In societies such as ours with a strong tradition of self-silencing, it appears that World Health Organization (WHO) has presented an enormous challenge this World Health Day 2017. The theme this year is ‘Depression: Let’s talk’.
Aware as I am of the potentially high visceral punch of any reference to slavery, it seems to me that the inescapable reality of a past that includes the trauma of slavery, has an important influence on the way we have come to experience and express emotion.
In the view of their masters, slaves were not ‘supposed’ to have feelings. They were not ‘supposed’ to be affected by overwork, flogging, sudden and irrevocable family separation, rape and other atrocities inflicted upon them on a daily basis. Emotional expression was punished and silence was life preserving.
In modern times, social media promised a platform to connect us with friends and family and keep us up to date with our social circles. An easier, quicker way to ‘talk’. With over two billion active social media accounts online, it would be easy to assume, that with this new technology, we would feel more connected, closer to others and thus happier. However, while there is little doubt about the beneficial role of social media, specifically in the area of information sharing, questions abound about the impact of social media on our communications, our happiness and on other aspects of our lives.
Posts on the ever-growing social media depict the best of day-to-day life – the best angles for selfies, outstanding accomplishments, grand outings and the happiest family moments. The attention and feedback we receive lights up the reward centre in our brain and this keeps us wanting to share more and more similar content. Increasingly, however, we are coming to the realization that social media images tend to portray a life that is devoid of the balance of everyday experience.
In fact, social media is not just used to show the best of life but sometimes to convey the impression of a false ‘perfect life,’ which often differs dramatically from reality. So, while we are technologically more connected than ever, the WHO is finding that globally, more than 300 million people of all ages suffer from depression and that the burden of depression and other mental health conditions is on the rise. How can we reconcile this?
Culturally, we can give testament to a shift – from overt avoidance of self-expression to a more modern day stance of perpetual chatter that seems to be skewed and devoid of deeper meaning. Unfortunately, none of these realities work in our favour. We seem to have a seemingly covert agreement not to talk. To really talk. I am not referring to talking about politics, or the state of crime or how poorly the Government is doing.
It seems that is all we talk about, to no avail, by the way. I am referring to talking, with our most trusted others, about our dreams and aspirations, our accomplishments, how inadequate we feel at times (or all the time), how depressed we feel, our hurts, our traumas, our sense of failure, our worries, our inappropriate desires and our fears. I am talking about the things that keep us up at night and which, perhaps unsurprisingly, connect us all beyond the cloak of socio-economic class, political divide, education, race, age and sex and sexual orientation.
Our tradition seems to discourage open displays of emotions to maintain social and familial harmony and/or to avoid exposure of personal weakness. In a culture where we are expected to be able to deal with the worst catastrophes and traumas in silence under the guise of “being strong”, the need for support is often mistakenly interpreted as a sign of weakness.
If we are “being strong” we are showing the best of ourselves despite the unimaginable circumstances of our lives. The cultural imperative of “being strong” constitutes the culturally approved way of managing the culturally stigmatized experience of depression. It conveys control and independence and attracts praise and respect. Who then would not want to “be strong”?
On the other hand, engaging in introspection is seen as the root of psychological problems rather than a method of alleviating problems or preventing them from worsening. The act of exploring our experiences, past and present, is seen to be “dwelling on things”, a process that will allegedly take us to the brink…no, perhaps the depths of insanity. The cultural imperatives of “being strong” and not “dwelling on” work in tandem to sustain the silence.
What is most striking, is that for some, clearly destructive ways of coping (e.g. drinking, abuse of prescription and over the counter drugs to name a few) seem to be inadvertently sanctioned as preferable to seeking psychological help because they silence distress and, however dangerous, maintain the outward illusion of control. It does not matter the how, once we are ‘”being strong” and others around are not made uncomfortable by our displays of emotion. In fact, what we do know is that this way of “being strong” is critical in inducing depression and slowing or preventing recovery.
Rather than risking “dwelling on” and compromising other’s perception that we are “being strong”, some present with a more somatic balance of symptoms. Particularly recurrent in expression of emotion are discussions of pain, including headaches and backaches, as well as tightness in the chest, recurrent palpitations, fatigue, dizziness and upset stomach.
Somatic symptoms may mask depression or anxiety that the individual, for cultural reasons finds hard to talk about. For the very reasons previously discussed, physical complaints elicit compassion from others, whereas disclosure of psychological complaints present a potentially high risk of being judged. This is especially true for men.
However, living a healthy life, is neither about perpetually ruminating on all the worst aspects of our lives nor is it about trying to be happy all the time. It is about recognizing that we have a gamut of emotions – “happy” ones that are cozy and comfortable and not so comfortable ones like guilt, insecurity and shame.
Our attempts to distance ourselves from our uncomfortable emotions, to ignore them, to push them to the back of our mind and ultimately to try to “forget them”, seem to be some of the greatest perpetrators of self-destruction and violence at an individual and then at a wider societal level. Few know how, or are willing to be with their emotions, to understand them, to walk through them and in so doing gain the true freedom that comes from engaging with that part of themselves. And that encompasses true letting go, the opposite of trying to forget and burying.
So do we need to talk? Absolutely. Urgently. We need to have a good long talk. First, with ourselves and then, with each other. A real talk. Not one characterized by pleasantries and niceties but the kind of messy ‘emotional’ one that touches on our aspirations, our unfulfilled dreams, our imperfections…to sum it up, our humanity. We need to talk with our selves, to our children, our partners, we need to make peace with past hurts and pains and figure out how to capitalize on the future. We need to say ‘sorry’, ‘I love you’, ‘this is how you’ve made me a better person’…as a start. There’s so much we need to say.
Talking is a tool of remarkable potential. The more we can talk about what is happening inside our hearts and minds, the more power we will harness. The more freedom we can have. Giving expression to what we think and feel brings us face to face with ourselves in a way that might be intensely uncomfortable and whilst this may seem counterintuitive, it is the only productive way to deal with our emotions. For some, this may mean admitting the need for help.
The WHO campaign emphasizes the importance of talking about depression as a vital component of recovery. Talking with our most trusted others, though, is an important aspect of developing and maintaining a healthy balanced life and has relevance for all of us. Go ahead then. Start a conversation today. It’s about time we reclaim the talk.