I am no big fan of mental health awareness days (see: https://tinyurl.com/y8jalvzg). The ‘awareness industry’ should be more about ‘understanding’ what people go through in terms of sense of pain, choice, control and meaning (see: https://tinyurl.com/y7mk3bvt).
We need to understand why people still feel shame and stigma about ‘coming out’. Without an understanding of this, no amount of celebrity exhortation and spouting of the ‘one in four’ mantra will help. I have written about how this manifests when it comes to the world of work (see: https://tinyurl.com/y9d8nk3f).
The pivot upon which all else turns is this: That to be mentally ill, or to have mental health problems, is to be seen as fundamentally weak.
However, we dress up the language of emotional suffering or distress, we are deemed weak. Explicitly or implicitly. Pain in the brain is equated to weakness. This is the crucial disparity with physical health problems.
The word ‘weak’ has its own resonance. Weak in life. Weak in work. Weak in the head.
Some have extolled the virtues of ‘vulnerability’, thus reframing the notion of weakness (see: https://tinyurl.com/oc4brbl). I want to tackle this in a different way, by saying very simply:
1. It is not weak to get pain in the head and painful thoughts, feelings and emotions – it is the result of an overload of life. Those of us who are sensitive, curious, passionate, idealistic, etc may be more aware and attuned to the complexities of life. Some will be overwhelmed by excessive stimulus. And will be too open to an unjust world. Some are too poor, too weary, too burdened by humanity that they will crack along their fault lines. This is not weakness. Why is it deemed so?
2. It is not weak to live with pain in the head and painful thoughts, feelings and emotions – it takes courage simply to stay alive sometimes. It takes enormous strength to get out of bed often, to take one step after another when your brain is crying out for sanctuary. It can take more effort than climbing Everest to get out of your door. If you have made it this far, you are, in my book, an unsung hero. Shame they don’t do medals for us. This goes on for day after day after year after year sometimes. Crushing. This is not weakness. Why is it deemed so?
As one of my best friends, Michael Fox, once said to me: ‘David, you are stronger than you think. But not in the way you think you should be’.
3. It is not weak to be a leader with mental health problems – as well as the qualities one learns from living with intense suffering (itself a form of resilience that nobody understands unless they have been through it), you learn what it is like to be truly human. To live with vulnerability, to acknowledge people as they are with all their faults, all their inconsistencies, all their incredible warts n’all. And you can become inherently kind – this needs work of course, but the seeds are there in the wisdom and insight you gain into your own being. This is not weakness. Why is it deemed so?
I have written extensively about people who have been through stuff. How they know about stuff and can change stuff – people who have been affected by life-changing illness, injury or disability, bring jewels of wisdom and insight from the caves of suffering (see: https://tinyurl.com/yaqb5m2f).
Yes, people need support. Yes, definitely there is the justifiable fear of stigma and shame. And in the current climate, it is incredibly courageous, and bloody lonely to ‘come out’. Yes people are in pain. Yes this suffering feels like weakness at times. But it is not.
I am attending a reception at the Global Ministerial Summit on Wednesday. If I have the guts, I am going to ask political leaders to put their hand up if they have had mental health problems. If they do, I am going to applaud them. And to those who feel unable to – including those senior political and professional leaders who read this – I want you to think deeply about why not and I say:
Until you do so, things will never change. Repeat: The weakness in me is no weakness at all.