I was very thankful to get a seat on the tube, coming home late Wednesday evening. The evening of World Mental Health Day. It was a pretty standard tube ride home, until I noticed that the girl in the seat next to me was sobbing her heart out. Trying to hide it by covering her face with her hair. Stifling the sounds that she was making as she cried.
I spent a stop or two racked with indecision; what should I do? How could I best help this girl? I’m still learning the cultural norms of this country. However, I already know it’s not really the British way to recognise other people’s darker emotions. There is a culture of not talking about what we feel, not expressing our internal lives in the UK. It’s clear from the rocketing suicide rates, the levels of problematic drinking and drug dependency, the reported increase in social isolation, anxiety and depression that keeping it all in and dealing with it by yourself just doesn’t work.
So what did I end up doing?
I offered the girl a tissue and asked her if she was okay. She reacted with embarrassment, apologising repeatedly for “looking crazy”. I said to her that it was no biggie. Much as most of us don’t want to admit it we’ve all had days where a good cry on the tube late at night would probably have done us some good. I’m not sure that she believed me, but I’ve cried on public transport in a bunch of different countries for a bunch of different reasons.
There’s no wonder that there’s still such a stigma that surrounds mental illness in this country, indeed in most of the western world. This poor girl, who had clearly had a very bad day, equated being emotional and upset with being crazy. Rather than feeling okay to express her sadness and frustration, she turned everything inwards. When we do that, we send powerful negative messages to ourselves. We also deny our community the chance to be aware that we are in pain or that we need help.
By now we all know that early intervention and a good support network are crucial to people resolving their mental health challenges and going on to lead fulfilled and happy lives. By trying to hide what you feel you’re denying yourself access to both those things. The very things that could benefit you. Keep you healthy and enjoying life. It can be tricky to find someone you feel comfortable talking to, but it’s worth the effort.
What can you do?
I hope that you’ll never have such a terrible day that you need to sit on the tube and weep. But if you see someone who is having that day, reach out and be the person who offers that tissue and a word of comfort. Don’t leave discussions of mental health for World Mental Health Day. Be connected, open up and communicate. Talk about what you’re thinking and feeling and give others the space and opportunity to do the same. That’s the key to better mental health.