Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Let's Talk - To Whom?

It is again time for Bell Canada's annual Let's Talk campaign. Its very laudable goal is to reduce stigma around mental health disorders and to encourage people to "talk", to "speak up" and that this will help you feel better. There are some famous spokespersons and they will give personal testimony to how talking about depression helped them (one of whom - and the face of the campaign - is Clara Hughes, one of my very favourite Canadian athletes and Canadians in general whom I greatly admire). If you were to follow the link to their site or see their ads on Canadian TV or hear them on radio, you'd find a very feel good vibe to the whole thing, a sort of "hey, this all isn't so bad, it feels good to speak up and talk" feeling. 

And there's no question that suffering alone, lost in confusion and unbearable pain, will almost always lead to worse outcomes. A recent study - conducted in Canada - found strong evidence that those experiencing suicidal thoughts were seven times more likely to recover if they had someone to confide in. 

However, as good as it all feels, as good as they try to make it feel, as helpful as it could be, most of us know this is not - yet - the reality. In our world the reality remains - talk to whom?

What I would like to see - and I'm sure many of you from our world would agree - is not a "Let's Talk" campaign, but how about a "Let's Listen" campaign? For until we have a society that is better trained to listen - to truly compassionately listen while controlling the natural compulsions to jump in and judge and give "advice" and so on - then "talking" for most of us will be a futile and painful exercise. 

I've never been shy about my condition. I have talked to literally dozens and dozens of people. I have talked to dozens of psychiatrists and psychologists and health care workers. And out of all of those - and we're talking about close to a hundred people - only one really and truly listened and heard me, "B", the therapist assigned to me through a local program to give university psychologists in training some "seat time" experience. 

However, our sessions wrapped up with the end of the university year (we'd met weekly from September to May). I was told to call and register again in the fall but when I called to do so I was told my case was too hard, that there was no one in their program who could handle it. This from the chief (and very experienced and hard nosed) psychologist who oversaw the program. 

As for psychiatrists, they will nod, hum, maybe mention this or that but at the end of the few minutes you have with them, all they will do is pull out their prescription pad and prescribe yet more drugs. No people, this is not a solution. Why it's not a solution, however, will have to wait for a separate piece (among the dozens and dozens on my "to-do" list). 

So that's at the professionally trained end of things. 

As for "talking" with friends, family and so on, what one with serious depression or suicidal thinking will face will almost invariably be some of the very worst of what stigma has to offer. There is a very good chance you will get gas lighted to some degree. You will be told you're just being selfish. You will be told many people have worse problems so suck it up. People will get into "my problems are worse than your problems" arguments. People will tell you that your depression doesn't hold a candle to theirs, so suck it up. People will cut you off and talk over you. People will actually argue with you that your problems don't even exist. People may appear to listen but then you find out they're saying awful things behind your back about what you told them. People will make jokes. And on and on. 

I once tried what everyone tells you to do - dial a suicide help line. The woman on the line sounded bored and restless after a few minutes. I'm one of those people who are super sensitive to tones like that so I had to hang up. Granted, I can think of fewer worse jobs on earth but just to add some insight into what that "let's talk" outlet can be like.

And if you try to tell anybody about all these awful experiences, they'll tell you that you must be exaggerating. 

I really do need to get to an in depth look at stigma in a separate piece (yet more for that long "to-do" list) but I can tell you from an enormous amount of personal experience, from listening to dozens and dozens of personal stories, from reading at least a hundred case studies and from deeply researching stigma in general, that "talking" is almost certain to expose one to stigma and possible character assassination that will drive a person deeper in the hole.

I apologize if this doesn't sound too heartening or encouraging. But this is the bare bones truth from my world. And one of the truths is that it's very easy to post these things on social media and sound "hip" to the problem and pretend to be spreading "awareness", but it's a whooooooole different ball game to actually do, to actually "listen", to actually hear what the person is trying to say, to actually walk the walk and not just talk the talk. 

And for anyone needing to talk, it is excruciatingly hard to talk about these things. There is literally nothing that makes you more vulnerable than opening up about these horrors in your mind. I can say with one hundred percent validity, that there is a very good chance that what you say "can and will be used against you". This is not just my experience, I've seen this documented in numerous papers looking at this whole business of mental illness and stigma. There is an enormously high chance that you will lose friends, job opportunities (if not actually lose jobs), be outcast, or at the very minimum, people will look at you differently, in a lesser kind of way. 

So again, "Let's Talk" - but to whom? Who is this mythical person we're supposed to reach out and talk to? What if our problems persist and aren't something that will go away with a simple "talk"?

Yet ... 

I do know it's hard, really hard to just listen.

Through Taming the Polar Bears dozens and dozens of people have reached out to me in one form or another. I've heard some very hard stories. I'm in a unique position to be able to listen and offer solid insight and actual useful things to do. As both a peer (someone who truly gets what they're saying) and someone who's researched so much into what to do and why, I'm in a better position to help. But even then, it can get tremendously emotionally draining. 

So for people who are not at all equipped to help (read: 99% or more of people), it is very, very difficult to just sit and listen. 

So what do I think the answers are? Frankly, I have no idea. But what I've learned since starting all this research (exactly four years ago now) and since writing this blog, is that you nor I nor anyone in particular is going to change how all this works in the world. 

So what it comes down to is the person reading this post - what are you going to do? That's all that matters, what are you going to do? 

And what I can tell you, or suggest to you, is to look into yourself - if someone close to you called you out of the blue (or texted or emailed) and spoke of being in a very dark place and maybe spoke in round about ways about ending it, what would you do? Are you ready for that? Could you just listen without shaming them or judging them or putting them down? Statistically speaking, I have to doubt it. 

So start with yourself. Learn about stigma, learn about what and what not to say, but mostly, learn out how to shut your mind off and just listen and hear what another human being has to say through their eyes

Learn to do that and you might just save a life, a life very important to you. 
Learn to do that, then you can talk about "Let's Talk".

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