Bell began the Let’s Talk initiative in 2010, whereby they would donate 5 cents to mental health initiatives every social media interaction using the #BellLetsTalk hashtag on a given day in January. That campaign is continuing today, with over 60 million interactions thus far (over $3 million by my quick and possibly inaccurate math). Whether or not you know it, mental illness has touched your life, as it remains even in 2017 something largely to keep quiet, to manage on your own, to pretend it can be just gotten over with a positive attitude. So chances are fairly strong that someone close to you is struggling with their mental health, and isn’t telling you about it. Maybe it’s somebody you haven’t heard from in a while; maybe it’s someone you see every single day. Maybe it’s somebody lying next to you in your bed, or playing with their toys down the hall.
Maybe it’s you.
The world lost one of its great talkers about mental health when Carrie Fisher passed away just a few weeks ago. She was never one to bear her illness quietly; rather, she blew the roof off the rafters whenever the opportunity presented. She refused to fit the metal-bikini-shaped mold of the demure, coy Hollywood ingenue that the public had been conditioned to expect. The irrepressible light who in a final wink of mirth had her ashes interred in a giant ceramic capsule of Prozac was who she was, and she gave little thought to the upturned noses of others, particularly those who wished, for whatever reason – their own discomfort at the bitter rawness of her truth perhaps – that she could be a little less open about the intimate details of her life.
Carrie Fisher spoke up and spoke out because she had to, because no one else was speaking for people like her. She never gave people the chance to forget because with mental health, it is all too easy to forget. When days or weeks slip by without an explosive incident, when a smile is forcibly pasted on to camouflage the pain, when by all rational measure you don’t look sick (the four words no one struggling with mental health ever needs to hear), the natural tendency to want things to be normal again makes us forget about the constant and often brutal fight taking place inside the mind of our friend or loved one. They may be crying out inside to talk about how they are feeling, but what is just as important is our willingness to listen.
Even the most compassionate can grow desensitized to the suffering of those closest to us, when the rare good days fade from memory and the bad days blur into one long unbroken string. We want to put it out of sight and out of mind by talking about something else, anything else, thinking perhaps that a series of mindless diversions is what the doctor ordered. That we can go into ostrich mode and pretend that since we haven’t heard them complain or seen them cry in a while, everything must be okay now. Without truly meaning to, we close ourselves off, and in doing so we eliminate the most important avenue they have – the ability to keep talking, to keep the conversation going. Talking is, ultimately, only one half of communication. Those doing the talking need to know that they are speaking to a receptive ear, and an engaged mind, for even the most precious words are lost in shouting them into the wind.
Most people with mental illnesses won’t be as outspoken as Carrie Fisher was, and millions of important stories will be lost in the day to day noise. More than simply showing your support by retweeting a hashtag on one designated day, I’d offer that a great way to get involved to help break the stigma of mental illness is to reach out to someone who seems to have gone quiet – someone whose words have grown few because no one is really listening to them. They may need you more than you realize. They need you to know that they’re important to you, that you’ve got their back, that you’ll stand with them as they engage in the hardest fight their life will ever know. Seek out their stories, and remind them that they haven’t been forgotten, that just because they don’t look sick doesn’t mean that they’re not as courageous as someone with cancer. Ask them to talk – and then shut up and listen. Listening is the first step to learning, after which comes doing – and that’s when things start getting better.