This week is Mental Health Week; a week when we are reminded to give a thought to the part of our being that, for too long, may have lived in the shadowlands of our existence. We might not hesitate in seeing a doctor if we have a physical concern, but when I ask someone if they have spoken to their GP about an emotional difficulty, more often than not, the answer is "no". Why is this, I wonder, especially now, at a time when support services are advertised widely and when there is so much publicity around mental health matters.
My experience of working with adults has taught me that taking the first step in acknowledging a problem is often an almighty leap and one that exposes our vulnerability at the most fundamental of levels. Whether we have the courage to admit to someone else that we have a problem can prove very tricky indeed and may be a step too far. So, then what? For many, it will mean a lifetime of living with internalised feelings and emotions that may well impact on the individual's capacity to function well, both personally and within relationships.
It seems that the ability to reach out and draw support, either from a personal network or from a health professional, may well depend on our deeply rooted beliefs and values. As I was reflecting around our British culture, I was mindful of the phrase "keeping a stiff upper lip", which has become synonymous within our culture over the centuries. A trembling upper lip might often be interpreted as a weakness, so keeping a stiff upper lip demonstrates a level of courage and stoicism, which is to be commended. We often see these attitudes reflected in the art and literature of Victorian society and they appear to have served us well during two world wars and beyond. For men, particularly, courage and stoicism were important attributes as they sought to reassure their women-folk and keep family and community-life together. Historically, women were often considered the "weaker sex" and, despite the best efforts of the first women's suffrage movement in the nineteenth century, the perceived wisdom was that the role of the man was to provide, protect and remain strong.
Thankfully, attitudes appear to have shifted somewhat over the years since but, based on my work with men, I can't help but think that often, and unwittingly, our boys grow up to believe that they still need to demonstrate that same level of courage and stoicism that our forebears did. However, as highlighted earlier, it could be argued that the way in which we respond is typically a reflection of our various religious, community and familial beliefs and values. It appears that the extent to which we are able to acknowledge the frailty of our human condition will very much depend on our cultural norms.
Interestingly, it is not unusual for me to hear parents say that they will avoid becoming emotional in front of their children, simply because they don't want to upset them. Whilst I understand the sentiment, I do wonder what we are teaching our children about emotional expression. Despite our best efforts, it seems to me that we cannot protect our children from a lifetime of potential difficult or distressing events. Children do indeed live what they learn, but if they perceive from an early age that it is not acceptable to express feelings or emotions, how will they develop the resilience to cope with those difficulties later on? At the very least, there may well be an element of shame around admitting to a problem, which in turn may prevent the individual from accessing support.
If you are reading this and can identify with what I have said, I encourage you to reach out if you are struggling. If you find it difficult to talk to those around you, professional support may well enable you to make sense of the complex nature of being human. It is an opportunity to understand what motivates you to behave in the way that you do and an opportunity to find a more balanced way of living. If Mental Health Week is to teach us anything, I hope that it teaches us not to suffer in silence, but to seek appropriate support.
Stay safe and be kind to yourself, Jan