Why are we so dishonest about mental health?

This week, as the media talks about mental health, as big institutions make sure the topic is broached, why not try broaching it yourself in some small, gentle way, and see how your life is improved by this one step, writes Joyce Fegan

Maeve Binchy grew up believing ‘How are you?’ is a greeting, not a question, and that we want to hear that the other person is ‘fine’ or ‘grand’. Not responding with how we truly feel is a form of self-protection, but maybe we should start opening up.
Maeve Binchy grew up believing ‘How are you?’ is a greeting, not a question, and that we want to hear that the other person is ‘fine’ or ‘grand’. Not responding with how we truly feel is a form of self-protection, but maybe we should start opening up.

THE following advice comes from the late Maeve Binchy.

“‘How are you?’ is a greeting, not a question. We don’t want to know how people are, we want to hear they are fine,” the novelist wrote in 2008.

This advice was passed down to her from her father. It is more than Binchy household advice though, it is a mutual national understanding, a part of Irish DNA, as much as our obsession with the weather is.

When you ask someone how they are, or indeed, when someone asks you how you are, we instinctively know the only acceptable answer is “fine” or “grand”.

Next Monday marks the start of World Mental Health Week. Schools might talk about it. Students’ unions may hold events. Companies will send emails inviting employees to the canteen for muffins or sourdough doughnuts. You’ll read articles in the media about it. You’ll hear ordinary people’s testimonies on talk radio, but in most Irish homes and towns the week will go as normal.

When someone asks you how you are, you will instinctively say “fine” or “grand”.

I dare you not to.

Sometimes, the problem is not the weight of the worry we carry, but our inability to be honest about it with others.

When it comes to our mental health, why are we so dishonest about it? It’s not really dishonesty though, it’s about self-protection.

We don’t want to burden others with our problems. We berate ourselves with: “Sure what have I got to be worried about?” We minimise our burdens when we see the struggles of our neighbours, friends, or siblings.

We are ashamed: “I have a job, my health and a roof over my head, I’ve no excuse to be feeling like this. People will think I’m mad if I tell them I sometimes find it hard to get out of bed, or off to sleep at all.”

And what all those beliefs have in common is that they swirl around, all alone, in their owner’s head. They’re never challenged. They never get verified. And they definitely never get shared.

A huge public health study by Corey Keyes from Emory University in Georgia revealed some very interesting and, when repeated, consistent data.

He found that, across the developed world, about 16% of population enjoy good mental health, 54% have adequate mental health, enough to get by on, and 20% of people are in some kind of treatment or have a diagnosis. The other 10% are languishing.

Which group do you belong to?

If you are in the 16%, keep up whatever it is you’re doing. But if you’re in the largest group of 54%, neither in treatment, nor avoiding help altogether, let’s lift the hood.

Recently, the CEO of Mental Health Ireland, Martin Rogan, was asked what one big thing could be done to improve mental health in Ireland.

“If a stingy leprechaun only gave me one wish, I would wish for a society where human connection is fostered,” he told the Irish Examiner.

He was talking about connection, and its opposite, loneliness.

You can be 24 and lonely. You can live in a vibrant city and feel lonely. You can be 95, and after a life of having the wherewithal to tell close friends and family how you really are, not feel lonely at all. It doesn’t take much.

In a recent conversation with my busy sister, I took my own advice, not that of Binchy’s father. I woman-ed up when she enquired as to how I was. I didn’t go with “fine” or “grand”, I answered honestly. After about a 20-second face-to-face interaction, all was well, and it still is, because honesty is sometimes all it takes.

It’s not the weight of the worry we carry, but our inability to share it.

Binchy said that what we really want to talk about is “the theatre festival, about politicians, about new restaurants, about the traffic, about the WB Yeats exhibition, about people’s families, their friends, their travels, their jobs, their retirement, about the odd scandal that has gloriously erupted from nowhere”.

And she is right, too. Who doesn’t love to receive a snippet of gossip or be directed towards a nice meal?

But maybe in the midst of such fine conversation, we can make the smallest amount of space for a brave “how are you?” and allow for an even braver answer that doesn’t start and finish with a “fine” or a “grand”.

THOSE conversations don’t need to happen with everyone you meet this week, but you could pick one person, one opportunity, and see how it feels to break that long-standing Irish social rule.

The former surgeon general of the United States, Vivek Murthy, said loneliness was as dangerous for our health as smoking.

A brave conversation with a close friend or trusted family member is just one tool in a strong mental health arsenal, but there are others too.

Joining a local club or group, not to talk, but just to enjoy a mutual love of sport or to get one hour a week to yourself, is one. Staying off the smartphone after 8pm, is another.

The next one might not be for everyone, but getting a dog is a sure way to make sure you get stopped by at least six passers-by on your now mandatory daily stroll. “How are you?” definitely won’t come up, the weather might, but these little interactions send the endorphins flying.

There is a lot to be said for taking action, for doing one thing consistently, in order to solve a problem.

Soon enough you might find out that the very problem or secret you felt smothered by, wasn’t that big of a deal at all. And that one short conversation was all it took to sort it.

This week, as the media talks about mental health, as big institutions make sure the topic is broached, why not try broaching it yourself in some small, gentle way, and see how your life is improved by this one step.

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