Mental Health Awareness Week I: Reactivity

A friend of mine once made a suicide attempt.

Afterwards, a nurse asked my friend whether the suicide attempt had to do with “a fight with a boyfriend, or something.”  In the week that followed, my friend was asked this on three separate occasions.  (As an aside, I wonder whether a man would have been asked that same question so many times)

This makes me want to say two things:

  1. Often, depression is reactive (a response to life events).
  2. Often, depression is not reactive.

Of course, many people with a mental health problem will tell you that there are triggers for a relapse (just as many people, with or without a mental health problem, will tell you that they have triggers for their moods).  But many times, there may be no (at least obvious) trigger for an episode of depression, or psychosis, or (hypo)mania.  Just as mental illness doesn’t necessarily stem from trauma, a suicide attempt isn’t necessarily a reaction to a circumstance, or set of circumstances, that contribute to a person feeling suicidal.  So for my friend (who was not actually experiencing “trouble with a boyfriend, or something”) there may or may not have been other triggers that led her to be in that situation.  The point is, it is important not to jump to conclusions about people and their mental health.

If we can’t get away from the big “why” (“why do you feel like this?”) we risk isolating people who simply don’t know why they feel the way they do, except that they do.  Putting pressure on someone to come up with reasonable explanations for how they are feeling is simply not helpful.  It could be that there is a trigger that someone doesn’t actually want to share with you.  It could be that they will share it at a later time, when they are ready.  Or it could be that there is no trigger– and that’s OK.  To be there for someone, you don’t need to know why, unless they need you to know why.  You need to know what they want to happen next and how you can support them.  You need to know when is the time to intervene and you need to know who they want to be involved.  You need to know where they’re at in terms of how they’re feeling and whether they’re in danger.  But you don’t always need to know why.

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