'll sometimes think of writing them, but I feel weird doing it.   So I usually don't.   I WILL tell them my problem sometimes, but it's usually because I happen to owe them an email around the time that I'm annoyed/bothered by something.  I think that's what happened with the health scare thing actually.   It wasn't as if I rushed to the computer to tell people what was going on.   I think I just happened to owe these people emails because they had written recently. And when I was writing and sharing what was happening in my life, the health scare subject came up.   To give them the benefit of the doubt, maybe if I had written while super upset and in the MIDST of the crisis (rather than after the fact...when I was relieved) they would have responded to the subject.

I don't feel right complaining about #3 because I don't really have the time and energy to keep up with multiple friends on a daily basis.   And I'm usually equally to blame for the lack of communication.  Sometimes I'll be all selfish and think How rude of her not to write and check up on me!  For all she knows I could be dead or lying in a coma!    But then I'll think....crap, maybe she's not writing because SHE is the one having a crisis. Maybe I need to be the one checking on her.  

So the bad news is I don't really have friends to help me in a mental crisis...at least not consistently.   The good news is I've learned to become pretty self-reliant when it comes to such stuff.   And the other good news is I do have some really AWESOME friends.   They make me laugh.   They tell me interesting stories.   They make me feel loved by visiting my blog.   And every so often, they happen to be there for me when I need someone to talk to; they listen well, and they say what I need to hear.    To have more than that is probably asking for a miracle.   And if any of you reading this, do have that miracle in your life....I'd say you are very blessed (at least in that area).