I once had the privilege of meeting Sally Brampton, the renowned editor and journalist whose writing about her struggles with depression and alcohol pioneered the greater openness about mental health that we see today.
When Brampton first discussed her attempt to take her own life in The Daily Telegraph back in 2003, some believed that her honesty would destroy her career. On the contrary, the article launched a new phase as an advice columnist and mental health advocate. Her writing helped millions, myself included, and continues to do so even after her suicide in May 2016.
Sally hugged me while promising that similar confessions happened all the time
During our brief conversation in October 2013, hello was immediately followed by a teary outpouring of the mental health difficulties that had long plagued me – then embarrassed apologies about over-sharing. Sally hugged me while reassuringly promising that similar confessions happened all the time. ‘There is no small talk in my life anymore’, she half-joked.
At that time, I had no idea that a few years later I too would grow used to hearing others’ heartfelt tales about their mental health. When people learn that you write about mental health, they want to engage. One of the most meaningful conversations I’ve ever had about what it’s really like to live with ongoing conditions was with a woman who happened to be sat next to me in a coffee shop; work got pushed to one side in favour of a shared experience that we probably both wished we didn’t have.
There are times when openness can become too demanding
However there are times when openness can become too demanding. At a recent work event, a new acquaintance talked at length about her history of mental health issues. When another forcibly turned the conversation to me, I unthinkingly continued with the same topic.
Yet as soon as the words ‘borderline personality disorder’ left my mouth, I regretted it. The party atmosphere didn’t feel like the right setting for such seriousness. I didn’t know these colleagues very well, and – no offence – I didn’t feel moved to forge a deep personal connection with them.
You cannot jumpstart intimacy
Furthermore sharing didn’t help to nurture a bond between us; instead it froze the three of us in a moment of extreme awkwardness.
There and then I realised that talking about mental health issues does not guarantee connection. You cannot jumpstart intimacy.
I didn’t want to share, so I didn’t
Lesson learnt, I practiced the art of not sharing when I found myself in the same situation at another work event this week. I’d barely spoken to the person before. My mind was on the events around us and I was enjoying the fun. So when he bought up his history of depression and anxiety, I deliberately held back. Of course I was not dismissive or uncaring; I asked good questions and showed empathy. But I stopped there.
I didn’t want to share, so I didn’t.
This may sound obvious but it isn’t. Many of us with mental health issues, myself included, struggle with appropriate boundaries and/or find it difficult to recognise, let alone honour, our own needs and wants.
Moreover, it is good to talk about mental health. It helps to tackle the lingering remnants of stigma. It demythologises and increases awareness. It is also beneficial for those with mental health issues, reducing isolation and forging social bonds.
But we shouldn’t feel pressured to share.
As social work professor and internationally lauded author of, among others, Daring Greatly and Rising Strong, Brené Brown argues, others have to earn the right to hear our stories. We cannot short circuit to connection simply by talking about our most vulnerable issues.
In our desire to create a parity of esteem between physical and mental health, we need to avoid the danger of going too far the other way.
Whether publicly or privately, in the written word or spoken, we do not have to overshare – or even share at all.