THE BLOG

Mind Your Language - Talking About Mental Health

08/05/2017 17:24 BST | Updated 08/05/2017 17:24 BST
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Natalie had a difficult birth with her second child. Apparently.

I wasn't there of course (being neither parent nor practitioner), but I almost feel like I was.

Such was the intimate and visceral (not to mention anatomically detailed) portrait painted in my mind by way of conversational titbits flying overhead one day in the office. No-one involved in the chat appeared to feel awkward about the exchange, and no-one else overtly took issue with it, though the details were enough to make many a prudish Brit blush.

Not every office would play host to such lurid chat, but you can be sure that most will hear conversations on a variety of health topics regularly. If a colleague has had a cold, measles or even a bout of Delhi Belhi, you run the risk of hearing more about it than strictly necessary (and probably timed as you take your first bite of lunch). And we'll all have had workmates talking of their dodgy knee that'll need surgery or the upcoming root canal surgery they've been dreading.

Given this national pastime of oversharing, buoyed further by the unstoppable juggernaut that is our collective social media obsession, why aren't there more public conversations matters of the mind, on anxiety, stress and depression?

The way we as a society discuss mental health (or don't) is very different to how we talk about physical illness. This is, to a large extent, a result of attitudes towards the two branches of our health. They are barely seen as comparable, let alone intrinsically linked, as they actually are. And, where one is all too readily brought up in conversation, the other is still taboo.

Imagine you're going to see your GP. Discussing a bout of flu or a sore throat is not going to worry the majority of us. It's straightforward. We go in, serve up a soupçon of symptoms, get checked over and are offered a diagnosis, complete with a side salad of suggested treatments. It's not always that simple of course (thanks to NHS resource issues and waiting times), but in the main it works well enough.

And, most of us would be happy not only to discuss a range of bodily ailments with our doctor, but to seek advice at the early stages of a problem's onset. Hurt your back and you'll book an appointment as soon as you can, maybe the same day.

If you're going to the doctor because you're feeling anxious or depressed however, my guess is that a) you'll have been feeling that way for weeks, months or even years and b) you've only sought help because you've reached breaking point. It could even quite easily be someone else that has identified that there's an issue to address.

Is this crisis mentality partly to blame for mental health not being raised as a topic among friends and colleagues? Bigger concerns are harder to share than small ones, but mental health tends to need to hit a real low before it comes up in conversation. I also imagine that even close-knit families and those in relationships are not always having the conversations that really they should.

I don't think it helps that we don't have the breadth of language to cover the range of issues that mental health encompasses.

In language terms, issues are viewed as either non-existent or catastrophic. When talking about a cold, you have a broad spectrum of suffering that can be expressed. You can have anything from a bit of a sniffle to full-blown flu and place yourself on a sliding scale, depending on your current state. We are far less inclined to talk about matters of the mind in this way. When did you last hear someone talk publicly about feeling a little down or a bit mentally frazzled?

As well as the fear most of us have about admitting to not being 'okay', we don't appear to have words to express the low levels of mental health problems we all experience in life. Clinically determined conditions are one thing, but there are a multitude of states we can find ourselves in from one day to the next.

It is not a binary issue, but it's common for us to think of someone as being basically fine (whatever THAT means) or depressed, with nothing in between. And if there's no in-between, how can we talk about the journey from feeling good to feeling grim and back again? Or about the low-level bouts of feeling low that we all go through in life?

Discussing mental health problems only once they manifest themselves as extreme cases means that we aren't talking about the smaller things that all add up - that little snowball that grows and grows to unmanageable proportions.

It's possible we're not quite ready to talk about all our mini-anxieties and smaller stresses by the office watercooler just yet, but if you're feeling low or strung out, make sure you share with friends and family if you can. And look out for people around you too, as you never know who might need a friendly ear.

We may not have the language to express it as well and readily as we do our physical issues, but that's no excuse not to talk about our mental health.

Start a conversation.