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Deadly Silence: Why Do We Find It So Hard to Talk About Emotional Distress?

20/04/2015 21:29 BST | Updated 20/06/2015 10:59 BST

The recent Panorama programme by the journalist Simon Jack revealed some startling statistics about male suicide.

Men are four times more likely to kill themselves than women. It's thought to be the biggest cause of death for men under the age of 50. On average, a hundred men die in this way every week. And this figure has been steadily rising over the last 14 years.

Jack's documentary attempted to uncover why. Amongst the many theories he considered, the one he kept coming back to was this: that men find it difficult to tell anyone when they are low and struggling with suicidal thoughts and feelings.

But why is it that they find it so difficult to open up? Is it simply the shame of not being 'man enough' and the stigma of suffering from some kind of mental health problem? Is it our 'grin and bear it' culture that teaches us that the ideal man is strong - both physically and mentally?

I'm not denying that these are huge factors. They probably account for why many people find it difficult, if not impossible, to tell anyone when they are going through emotional turmoil.

But is there more to it than that? If we are truly going to understand why men, and also women, find it hard to talk about emotional distress do we perhaps need to dig a little deeper.

I'm intrigued by this question because I know that when I found myself in the midst of an emotional crisis, I didn't tell a soul.

In my case I was preoccupied by intrusive thoughts that filled my mind virtually every moment of the day and a knawing anxiety that took hold every morning before I'd even opened my eyes. It started a few months before the birth of my first daughter and lasted for a couple of years.

On paper, I should be an ideal candidate for expressing my feelings. I am female. I have a number of emotionally intelligent friends who I could have turned to for support. And perhaps most significantly of all, I'm a clinical psychologist. Talking therapies are my bread and butter. It's what I do at work every day: encouraging people to talk about and make sense of difficult thoughts and feelings.

And still I told no one. In fact, writing this article is the closest I've come to acknowledging this period in my life publicly. I've spent much time pondering why I found it so hard to tell anyone about my state of mind. These are the reasons as I understand them.

Shame, stigma and the fear of appearing weak

As I've already mentioned, shame and stigma are huge barriers to talking about mental health issues, and they were for me too.

It's so much easier to talk about physical problems. I will talk and laugh with my friends till the cows come home about some pretty gruesome, and frankly quite embarrassing, details of my experiences of giving birth.

But to talk about emotional problems is much harder. For me, telling anyone that I was struggling with my state of mind was to admit that there was something defective about me as a person.

It's just so easy, and tempting, to say nothing

When it comes to things going on in one's mind it's much easier, on the face of it, to keep quiet. "No one can see what's going on. If I just try to act normal then maybe in time it will go away." This was the kind of flawed reasoning I remember using.

Fear of making things worse

There was also a fear of the thoughts getting worse if I said them out loud, and a vague sense that this could somehow lead to me completely falling apart. I imagined myself trying to put into words the way I was feeling and being emotionally overwhelmed by the effort of doing so.

Fear of not being understood

I feared not being able to articulate clearly what was going on in my mind and not being understood. The prospect of attempting, and failing, to communicate how I was feeling was quite frightening. I felt the best strategy was to try to make sense of what I was experiencing alone.

Not knowing how to initiate the conversation

As a psychologist, this really shouldn't have been something I had a problem with - but I did. When should I do it? Where? With who? I know I was just making up excuses, but the right time just never seemed to come up.

Wanting to hold something back - to be used only as a last resort

I didn't want to tell someone and things not get better. The thought of opening up but the situation not improving was quite terrifying. What would I do then?

I wanted to keep this final card close to my chest, only playing it if and when I absolutely had to. It was like not wanting to take a paracetamol until your headache gets really bad. The problem with this approach is that, by the time the pain is bad enough to warrant that paracetamol, it might have become a migraine. And by then it's a lot harder to deal with.

A conviction that talking about it couldn't change anything anyway

In my case, I felt that I was seeing the world more clearly than I'd ever done. I was preoccupied by what I believed to be fundamental truths about life that could not be questioned. For this reason, I was utterly convinced that there was nothing anyone could say that could possibly change the way I was feeling.

Fear of passing on problems to someone else

Because I was convinced that these truths were at the root of my anxiety, I strongly believed that if I told anyone else, that they would inevitably start to feel the same way. The last thing I wanted was to be responsible for that.

Not wanting to be a mental health cliché

It's fantastic that many people now do feel able to talk openly about their mental health issues and about episodes of depression they've experienced or their ongoing battle with anxiety. I applaud, and am slightly in awe of, such people.

Nonetheless, when it came to me, I felt like people might think I was jumping on some mental health bandwagon. I thought I'd be labeled as just the most recent person to 'be depressed'.

Five years on I've come out the other side of this experience. My fear that I would feel that way for the rest of my life has proved not to be true. I now know that what can seem like a hopeless situation need not necessarily be.

In this article I've listed the reasons why I found it difficult to talk about my state of mind. I've no doubt there are countless other reasons why people, both men and women, find it difficult to talk about emotional distress.

I think there is an urgent need to try to unpick as many of these reasons as possible. If we are going to encourage people to open up, particularly when they are struggling with suicidal thoughts and feelings, we need to better understand why they aren't doing so at the moment.

With improved understanding, we can address these reasons. And perhaps more people will then find the courage that is so desperately needed - to talk.