‘Can you call me as soon as you get a minute?’ I hit send and a few minutes later my brother, who lives in Chicago, rang my mobile. It was then, over an echoey connection yesterday afternoon, I had to break the news that one of my brother’s close friends from primary school had tried to commit suicide by jumping under a train.
Earlier in the day I had bumped into this friend’s mum on the way to the shops. A simple ‘How are you?’ was all I said before she broke down, telling my what had happened. ‘It wasn’t a cry for help’, she explained. ‘He’d just worked out that this was his only option.’ He has been suffering from severe depression for almost 4 years, and has now reached the point where he can’t stand to be alive.
The news was shocking to my brother, and to my parents when I relayed the news to them later. ‘I would have never expected it in a million years,’ said my Dad. My brother had last seen his friend before he left for Chicago last year. Even though the friend had been suffering from severe depression for almost 3 years by that point he was ashamed to tell one of his oldest friends about his troubles. This is just one of a few incidents in my life that illustrate to me how much more open and accepting society needs to be about mental health.
In my 1st term at university a friend tried to hang themselves in their room, just meters from where I stood. In my 2nd year another friend started to self-harm, and over the years this escalated to a point where they even cut their face. I found out when they were recovering that both were ashamed – too scared to reach out for fear of what being diagnosed with a mental illness might mean, what people might assume about them.
The stigma around mental illness is still strong. I’ve been ashamed in the past to own up to the fact that I suffered from anxiety quite badly when I was younger (and still do infrequently today). When I was a teenager, my anxiety would prevent me staying over people’s houses, going to parties, and other activities. I became adept at finding excuses not to do these things so I wouldn’t have to reveal what was going on.
But over the years I have become a lot more open about the troubles I faced, the demons I overcame, and the fears I have about them coming back. When I opened up, nothing bad happened. Instead, friends provided support and many have told me about their own troubles. This may sound clichéd or familiar, but that because mental illness has and will touch everyone’s life in some way.
That’s why, when it’s comes to mental health, it’s time to talk and it’s time to listen.