We know that many more people don’t seek help with their mental health, often until their symptoms have become extremely distressing. So, why can opening up about our experiences of mental ill health be so difficult?
One of the main reasons is that human nature has evolved two strategies for coping with distress which are quite different – each of us will tend to rely upon one or the two strategies.
The first strategy seeks to cope with distress by communicating how we feel to others – we sometimes describe this as ‘offloading’ or venting. This approach has given rise to the proverb ‘a problem shared is a problem halved’ and tends to work well for people who have strong social support networks.
Because they tend to be open to talking about how they feel, people who are wired to handle feelings in this way are more likely to seek help when they experience distress.
The second strategy works by suppressing strong feelings, ‘keeping a lid on it’, while seeking a solution to whatever is causing their distress. People who are wired to handle difficult feelings in this way may find the prospect of talking about things makes them feel even more distressed.
This is especially the case if they are managing the symptoms of trauma, which may include intrusive thoughts and memories, flashbacks and fight or flight reactions – angry outbursts or panic attacks.
Understandably, if a person is wired to handle strong feelings in this way then they are unlikely to be enthusiastic about talking about how they feel. And, if they cannot find the solution to a problem, they may avoid seeking help if they think it will require talking about things which they find upsetting.
Another reason people may avoid talking is that the phrase ‘opening up’ is a metaphor which suggests that by talking about a problem we are opening up old wounds. This is not very helpful if a person is trying to avoid distress, so try to use healthier metaphors for describing how to talk about difficult feelings – ‘getting it off your chest’ or ‘finding some solutions’ might work better to create hope for positive change.
However, we also know that mental health exists along a continuum between a state of wellbeing to severe mental ill health and that stress is the crossover point. If we don’t address stress, it can give rise to anxiety and depression, and if we don’t address the symptoms of anxiety and depression then they can become worse the longer we leave it.
So how can we encourage people to seek help when they need it? Here are some suggestions.
The first port of call when seeking help should always be the GP. Remember that GPs are used to talking to people about their mental health as about half of their appointments are with people experiencing stress, anxiety or depression.
Before they go to the GP ask the person you are supporting if they know their preferred strategy for handling distress – do they want to talk it through or problem solve? If they know this then it can help the GP make better suggestions.
If a friend or family member tells you that they are experiencing distress, don’t encourage them to disclose or retell the details of painful events, or ‘play’ at being a counsellor. They may choose to share personal details when seeking professional help, but this should be done when they are in a calm state so as not to make the symptoms worse.
It’s useful to know that, very often, people who take the first step towards seeking help experience their mood lifting. It’s really important that they follow through on this first step so that they keep the light at the end of the tunnel in sight.
For more information about mental health and wellbeing visit suffolkmind.org.uk or call 0300 111 6000.