This week is Mental Health Awareness Week. If you or someone you know is struggling, this week is for you.
NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Health), a great resource for those experiencing mental health struggles as well as for those who know and love people who are, has themed this year’s awareness week “Cure Stigma.” An excerpt from their website says this about the stigma surrounding mental health:
People experiencing mental health conditions often face rejection, bullying and even discrimination. This can make their journey to recovery longer and more difficult. Stigma is when someone, or you yourself, views you in a negative way because you have a mental health condition. Some people describe stigma as shame that can be felt as a judgement from someone else or a feeling that is internal, something that confuses feeling bad with being bad.
Navigating life with a mental health condition can be tough, and the isolation, blame and secrecy that is often encouraged by stigma can create huge challenges to reaching out, getting needed support and living well. Learning how to cope with stigma and how to avoid and address stigma are important for all of us.
As I read this, I’m struck by our need for a new dialogue with mental health. Perhaps also, a new posture as we enter this dialogue. A posture that’s curious and interested, caring and validating. Cultivated by a feeling of safety and welcome, and wrought with compassion, empathy and understanding (or a desire to understand).
What if we listened before we spoke? Let the person tell their story? Asked questions before we stated facts? Refrained from immediately trying to fix the situation or make the person feel better? Withheld judgement and instead, became more curious?
If we’re honest with ourselves, if I’m honest, the challenge in this is facing my own discomfort and helplessness. My own shame and fear. To engage in this way, I have to be ok not having answers. Not knowing exactly what to do or say. I have to confront my own need to say the right thing. And my fear of saying the wrong thing. I have to be ok making mistakes.
I have to learn to face my own powerlessness when I see another’s. My own shame when I see another’s.
I have found though, there is a gift in this. A gift in being with another, and being present with myself, in the vulnerability of our shared human experience. Staying engaged in the midst of vulnerability matters; arguably, more than the perfectly crafted “right” response. Being “with” someone is the essence of being in relationship and one of the most important components of creating space for someone to feel seen and heard. The offering of empathy and your engaged and attuned presence is, as Brene Brown says, “the antidote to shame” and the path to connection. She says, “shame needs three things to grow exponentially in our lives: secrecy, silence, and judgment.” By keeping quiet, shame will grow exponentially. But by talking about shame with a person who expresses empathy, the painful feeling cannot survive. “Shame depends on me buying into the belief that I’m alone,” she says. “Shame cannot survive being spoken,” Brown says. “It cannot survive empathy.”
We all have the opportunity to engage in this dialogue. To play a part in changing the stigma and combating the shame around mental health. Often it begins with engaging our own response to mental health struggles. Being honest with our own reaction to pain expressed by others.
As we journey together in this, in creating conversations that lead to healing rather than shame, let’s learn to ask questions that engage with empathy. Curiosity rather than judgement.
Maybe a good place to start practicing these questions is with yourself.
Get to know your responses.
Respond back with empathy.
Curiosity and intention.
Notice what reaction comes up in you. What criticisms, judgements, shame? Where is it hard to offer yourself compassion? Perhaps that’s where it’s hard to offer it to others too…
You are not alone on this journey towards offering yourself and others empathy and compassion. In the famous words of Troy Bolton and the high school musical crew – “We’re all in this together.”
So let’s work together, to #CureStigma