R U Ok? Day (September the 11th) is coming up soon, with its focus on reaching out and starting conversations with people that you think might not be ok, or might benefit from a friendly conversation. It’s a great initiative and, as someone who has struggled with mental illness, I’m so happy to see us talking openly about this. For me to out myself as having suffered with depression is no big thing, as I discuss it in other parts of the ‘net, but I realise that some of you might now look at what I do and what I say in a different light.
And, if you do, I have to tell you that you need to change the way that you think about these things. A very large number of humans will go through some form of mental issue in their lives, unsurprisingly given the levels of stress that we put ourselves under, the struggle some people have just to survive and the challenges that lie ahead of us as a rather greedy species on a finite globe. So, yes, I’ve suffered from depression but it is an illness. It is treatable and, when it is treated and managed, then you can’t tell that I have problems. In fact, like many people with the problem, even when I’m suffering, you wouldn’t really know. Nobody asks to get mentally ill so stigmatising, isolating and discriminating against people with a treatable mental condition is not just wrong, it’s pretty stupid. So let’s get beyond this and start talking, openly.
That’s where RUOK? is great because it gives you a day and some agency to reach out to someone who seems a little … off and ask them if they’re ok. Trust me when I say that 99% of them will appreciate it. Yes, 1% might give you some grief but if I knew a bet would pay off 99% of the time, I’d take it. The web site has some great tips for starting conversations so please read them if you’re thinking about doing this. (Pro tip: starting a conversation with “You should just cheer up” is not a great way to start. Or finish. In fact, just scratch that and try again.)
I am very open with my students, which I know some people think is potentially unprofessional, and I am a strong believer in cognitive apprenticeship. We are, pretty much, all the same in many respects and me pretending that everything I do comes fully formed and perfect from my amazing brain is a lie. My wisdom, such as it is, is the accumulated memory of the mistakes I’ve made that haven’t killed me yet. My students need to know that the people around them struggle, wonder, stress out and, quite frequently, rise above it all to keep on doing wonderful and beautiful things. I am still professional but I am honest and I am human.
I want to share with all of you something that I wrote on the death of Robin Williams, which I’ve edited slightly for language, but it’s been shared a lot over my other social feeds so it obviously resonates with people. However, many of my students won’t have seen it because I keep my private social life and ‘work’ social media separated. So here it is. I hope that you find it useful and, if you need help, maybe nudges you to help, and if you know someone you’re worried about, it inspires you to ask them “R U OK?”
Mental illness is a poisonous and weird thing. If your eyes changed function, you’d see things differently. When your brain changes function, everything gets weird – and the only impression you have of the perceptual world is suddenly flawed and untrustworthy. But it’s a biochemical issue like diabetes – regulatory systems that aren’t working properly and cannot just be “got over” by thinking happily. Ask a diabetic whether they’ve “really tried” to handle their sugar and see how far that gets you. 🙂
I wrote something, years ago, that I’ve never posted, to try and explain why some people just can’t stay. The nastiest thing about mental illness is that it can show you a world and a way of thinking that makes suicide apparently logical and, even more sadly, necessary. If you saw that world, then maybe you wouldn’t stay either. This doesn’t make it easier on the survivors but it’s important to recognise the role that an actual illness plays here. That f***ing ba***rd, cancer, takes people from us all the time but it at least has the decency to wield the knife itself. Depression puts the knife in the hands of its victim and makes it look like calculated agency, which hurts the people left behind even more.
There is no magic bullet for helping people with mental illness. Some need visible support. Some need solitude. Some need to work. Some drown in it. That’s because mental illness affects people, in all of their variety and their glorious irrationality, and I am no more a poster child for depression than anyone else. I can’t even tell you how to help me and, given how much I communicate, that’s the most irritating thing of all. But I do know that the ongoing support of caring people who are watching and listening makes a big difference and those of you who are aware and supporting, you keep up that good work! (And thank you, on behalf of the people who are still here because other people helped.)
It’s a sad day with Robin WIlliams passing but this is only a part of him. It’s a sad and mad part of him and I wish it hadn’t happened but I won’t let it define him, because his struggles were a part of him and his contribution to laughter and joy were so much greater. The least I can do is to see past his ‘mental diabetes’ to celebrate his actual talent and contribution. And offer my deepest sympathies and condolences to his family and friends.
Rest well, Robin.