… and when and why is it ok to talk about mental health?

still thinking out loud

when and why do people get to talk about mental health?

there seem to be certain circumstances that make it more acceptable or easy to talk about mental health. as i am writing this i am telling myself that i need to be careful not to sound too cranky. “the curmudgeonly old advocate” is not a role that i am very well suited for. but it’s tempting, people, it’s tempting …

the truth is, there seems to be an unconscious fear of contagion. “if i get too close to you, will i catch your depression/anxiety/schizophrenia?” in a very, very roundabout way, it’s understandable where this comes from. we are sensitive to others’ emotion. harvard researchers, for example, found that happiness can be contagious (thanks for the reminder, aaron). i’ll be looking up research on “contagiousness” of mental illness as well.

however, some, perhaps much, of this fear is irrational. you don’t get the cooties from hanging out with someone with anxiety or PTSD. my (as yet unresearched) theory is that the irrational fear stems from old, instinctual fears that arose during times when humanity did not have the science to detect that the majority of diseases arise from causes such as bacteria, malnutrition, unsanitary practices or chemical imbalances.

all this is to say that when there is this fear of contagion, you talk about mental illness at your own risk. this fear seems to be strongest in the presence of ignorance. you know the silence that sits in a room like a rock when someone has the guts to say something like, “i wasn’t here last week because my meds got adjusted and i had to go to the hospital for a few days”? this thick, heavy, dense silence typically comes from fear and ignorance. fear and ignorance that OCD is contagious, but also lack of knowledge of what to say. we, the ones who know about mental illness first-hand, aren’t the only ones who don’t know how to talk about it. those who don’t know have even less of a clue.

so when is it a good time to talk about mental illness? since fear seems to be the problem here, the answer may just be, “when it’s safe.” that means situations like

  • when you’re in the presence of others with mental health issues (which is one of the major benefits of mental health camp)
  • when mental illness is far away, when others have it (e.g. when psychiatrists talk amongst each other; that is, psychiatrists who either don’t have a diagnosis themselves or if they have it, they’re secretive quiet about it)
  • to a lesser degree, when there is a “good reason” to have a mental health issue

yup, we’re coming back to the ignorance (and also to the cranky curmudgeon, apparently i can’t escape that role right now) because, you see, mental illness is apparently the kind of thing you only have a right to have (just for a short while, of course) if you have a “good reason”. a bit of postpartum depression is ok, about 3.5 weeks of depression caused by grief is ok, and if you’ve been raped or spent months in a crazy war, you’re also allowed to go off the rails for a little while. maybe.

someone i know is dealing with the acute, deep end of bipolar disorder right now. his family is pissed off; what is he doing going to the hospital when there are so many important things to do right now? and hasn’t he been to the hospital before and he still gets those silly crying jags, so clearly it doesn’t work? what a nuisance! mental health issues, like many other invisible illnesses, don’t seem to really exist for a lot of people, they are often treated like annoying idiosyncrasies.

boy, do i ever sound negative. let’s end with something a bit more uplifting. let’s think of a few more circumstances (the “why”) when it is at least somewhat safe to talk about mental health issues:

  • when the topic is to erase stigma
  • in art – literature, music, visual art, dance
  • in research

any more ideas?


  1. I completely agree with Evan and this is a subject that I have blogged about, both because I am acutely aware that I only speak about my experiences in “safe” context, and that I feel quite hypocritical for doing so….

    Other safe places for me include in educating people (a lot of my speaking has gone on with people I would assume to have some knowledge – when in fact it has been basic at best); and people who have been indirectly affected by mental health, and are keen to understand.

    I’d also add that I have been surprised by how respectful people have been when I talk about my experiences, and how openness is seem as an asset – leading to increased open-ness from others – which I stumbled upon, rather than expected…

    A great post on a really interesting subject. Thank you.

  2. thanks, evan. as always, an insightful comment.

    nice to meet you here, melissa! why do you feel hypocritical?

    yes, it’s surprising how little people know about mental health and mental illness. actually, that would be an interesting little project, to dig up some information on what constitutes common knowledge about the topic. (“you mean people with depression AREN’T just lazy?”)

    love what you say about openness! i bet it works better than crankiness 🙂

  3. When you are a celebrity romanticizing your disorder in a bestseller. It can even appear trendy and cool in those situations. I think that because there is so much “not pretty” about these disorders that we non-celebrities and non-doctors really do need to be discriminating who we discuss mental health with.
    .-= Damien S. Riley´s last blog ..Following the Old School Way =-.

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