Don’t get me wrong – I don’t think the circumstances are static or insurmountable – things are changing for the better, but slowly and ponderously, and when you think of the number of lives lost each year for reasons associated with mental illness, it becomes starkly apparent that slow and ponderous change is something that a portion of society just doesn’t have time for.
And yet…we know that the best way to support and encourage people with mental health problems is to include them, accept them, engage with them and be present for them…but we’re not all superheroes, and we don’t all have unlimited amounts of time to spend on people who are, frankly, quite often very complex and difficult to deal with.
Mental illness can be an intensely isolating experience, both for the person who has it, and for the people around them. In my own encounters with it (both from within the grips of it, and from the position of trying to support other people as they grapple with their conditions) I’ve observed that feelings of desperate loneliness and aloneness can combine with feelings of low self-worth, and convince the sufferer that their friends-and-relations, their acquaintances and colleagues, and indeed the world at large, are better off without them.
Sometimes the lie is understood to be such, but even with understanding, the feelings are rarely mitigated, and it takes time and effort and huge support before an even keel can be reached again (assuming that’s even an achievable outcome). Often, in order to ‘protect’ those closest to them, the sufferer will actively push them away and reject them, adopting this as an effective measure to loosen the chords of friendship.
In those times, it’s incredibly frustrating to have your attempts at connection consistently rebuffed, blocked, and sometimes just ignored. Finding a way in can be a nightmare, and quite often, there just isn’t the time or energy to invest into that kind of interaction – life goes on beyond the mentally-ill person’s condition, and houses need cleaning, children and spouses need feeding and money needs earning.
Fortunately there are an increasing number of resources to aid connection.
One I stumbled across recently was an up-and-coming book – Dear Stephanie – which chronicles the life and times of one Paige Preston: a fiercely intelligent, beautiful lady of leisure, with an augmented body, as many hook-ups as she chooses to pursue, and a proclivity for cocaine (it’s NOT a habit). She’s also a tortured soul whose cripplingly low self-esteem, depression and determination to push people away result in her trying to take her own life.
This is a book which describes, in agonising detail, some of the very darkest thoughts of mental illness, as well as the toll it can take on the person trying to live with it and carry on as if everything was fine.
It also makes you care about Paige, and the outcomes for her (believe me – once you’ve gotten over your shock at how outrageous she is at the start of the book, you begin to see a vulnerable, beautiful person below the mask, and gently as a feather-kiss, you fall for her and start to empathise), and most importantly, it demonstrates that ANYONE can have mental health problems. Anyone.
For the sufferer, that’s HUGE, because they know that not only are they not alone, they are SO not alone that someone like them has broken through the taboos and made it into new literature as the protagonist.
For the supporter, it’s HUGE because it might just prove to be a way in; after all – books are great escapism, and this tale, compellingly told by Mandi Castle, has the potential to serve as an arena for engagement and frank communication.
For the bystander it matters because it normalises mental illness and brings it into the mainstream. It helps to destigmatise it and make it a safer topic to talk about (especially in the context of a smartly-written and hella sexy, hot-off-the-press piece of literature), which might mean that when they encounter someone with a mental illness, they react with compassion rather than anxiety, and engagement rather than fear.
Those connections, once made, might prove the difference between someone feeling so terrible and alone that they try to kill themselves, because believe me, when you’re on a knife-edge, it doesn’t take a huge amount to sway you either way (though obviously I can only speak from the side of having been swayed back towards life, and that was because of the intervention and thought of the people who love me, and how I couldn’t hurt them by removing myself from their lives (but for me to feel that, there first had to be those deep connections)).
Which means that resources like this, which engage and promote understanding and compassion, might not only be pretty stories – they might save lives.
Dear Stephanie, by Mandi Castle, will be released on Monday 11th May, 2015 – pre-order your copy now – for you, for someone you care about who’s going through a rough patch or experiencing mental illness, or just because.
Talking about it matters, and reading about it HELPS. How do you connect with people who are struggling with mental illness? Do you think that bringing mental health issues ‘to the water cooler’ will help? Could books like Dear Stephanie be the answer?