Bell Let’s Talk day is coming up January 29th so I’m extra mindful of the importance of engaging in conversations on mental illness and mental health awareness. The deeper I dive into this world, the more I see stigma’s far reaching effects. I hear first responders poking fun at one of their own. I know of military personnel labeling fellow serving members with their mental illness. I see teachers berating parents for behaviours that instead need compassion and understanding. We’re all good at preaching destigmatization, but we suck at practicing it.
I have often found myself in the position of being someone’s confidante: as a recreation staff at a private boarding school, as a kinesiologist in a physiotherapy clinic, as a teacher, as a running friend, and as someone on social media. Maybe it’s my personality or the roles I assume, but more than one person has reached out to me with the weight of the world on their shoulders.
I listen and am often pretty good at showing compassion and holding space for someone in need, and I’ve told more than one friend to reach out anytime day or night if they need to talk. Sometimes, though, that weight is shifted to your own shoulders and you find yourself in a difficult position. This is where preaching needs to translate to practicing and therein lies the rub.
If a friend or family member or client or patient disclosed to you that they were contemplating suicide, what would you do?
He or she is successful and respected. She has tons of friends and always has something on the go. He is able to get through work and even fits in time to attend your bootcamp class and looks like he’s got his shit together.
It’s 11:30pm and she posts an out of character message on social media. You know the challenges she’s been facing and you wonder if it’s a goodbye or a cry for help or maybe she just polished off that bottle of wine herself. Would you call the police?
You think about it and go back to the series you’re binge watching on Netflix. But it nags at you. After all, I’m not that close a friend. Surely their family will act. This isn’t my responsibility…right? You’re watching Joe lock someone in his plexiglass box but it’s there nagging at you…what if tonight is the night and I’m too late calling? Do people even do that? Will the police laugh at me?
Luckily I have a wide circle of awesome friends including paramedics and police officers so I asked for expert advice. I was told that they often to receive calls from concerns family and friends to check on the welfare of someone, but I wasn’t convinced I’d be doing the right thing.
Will the neighbours all talk when the police show up at her door this late at night? Maybe I should reach out to mutual friends instead…good idea but I seem to be one of few night owls out there and no one responded. No…she won’t actually go through with it tonight…will she? She’ll be so embarrassed and will hate me forever for humilating her this way.
This is where stigma hides, folks.
If I knew that Joe Goldberg was on his way to her house I wouldn’t hesitate, but contemplating suicide is so much quieter. It hides beneath the surface and taunts its host like a dark parasite. Would I be concerned that her neighbours would look at her differently or avoid her at the grocery store? There’s nothing embarrassing about murder so why does suicide get regarded as something to be ashamed of?
That dark parasite was making me question my own gut instincts so I reached out to another friend…he asked if calling the police felt like what the deepest part of my soul was asking me to do. Without hesitation I responded Absolutely! Make the call, he said.
That was the hardest call I’ve ever had to make. Knowing I might be too late already. Knowing my friend might be so angry at me she’d never talk to me again. Knowing her entire life might change because of this one phone call. But I care too much to not act.
My practice kicked in and told my preach to take a back seat: I’d rather be ignored by my friend then make sure her favourite song is played at her memorial service. Make the damn call.
I called dispatch and expressed my concerns and shortly after, received a call from the officer on duty who wanted more information. I felt like I had to convince the officer that my concerns were justified and I refused to assume the role of over reacting hysterical woman (I was fairly calm, actually). He said he’d let me know how it went and the 15 minutes I waited for that phone call had me angry and scared and I was literally dizzy.
“Your friend is just fine, ma’am. Thank you for calling and have a good night.” I immediately rolled over and fell asleep, exhausted. In fact, it took me a couple of days to come down from the whole thing.
Helping professions are not for the faint of heart. I am including fitness trainers and coaches in this group of teachers, nurses, medics, police officers, et al., because helping someone along their journey of physical transformation has a huge mental and emotional component that cannot be ignored. We often meet people when they’re vulnerable and in need of acceptance and compassion and they look to us for guidance and safety.
We can receive professional development on mental health first aid and stigma still makes us hesitate. We worry about the effect on his reputation and on our relationship moving forward. We doubt the depth of her crisis. We attend workshops and conferences and read everything we can get our hands on, but when it’s real and weighing you down at this very moment, stigma holds us back.
When someone shares the weight of the world with you, you end up bearing some of that weight yourself. You need to prepare yourself to do the hard thing and to assume the costs of doing so. You might lose a client, but you might gain one for life. I’d rather lose a client but know that they got the help they needed because of my actions.
Acknowledge that mental health is as important as physical health. Show yourself the same compassion you show those around you and seek help processing the weight of what you’ve just gone through.
Practicing what you preach takes strength, but it’s your call.