“In the end we will remember, not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”
– Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
We are trained in our society to hide our pain and compress our fears.
We are conditioned to share our happiness with everyone, yet keep our sorrow to ourselves, locked up in box and closed off from our little worlds.
We are brainwashed to look the other way when someone sheds a tear.
We are convinced that others will be there to help so we don’t try, we don’t make the effort ourselves.
We are satisfied with the level of our education and awareness on something and don’t take the time to reflect on what more we can learn.
We are comfortable with staying comfortable, sustaining comfort and removing any discomfort, focusing on the immediate gratification we can absorb from our comfort zones.
Sometimes not saying something is much worse than saying anything at all. It can also be a sign of indifference. But it gets tricky, because at times, the things we say, can be more harmful.
But when we learn that we have said something wrong, we don’t make the effort to understand how, why, and what can be done to remedy that. Instead we pull back, become silent, and remain silent.
For many, this silence creates more harm. For me, the silence is the worst.
There is a notion of silence that promotes the calming of the mind, through meditation and mindfulness, and focusing on the present, where the act of silence can be nurturing, soothing, and helpful. A place of serenity where we can escape and perhaps connect to the “Divine” in order to achieve some peace.
But silence, from another perspective, can have serious consequences. When it comes down to any sort of human suffering, silence is the definition of cowardice. When we refer to mental health awareness, silence for the individual suffering can be more dangerous. So for some, not speaking up can mean shame and pain, and a time where we allow the voices to take over and let is drown us further in our suffering. In other ways, the silence of the people around them can mean indifference, lack of care, lack of interest, which can further fuel their already existing sentiments of hopelessness and worthlessness.
And when someone does say something, even if it is the wrong thing, at least an attempt was made. At least it shows some sort of “care.” At least there is an opportunity for a learning moment. And it remains commendable even as it was unhelpful, as long as we are open to critique, open to learning the right things to say, open to recognizing that silence is worse than not saying or doing anything at all, but saying the right things is just as important.
We don’t know what to say, and we don’t want to say anything that could be taken the wrong way, so we don’t say anything at all. But regardless of the challenge of knowing what to say, we should never shy away from saying something. Yet, we need to care enough to increase our understanding, which isn’t always the case.
Every time I think about a death by suicide incident, I wonder, what could I have done in my own way, in my own life to prevent such a tragedy, even if I do not know them? What could I do to help someone in my own life even though the person who died so tragically is not in my circles? We failed that person. We failed them miserably. They needed help. Their pain was beyond unbearable, and their life was taken so tragically. They didn’t “choose” to take their life, it was the disease that took them.
Since I have opened up about my illness two years ago, many people have written to me either in a post or in a message telling me they are struggling as well, and letting me know that “I am not alone.” Although, I take issue with that statement, as I believe 99% of the time we are alone, and we have to fight this alone, the good intentions are clear, and I embrace their messages as both a sign of concern as well as a sign of solidarity and consolation, knowing that this is an epidemic that is bigger than any one person, but each person suffering, matters, uniquely.
I had lost a number of friends the past two years, and especially in the past year or so. We can’t help but speculate the reason why people come in and out of our lives. But I know some of that may be connected to not just my condition, but my openness about my state of health and the larger conversation surrounding mental health.
Despite that, I also made friends too. I try to think of that to compensate the pain from certain people I had grown to love closing their doors on me. A part of me always wonders if the new people in my life would stick around once they see how open I am about my condition. Would I be burning a bridge? It is always a risk, especially in my area of profession, and in the DC area I love so much, which I have often called the “Hollywood of Politics.”
And sometimes, admittedly, I want to turn back, and just be a part of the “normal conversations,” not raise anything “questionable.” And just “be professional.” Because apparently, talking about mental or physical illness, especially in a personal way, even if it extends to something larger, is “unprofessional.” But then I remind myself if I am going to be in this, if I am going to devote a part of my life, just a part of it, to “mental health advocacy,” especially knowing firsthand the suffering behind it, and knowing the urgency of this issue at-large, than I have to go all in, my way and the way I know best: breaking the “silence,” and breaking the “walls” and “barriers.”
It is not a choice people make: to be in pain. Pain is a natural part of life, yes. We will continue to experience it indefinitely. But in certain cases, that emotional and mental “Pain” is not always a choice. You can’t just make it disappear in an hour or two by popping a pill. It is not about attitude, or positivity, or prayers, or the Divine, or anything like that.
Our choices come when we are in a position to determine how we deal with it. We are not weak just because we “choose” to let it swallow us at times. The majority of the time, especially those who struggle with a chronic mental health condition, IT IS NOT A CHOICE.
People like to be comfortable. And it is uncomfortable to engage in this sort of conversation. We naturally want to be comfortable and it is not easy to come out of our comfort zones to help others. Some of us are mostly afraid of where our worlds will continue to position us, if we do make that choice to “say something.”
We may have a cushy corporate job. We may be connected to some high level top notch people through our work. We may have some important clients and need to keep those clients. We don’t want to lose our positions, burn our bridges, destroy any opportunities. Who we know, and what we do, and what we say, and who we place in our circles, matters to us. It is part of our honor…the image we give to people in our networks. Naturally, all of that matters to most people. I say, if it matters too much, like it does with many, it will place us in that dangerous path towards cowardice, on several different levels.
We naturally respond to the issues and concerns that are the closest to our immediate responsibilities in our local networks and communities.
Coming from just another face in the crowd who was vocal about human rights abuses around the world (in my own little ways) before it became “popular” among millennials on social media or in our communities to do so, prioritizing your mental health doesn’t make you self-centered, and shouldn’t make you appear like someone who cares less about the world around you. And I am not just saying this to make myself feel better, given how guilty I feel at times for writing about mental health, instead of the Rohingya refugee crisis I care about deeply. I am saying because this is also important. Prioritizing your mental health should just suggest that you are preparing yourself for the battles you will face in life and you need to take care of yourself to be of service to others. It should just show that you understand the value of self-care.
But from going back and forth on writing my dissertation, writing on mental health, and creative writing, for the sake of just writing as a form of outlet, I cannot help but feel guilty. And I feel stuck thinking that this isn’t as important as the social justice issues and human rights concerns I used to be so much more vocal about in the past and I should be writing on that much more than I am right now given all that is going on around the world. But you have heard this before, and I have stated it numerous times, mental health cuts across all “socially constructed” boundaries. And from my angle, I do not see the disconnect on these issues. I actual see mental health care, in many ways, as a fundamental human right.
I have also stated before in other writings that it is this firsthand “pain” that has built and continues to build my character and compassion to understand human suffering, and to keep connecting me to other types of human suffering. There is no need to feel guilty over feeling this pain, despite knowing the blessings you have. Having a sense of gratitude is crucial. But no matter the extent of suffering we find among people in the world, it doesn’t make your pain any less important. This is one of the most disturbing elements of the “stigma” that makes it much worse for mental health patients and survivors to find the help they need. And ultimately, the pain is only making you stronger even though you may appear “weak” to certain others that continue to categorize mental health and mental illness as something insignificant, especially compared to other types of human struggles.
Bottom line: When we see something, something wrong, we cannot be silent. The same logic of “see something, say something” that applies to “suspicious activities” or the infringements on basic human rights…should apply across the board, and to support people suffering with mental illness.
But we need to make sure we take the time to learn to understand how to go about this.
And on the end of the person struggling: we waste so much time waiting for people to understand, waiting for people to care. We cannot waste any more time waiting on the people and issues that continue to be forgotten. We cannot be silent either.
The right thing to do is open the dialogue. To share our stories.
The opening quote in this post has always been a favorite from MLK. I would refer to it often when talking about injustices and human rights abuses I would learn about through working on these issues in my academic and professional opportunities. It is in such contexts that MLK expresses it. Though, MLK’s words apply to the necessity for social awareness on social justice issues, when I recognized my own condition in my early adult years, I could gradually sense its application for what was happening in my life, for what was happening to me. People dismissing what was going on with me, as just “who she is,” rather than recognizing how much I was suffering, and that it was connected to a serious condition and illness, and how much I needed them to “not be silent.”
It’s interesting how the dots connect sometimes. The American Foundation of Suicide Prevention Walk in DC last Saturday was held on the steps in front of the Lincoln Memorial, where many historic marches and movements have taken place, and where MLK gave his historic “I have a dream speech.” There is a large community that has recognized mental health as a grave concern and a civil rights issue. I hate to compare the significance and priorities of issues and causes. To me, they all are equally important. All I am suggesting is that mental health awareness also needs greater attention, more funding, more legislation, more conversation, more “normalization,” for reasons that come close to home (or should) for most people.
Just looking at the numbers of young people dying in the United States alone by suicide each year, and just looking at the numbers of people from all ages and backgrounds in the United States and all over the world suffering from mental illness (places where mental health care is in dire need, yet significantly underrepresented), I argue that mental health awareness is a pertinent and relevant basic human rights concern.
It cannot be forgotten. We cannot remain silent on this issue.
When no one responds, when we have put out a “call for help,” we naturally turn to silence as an option. But if we become silent, and find we can no longer reach out to anyone or anything, we allow those voices in our head to take over and engulf us more in that dangerous state of misery and helplessness.
Being silent about our pain will kill us.
Being silent when others express their pain will kill them.
Silence in this regard, is just not an option.
Our lives, the lives of the people around us, depend on elevating our voices.
Peace, warmth, and blessings,