In honor of World Mental Health Day (October 10), we asked people from around the globe to tell us what the topic of mental health looks like in the places they call home, why it matters, and the ways in which the statement “We will face this together” applies to their journeys.
To say that mental health conversations are a taboo here in the East would be an understatement. I grew up in a traditional Indian household in Mumbai, and conversations about emotional health were seldom a part of my upbringing. Growing up in a culture that talks about mental health only in whispers, trying hard to miss every ear, is hard. You grow up almost unaware of the fact that you have an emotional health to look after, which matters just as much if not more than your physical health. There’s so much space for shame to grow in conversations that don’t acknowledge the vulnerability that accompanies the human experience. And shame can silently cripple the spirit. There are a million things I love about growing up in a culture that endorses collectivism and has so much diversity to offer, but when it comes to the conversation around mental health, we are far from even a beginning.
The first time I ever understood what it meant to process emotions was when I sat across the table from a therapist. When my struggle with mental health issues first began, it took everything to convince those around me, and myself, that I needed support. The mere acknowledgment of mental illness in this society is a thousand-mile journey that doesn’t always reach an intended destination. It doesn’t help that the Indian culture is largely patriarchal. While women are incessantly persuaded to repress their authentic selves to ensure the comfort of a society threatened by their freedom, men are handed unrealistic expectations of machismo. Emotional expression in men is almost frowned upon, and phrases such as “be a man”, “don’t weep like a girl”, etc. are in common parlance. Not only does the subjugation of women by a tragically dominant culture create an environment for fear and guilt to breed in, but it also makes unhealthy people of its men. The effects of socially structured expectations on mental health are not spoken nearly enough of. And the consequences are catastrophic. I realize that every culture has its own shades of environments that preclude the existence of healthy spaces, and the goal is to eradicate the structures that hold these standards together.
This has to be a collective effort. No matter what these barriers look like for you, we have to come together and talk about them so we can collectively strike them down. One of the reasons why I think it’s important to talk about mental health more collectively is because it affects us all, regardless of who we are and where we come from. We have to raise our voices loud enough to silence shame. We must strive to be more empathetic because shame cannot thrive where empathy lives, and we can only do this by inviting each other into our stories.
A global day recognizing this need resembles a call for action, an invitation to share our stories with the world. And we need this. We’ve been here long enough to know that change can only come when we decide to stand together and try to build spaces that are safe for everyone. Whether it be my own journey with depression and anxiety, or my passion for mental health advocacy, I know that these battles are not fought alone. We might not win today, but if we choose to stand in this moment with each other, we can continue to walk towards a world where hope and help can be a part of each of our journeys. There is no other way to be in this, but together.
Mental health in the UK is a two-sided coin. When I think about mental health and how these conversations looked in the spaces I grew up in, I feel gratitude for the fact that there is more space for this discussion today. As a kid, mental health was not something people spoke about. Unlike other topics or issues, we were never taught about mental health. At 15, I started suffering from depression and as a result of having no knowledge about mental illness, I had no idea what was going on, what I was feeling, or who I could even go to to talk about it. When I finally reached out, I was met with resistance—even my doctors refused to use the word ‘depression’—and it was discouraging to have health professionals invalidate what I was experiencing. My experience told me the fewer people who spoke about it, the better.
Today paints a very different picture. These conversations surrounding mental health have become commonplace, in classrooms, in the workplace, across media platforms. Charities with celebrity ambassadors are fighting for people’s stories to be heard, to create safe spaces for people to be honest about their struggles.
The downfall truly presents itself in mental health care, as not much has been done to improve people’s access to treatment. While we are fortunate to have free public healthcare, the fact of the matter is that this doesn’t translate well to mental health services. If you’re unable to afford private healthcare and to pay for treatment, then you’re stuck in a system where your experiences are criticized and invalidated. Whether that is people being turned down from the care they need due to not being ‘ill enough’, or the long waiting list for services, individuals in this country are scarcely receiving the support they need.
There is an impact to having a day that recognizes mental health on a global scale because it truly solidifies mental illness as a societal and human issue. This is not something that is limited to a country. People deal with mental health no matter their culture, race, or socio-economic background. It’s a small step in validating the importance of mental health as something to be recognized, and by doing so globally is a bigger step in breaking down the stigma that surrounds it. As a global issue, people deserve to feel safe in sharing their stories, in taking their first steps in asking for help, because statistics show this isn’t something that can be ignored.
“We will face this together” is a reminder that people aren’t alone in their suffering, in their search for help. It’s a reminder that they will not be met by silence or shame when they reach out. While my mental illness made me feel very alone, “we will face this together” is a testament to the people I had by my side on my worst days, who kept me afloat when the current got too strong, and who believed in better days before I was ready to believe in them myself.
Both as a collective and as individuals, we are living, breathing reminders to believe in hope, to believe in the value of safe spaces and access to help—this is something we will face together.
I am a social worker from Melbourne, Australia, and have been working in the mental health sector for about 10 years. In that time I have been stoked to witness a cultural shift where the stigma that so often prevents Australians from reaching out to the mental health support that is available to them, has started to lift. By all means, we have a ways to go, however, I think it’s important to look back and celebrate how far we have come.
Australians are fortunate with our universal health care system, where anyone in the community can access 10 sessions with a psychologist or other certified allied mental health professional, where the cost is covered. Some therapists charge a gap between what the government covers, but there are many who don’t, particularly for patients from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. Access to this isn’t equal across the country though, there is a huge disparity between access to quality mental health care in regional and urban settings, with regional settings often missing out. Whilst COVID-19 has been devastating, it has forced the sector to change the way they approach mental health support. Australia is taking a hard suppression approach to the virus, restrictions have translated to organizations that were not set up to provide telehealth options (essentially counseling via Zoom or other video conferencing platforms), now do.
Since COVID-19, there has been a large increase in people accessing mental health care. Isolation is a huge contributor to people needing additional support for their mental health. With restrictions in Australia impacting our ability to connect with family and friends outside of Zoom, there was a 25% increase in Australians reaching out to our crisis support line, Lifeline. The government recognized the increased need for mental health support as a direct result of the global pandemic by adding an additional 10 sessions (bringing the total to 20 sessions) with a psychologist that Australians can now access covered by Medicare.
At the start of the year, we experienced the worst bushfires in a generation, and now with COVID-19, my hope is that there is a sense of common humanity. Australia, as a collective, has shared some devastating experiences. Experiences that greatly impact our mental health, experiences that I hope can encourage a cultural shift when it comes to dissolving stigma and normalizing reaching out for support.
Days such as World Mental Health Day are so important in addressing the stigma that surrounds mental health. The most prominent day that recognizes the importance of seeking support for our mental health is R U OK day on the 9th of September each year. This day is all about us asking our mates, “are you ok?” Too often we don’t give an audience to the deeper, heavier parts of our stories. As humans, we are designed for human connectivity, we aren’t meant to go through life alone. R U OK day reminds us that we also have the opportunity to create a space where we can be the audience to someone else’s story, that being a listening ear is actually a powerful and impactful action we can all take.
In Australia, with the recent devastating bushfires, COVID-19, and the fear of the impending bushfire season, my sense is that there is an increased belief that we are in this together and we will face this together. That we will continue to look out for each other, be an audience to the heavier parts of one another’s stories, and have the courage to invite people into those very parts of our own. These parts of our experience are often surrounded by narratives that stem from guilt and shame and prevent us from seeking support. We flourish in human connection when we are able to drop our guard and invite others in. In that moment of vulnerability, we have someone walking alongside us, someone who might not fully understand our experience but are on our team, willing to show up for us.
I’m a millennial and many of my peers are quite open-minded and honest about both their own experiences with mental health and other people’s struggles and challenges. Maybe that’s not always the case with the more fleeting contacts and superficial acquaintances, but among friends, I have never experienced an environment where it was not okay to talk about the state of your mind or the seasons of life you find difficult to navigate.
On the contrary, when I look at my parents and grandparents, they are of generations in which talking about or even just reflecting on your emotions was not something ever learned or discussed. When I told my grandmother about my depression, I was met with the classic response of “But why? You have everything you need in your life to be happy.” I know she wasn’t coming from a bad place, but in that moment, those kinds of reactions are unhelpful and invalidating.
This mentality also translates to our healthcare: a system that was put in place decades ago and, oddly, doesn’t do a great job at adapting to the changing needs of today’s society. The specifics will depend on your health insurance provider, but the basics are kind of similar across the board. In my case, my insurance would cover a maximum of 10 counseling sessions. Don’t be fooled: that’s not an annual limit, but one that stretches across my lifetime. As if I was battling the demons in my mind on a tight deadline: “You have 7 more sessions, and by then you should be fixed, forever.” There is no room for relapse in that story, no room for setbacks, or ups and downs. There is no room for the actual journey of smooth roads and dirt roads and bumps and traffic lights that is recovery.
If there is an upside to that, it’s that people are starting to realize more and more how important community is. Don’t get me wrong, Belgian people are individualists. From a young age, we are taught that problems are preferably dealt with on our own, within the airtight walls of our family home; that keeping up appearances is more important than keeping up your serotonin levels. But this current generation of (young) adults is becoming increasingly aware that where our government fails us, we will turn to each other instead. Although we are not professionals and we will never be able to completely fill those shoes, we lean on each other for support and comfort, and that’s undeniably valuable.
There is a pretty specific list of people categorized in my mind, filed under “Depressive Episode – Fall 2018”, of whom I can confidently say that I wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for them. They say it takes a village to raise a child, well, it also takes a village to pull someone out of that dark place in their mind.
You need other people to challenge your thoughts, to talk you out of certain ideas that are not rooted in reality. You need people to encourage you, to provide you with hope when you’ve lost sight of it. Whether you find that person in the form of a counselor, a family member, a partner, or a friend, whether that conversation happens online or in person, it’s an encounter that can save your life, time and time again.
But when you’re often surrounded by like-minded people who are open and already very aware of the importance of mental health, it’s easy to forget that that’s not the reality for many. The stigma surrounding mental health is still omnipresent. There are still people living behind a façade of feigned happiness on a daily basis because there is no room for their true feelings in their world, no support or understanding.
A global day recognizing the importance of mental health can contribute to the opening up of that conversation. It’s one day of the year where everyone who has some kind of influence, large or small, can speak up about this topic. For someone who is struggling, something as simple as seeing a post on Instagram from their favorite celebrity can give them the courage and the language to verbalize some of the things they are facing in their own lives.
“We will face this together.”
This is a statement I wish more people clung to. A statement I wish my younger self had heard more often. Throughout my childhood, togetherness always felt like a disingenuous smile from a friend you no longer wished to call home—it meant one-sided love after loss. Mental health care felt like a mythical concept, something completely and utterly out of reach. What I failed to recognize was all of the little ways in which togetherness played out in my life: the long hugs from chosen family, the rides home from angels disguised as teachers, the invites to dinner at a friend’s house—all of the little moments that felt like just a blip in a story full of sadness at the time, but were actually moments that made me who I am today.
It is easy now to look back on life and see how “we will face this together” was an essential part of my growth and healing, but the pain and loneliness I often felt came from the stigma that I had to have it all together. I had to be strong, to pretend nothing was wrong, to hold it all in for the sake of those around me. Breaking the individualistic mindset that the Midwest prides itself on and instead wearing vulnerability like a crown, was when my mental health journey became bigger than myself. World Mental Health Day is a reminder that mental health crosses borders; it is a day where we can see that our worth is not measured by how much we can do alone.
In Canada, there is certainly a stigma concerning mental health, and it is not always comfortable or easy to talk about. As a university student, when I first started counseling, it felt very taboo to tell my friends about it. However, I’ve noticed a shift as I have gotten older; I’m not sure if culturally there is less stigma or that I’ve begun to understand the importance of having conversations and normalizing sharing stories about mental health.
Canadians have free universal health care, meaning that access to mental health care is relatively good. It’s generally been pretty easy to check in with my family doctor and adjust medication as needed. The government also covers some prescriptions, so medication is accessible as well—which is something I am truly grateful for.
In the future, I would love to see equal access to counseling become a widespread option. Governmental healthcare doesn’t cover counseling, which I have found to be a valuable tool. Being able to see a counselor regularly is not very affordable, but I think it is something that so many people could benefit from and should be widely accessible.
A global day to recognize mental health is important because we all need to care for our mental health. Just as our bodies need to be cared for even when we are not sick, we must encourage preventative care for our mental and emotional health.
Normalizing conversations about mental health is an important aspect of removing stigma and can be so transformative for our communities. Rather than attaching shame to something so normal and so human, we can connect with one another through recognition.
Facing challenges with one’s mental health can feel very overwhelming and, at times, lonely. The statement “we will face this together”, reminds me of all the friends who have helped carry me through different stages of my journey with mental health and the times I have been that support for others. Knowing that you are not alone through the ups and downs is hugely comforting.
It also feels important to know you aren’t alone in what you’re feeling. Anxiety and depression can leave us feeling so isolated, but having conversations helps to build community and ward off loneliness.
I remember pacing in the nail polish aisle of the drugstore as I was waiting to pick up my first prescription for antidepressants. I was absentmindedly looking at the different colored bottles, trying to calm my nerves.
I sent a text to my group chat and told them what was happening. Their encouragement, reminding me that they were proud of me for taking care of myself, helped me find the confidence to pick up my prescription, head home, and not feed into the fear that it was the end of the world.
To continue honoring World Mental Health Day, we invite you to also listen to this week’s episode of the TWLOHA Podcast where we talk with folks from India, New Zealand, Belgium, the Netherlands, and the UK about the ways in which mental health plays a role in everyone’s lives no matter where they live. And if you want to share and wear the reminder that throughout every chapter of your story, every peak and valley, we will face this together—you can purchase the Face This Together shirt from the Online Store here.