Stigma around mental health is still prominent, regardless of how far we think we've come at breaking down the destructive narratives and judgements that define our collective outlooks. Just in the way that this still rings true for white privilege & racism, or gender equality & women's rights. There is still so much work to be done at un-picking all of the bullshit that's become woven into our societies and therefore our minds, and I've spent a lot of time thinking about what I can do as an individual, and a teacher, to help make change and be part of the solutions.
The other night Sam & I drove up North through Rotorua, Taupo and Mount Maunghanui to get to Whangamata - a little beach-town on the north coast of NZ to stay with a lady named Jakki (who Sam's Dad used to work with). We spent a wonderful evening there, and spoke about all kinds of things - from messy breakups, to mental health, struggles and personal growth, we talked about divine timing and how everything happens for a reason etc. etc. and it was utterly wonderful.
But that night I went to bed worrying that I'd been too open - that it'd shared too much about my struggles with anxiety, hormone imbalance, low self-esteem and depression.. all of these topics that most people, whether they're aware of it or not, will pass judgements on, or at the very least feel uncomfortable talking about so outwardly.
The next day on our drive home I turned to Sam and explained what I'd gone to bed worrying about, because thankfully I now have a partner who is not only a safe place for me to unwind, but is also someone I speak to when i'm in search of clarity and a deeper understanding of something. It sparked a conversation that reminded me of exactly why I hadn't been ashamed or embarrassed to talk about my personal experiences with all of those things and why I will continue to speak openly about it, even if the person I'm talking to doesn't like it. And I felt it was important to share with you guys.
CHANGING MENTAL HEALTH STIGMA STARTS WITH US - YOU AND ME - TALKING ABOUT IT.
In order for actual change to happen, we need to stop feeling embarrassed or ashamed of ourselves and of our experiences. We do not need to carry shame or guilt or fear with us because we're struggled with mental health. Change is rooted in change - in order for peoples' opinions and judgements and expectations to change around things such as mental health (or anything else where stigma is attached), we must begin by changing our behaviours. We must start having these conversations as openly as possible and as often as possible - and no, they don't have to be big dramatic sit-downs where we announce to our families or a table of strangers what mental health problems we've suffered with or how we struggle. Nonono. It just means being courageous enough to talk openly when conversations to arise, or not purposely hiding those parts of your experience or tactfully missing them out.
If every single family, or meet-up between friends, or even strangers, allowed for us to use our voices to share and empower each other, to normalise the fact that most of us struggle in all kinds of ways the world would be a much better place. We need to know that each time we do talk about it, we help someone. We help to end the stigma towards mental health - because such a stigma is so archaic and such a crock of shit. Mental health is something we all have - just like we all have physical health. At times, we might become ill - we might get a cold, or the flu, or break a leg. There is no judgement attached to struggling physically, so why should there be with mental health? Long gone are the days where anxiety or depression or OCD or WHATEVER, are things that meant you aren't fit to have a successful career, or a reason not to date you. Yeahnaaahh. Own your experience, and find the power within yourself to BE yourself.
And if talking about your struggles or your 'mental health problems' makes people uncomfortable, then MAKE THEM UNCOMFORTABLE. Do not be afraid to speak your truth. The hope is that if someone does find themselves passing a judgement or thinking less of you somehow because you have anxiety or depression, maybe you speaking about it will make them recognise that. And as a result, maybe it will make them think twice about why. Maybe that will lead to them digging a little bit deeper to unpick the root of their own judgement, and start to question themselves as they move forward. Imagine you could cause one person to question themselves, to want to do better next time they find themselves in a conversation about mental health.. How amazing and all you have to do is be yourself.
This also extends to people who don't have mental health 'problems,' or who can't relate to states such as anxiety or low-self esteem; to people who have never struggled with depression or understood self-harm. It's up to you to be part of the change as well. You might not have a personal experience to draw upon, but you have empathy. You can learn what someone else's experience looks like and be compassionate with that. You can challenge yourself not to pass judgements or think thoughts like 'why don't they just get over it,' or 'stop being weak/pathetic' or whatever bullshit adjective might finish that sentence.
We are all responsible for doing our part to break down stigmas that serve no one and literally encourage & facilitate people to live a lower quality of life. We are all the same - we are all human, we all go through tough times, and we are all capable of making choices. So choose wisely. Choose to make a difference. Choose to be part of the change, because change doesn't only start with the great leaders. It starts with all of us, in the day-to-day. Start having those difficult conversations - whether it be about white privilege, women's equality, mental health or anything else that needs a light shed on it.
The world can't change without you. Please don't forget how much power you possess - and use it for goodness. Smile knowing that a simple conversation (that will probably feel freeing and empowering and inspirational) is what will take us closer to breaking down the stigma around mental health and will hopefully someday mean someone out there will not have to suffer in silence, or feel that suicide is their only way out.
Together we can choose to be here, to show up everyday, working and fighting to create a world that ACCEPTS and leads with LOVE, and know that we all deserve absolutely nothing less than that.