“They can take my depression but they would not be able to take my sadness”
How talking about mental health issues can be easier than talking about how we feel
I have been working in the psychotherapeutic profession for many years now and I am always excited about it as I am always learning. I learn from colleagues, conferences and books but I am mostly and more significantly learning from my clients. It is in the intimate moments of meeting and helping someone in their deepest difficulties that I am able to find meaning on how we, as human beings, experience suffering and how we ultimately can heal.
The words “mental health illness” always intrigued me and I have often been curious about how they are used by the public. Also, they have been part of my learning journey in understanding how clients perceive their emotional experiences. My experience shows that people are more comfortable in mentioning a mental health illness than speak about how they are feeling.
When clients come to therapy sessions the words (mental health illness) can be used in a variety of ways. They can be diagnostic – “my GP told me that I have a mental illness”. They can be related to stigmatizing experiences – “I have a mental health illness and we never, in my family, were allowed to talk about that”. They can bring relief- “I finally found out that I am suffering from a mental health illness, so now I know what is going on”. Moreover, believe it or not, they can be a long last companion and friend – “my mental health illness has been with me since I was 5 years old”.
Diagnosing, recognizing and being able to talk about mental health illnesses” is really important, and we, as a society, are getting much better at that.
We are moving quite a long way from not being able to talk about mental health difficulties to be able to refer clients, access services and explore different options of treatment and support available. However, sadly, in the process of finding quick solutions to complex problems, we may miss opportunities for exploring what has been causing these difficulties. Also, very often, clients or even family members don’t want to hear about what has caused a mental health difficulty.
If we take depression, for example, very often, we will find that, at least in many mild to moderate presentations, people will experience it when they simply start to disconnect from their feelings and experiences. It could be that, as a child, a person may have had to suppress how she felt as feelings may have been ignored in her family system. It could be that this same child was not allowed to express herself when she was too sad or even, too happy. It could be that this child was not allowed to cry when upset or to complain when she was feeling uncomfortable or distressed.
The main problem, in this case, is that this child may turn into an adult used to suppress her feelings, to “push them down”, to literally “depress” them. It would not be a surprise that, years later, as an adult, she would have to consult with her GP to explore problems associated with “depression”. And then we would have to come back to the magical words again: this is a mental health illness. “I have depression; it’s an illness”. Which it is.
It’s natural then that a number of therapies offered to heal depression are associated with the exploration of deep personal experiences and feelings.This process is an interesting one. It can be difficult; it can be painful. It’s actually distressing sometimes to have to “go there” and talk about how we feel. But that’s the process, and it can be rewarding as, as clients get more and more in touch with their sadness, they become more and more able to experience their happiness. The more they are able to contact their distress and release it, the more they become clear in what they need and what they want. It’s a contradiction, I know. But that’s how it works.
I have had the chance, in my professional life, to work with really amazing people.I feel that my clients are courageous human beings. They accept the challenge of coming to sessions regularly; they allow themselves to be vulnerable in my company in the hope that they can find better ways to live their lives. It is not an easy task.
In this process, I try to explain to clients how damaging it can be to disconnect from our feelings and how mental health difficulties can emerge because of that.
However, I once worked with a woman who told me: “Cristina, I am depressed because it’s the only way I can show my family that I am having difficulties. They can take my depression, but they would not be able to take my sadness”. These words had a great impact on me. I learned a lot from my client on this occasion. In my attempt to “teach” her that expressing her feelings was something positive she informed me that her feelings, in her family system, were not accepted, but her depression was. She wasn’t able to talk about her sadness in her family, so she became ill.
So, if suppressing our feelings can literally cause depression, let’s talk about how we feel before it is too late. Let’s talk to each other. Let’s ask our sons and daughters how they are doing at school or how are their experiences with boyfriends or girlfriends. Let’s ask our partners, husband or wives how was their day and how they are feeling. Let’s listen to our parents when they are in difficulties; let’s ask our friends how they are feeling about events in their lives. Let’s listen to our family members or friends who grieve or who are in difficulties. Let’s laugh together but, above all, let’s cry and be able to be sad together. This is not easy, it’s hard, but that’s how it should be, and that’s what makes us humans. Let’s start to accept our feelings and share them more with the people around us. Let’s make it easier to talk about our feelings than talk about mental health illnesses.