If anyone has ever seen “My Fair Lady” or read Pygmalion, they will know that in teaching Eliza Doolittle how to behave appropriately in polite society, she is told that the safe topics of conversation are the weather and everybody’s health. Even if you haven’t, that’s got to sound familiar to most of us. How many times have we all met acquaintances, old friends, neighbours on the street or in the pub and the go- to conversation is “Shocking wind out there”, “That’s a better day”, “How’s it going?”,”How have you been?”, “How’s your mum/brother/wife/grandad doing?”…etc.
Sometimes the health question comes up because the last time they spoke to you, there was some problem. In fact you can very often come away from that conversation thinking “isn’t it nice that they remembered that was going on the last time we talked”. We share all kinds of things in those moments, about ourselves and others. It could be anything from bad back, cancer diagnosis and details of treatment, heart problems, broken limbs, flu, surgery… almost anything about the subject’s physical health is on the table. And I suppose my first question is “why do we share such intimate details about our own and others state of health, to someone is not particularly close to you, in such a public place?”. In my view it is all about the need to make that human connection, on both sides. The need to show empathy, to gain support and advice, as inevitably the person who asks will have had some experience of that issue, either directly or indirectly. That person will immediately search their own experience banks to respond in an understanding and helpful way… “Do you know, we all came down with that flu and do you know what helped?”, “My Aunt broke her leg last year and did Pilates to help it”, “When I got
diagnosed with Cancer last year I was put in touch with McMillan and they were wonderful”. A pleasant, endearing experience on both sides.
Here’s the thing…..what would happen if you threw some mental ill health into this picture? Again, going back to Miss Doolittle, she took the advice of her educators and used the weather and health formula in conversation at her first outing at Ascot. However she didn’t read the small print… and chose to discuss her family’s alcohol addiction issues and it’s effects (under the health category) to horrific and totally unacceptable effect on the part of her snobby audience.
But why would talking about depression, alcoholism, anxiety, loneliness, bipolar or an inability to cope be off the table in these circumstances? Do we honestly think that we couldn’t connect with these people for empathy and advice for things because they have no experience of this? More to the point, is there not a greater likelihood that if this person genuinely does care about how you are doing, that they may be able to provide some practical advice or help….better than they could advise on a particular heart medication or cancer treatment?
So how do we remove the dread from “Mental”? I could waffle on about historical stigma, the imagery and negative press associated with mental ill health and the way in which it has been used to segregate and judge people for centuries. But so much work has been done on a global scale to address the inequalities, to educate and challenge the idea of them and us, straightjacket and a padded room style of treatment. Surely we are bound to know by now that mental ill health is as varied, treatable and widespread as physical health issues.
My feeling is, as uncomfortable as this may be, is that actually it’s our problem. You, me, us as individuals. It is our own individual responsibility to just…have a chat. Of course, mental ill health is still on a journey in knowledge and acceptance, so there are still some of the more serious elements of mental illness that are difficult to discuss. I am not saying that the pub or the local shop is the best place for someone to open up about suicide, or psychosis…. in the same circumstance as some was experiencing severe physical health issues, the best advice and support to seek is medical or professional, not your old school friend.
But what about saying “I’m having real bother getting to sleep at the moment”? “My mum is living on her own now and is afraid to answer the door”, “I just am feeling low”, “My husband dreads going to work everyday”. Ok, it may not be exactly what the person who asked expected to hear….there may be nothing they can do….but can they do much about your flu either?
There is so much community support, holistic therapy and organisations that offer help out there now, that by just sharing a little bit, you could hear about something from that person that could change your life. Or maybe they themselves could give the kids a lift to ease the pressure cos they go that way anyway, or know a guy who could sort your mum out with a personal alarm that would help her feel a little more safe. Some of the most incredible support I have seen is just from ordinary people, having a chat, sharing their own experiences, and allowing the person who is struggling to feel like they are not alone. It may not seem like much, but by literally allowing the topic of mental ill health to be on the table, you can help them to feel less isolated. Even if there is nothing you can do…..you’ve done something by just saying it, or letting it be said.
So next time you meet someone in the queue for the till, or at the bus stop and they ask how things are, why not allow the weather and everyone’s health to include mental health…even in a gentle, careful way. If we never talk about it, it will never be on the table and what’s the worst that could happen? If the person who asks looks at you like you have two heads, makes their excuses and runs away, they probably weren’t going to be of much help anyway.