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Marriage: Understanding the Emotional Turmoil of Mental Illness

HEADSPACE—Understanding the Turmoil of the Brokenhearted

Someone in your world is hurting right now. No, they haven’t fallen and broken something. There was no ambulance or tow truck at the scene. There are no casts, no stitches, no fever or cough—none of the usual physical signs of someone being injured or sick. Yet they are deeply wounded nonetheless.

We seem to understand torn ligaments in the knee but we don’t comprehend the tattered tendons of the soul tormented by rejection or abuse. How do you grasp the effects of bruises and lacerations of the heart when you can’t see them? What if runaway thoughts and irrational fears cause the mind to be sick or the brain to short circuit? We grasp when a person might be upset, discouraged or distracted for a while but what if it goes on and on?

What if someone you know and love is not in a ‘good headspace’.

Is it not easy for most of us to understand a person’s lack of emotional well-being—you know, their mental health. We don’t realize that 1 in 5 Canadians will experience a form of mental illness at some point of their life according to the Canadian Institute of Health Research.

When faced with it, we, the general public often handle it poorly. We don’t display a compassionate understanding for issues like depression, anxiety, bipolar or post-concussion syndrome. Panic attacks, obsessive-compulsive thinking or suicidal thoughts don’t make sense when all you have known is a reasonably stable platform in the brain. Sadly, some even talk down about those struggling with offensive words like ‘nuts’, ‘crazy’, ‘lost it’ or ‘psycho’. We tend to blame when we don’t understand. It only shows our ignorance.

That’s where the stigma starts.

The stigma with mental health can create shame, disgrace, embarrassment, dishonor and humiliation. It feels like it’s not okay to have mental health issues. Because of this, according to the Canadian Medical Association, 2 out of 3 people suffer in silence, feeling judgment and rejection. And they struggle alone so needlessly. Without a face, we all can be so oblivious to the true perils that many hurting individuals agonize through.

Further, we are likely unaware that within our great land, 11 people caught in the powerful waves of deep despair, will end their lives today and everyday by suicide.

Eleven. People. Daily.

Let’s start to turn things around, shall we?

There have been a growing number of events in the last decade that are anchoring the new and positive rise in understanding and compassion toward those with mental health issues. You will no doubt remember some of these:

  • The tragic suicidal death of much loved Vancouver Canuck Rick Rypien, a 27-year-old with clinical depression, was the impetus behind the desire to help break the silence and grow mental health awareness through the #Hockeytalks Campaign that was launched in all 7 Canadian NHL hockey clubs.
  • Clara Hughes, a Canadian icon as a 6-time Olympic medalist cyclist and speed skater, is the national spokesperson Bell Canada’s Let’s Talk Campaign. By sharing her story of depression, she is helping to tear down the stigma surrounding mental illness.

The recent release of the movie Concussion headlining actor Will Smith as Dr. Bennet Omalu in a true story about the affects of collisions on the brains of NFL players and the resulting effects of post concussion syndrome.

These are only a few but significant cultural billboards calling us to a revised understanding of mental health issues with a new and compassionate light.

As a therapist, some of my best education on understanding mental and emotional turmoil has not been in the classroom. There’s no doubt I have had many intellectual discussions and academic presentations about mental health in my ten plus years in the hallowed halls of higher education. Yet somehow, without a face, the true meaning and implications of the dialogues are deficient of clarity and lack heart, even for me.

Certain faces over the years have brought me a deepening awareness and compassion:

  • She was only 18 when I was asked early in my career to visit her in the psych ward in a Calgary hospital. She, a single mom with an infant, had tried to take her life—her current pressures and abusive history were just too much. I learned trauma creates a broken heart.
  • One Vietnam War vet at a family event fell off the back of a motorcycle – onto his head. The brain injury left him unable to put two and two together and he became a permanent resident of Veteran’s Administration Psychiatric Hospital in North Chicago where I interned. One single event—not the war—changed his life forever. Injuries can really mess up the brain.
  • I worked with a former business executive and family man—counseling him in his bedroom—after a significant job loss and the resulting financial stress put him into a despair and sense of disaster. He couldn’t get out of bed for days. A sense of failure, real or imagined, can cause an emotional collapse.
  • Witnessing the horrific event of his child being hit by a truck caused reoccurring and crippling nightmares almost every night. With post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) you can’t control what the mind does with what you saw. It controls you. It took some time to work through the effects with this man.
  • A college student who I counseled had been gang raped and left for dead. Is it no wonder she lives with night horrors and fears that paralyze her. It takes a lot of counselling to get a person like this to a better headspace.

It seems true that we are often not motivated to try to understand those in in a bad headspace until it hits closer to home.

This recently happened again to me. I sat for hours over dinner listening to a dear friend who tried to enlighten me on what he was going through. It wasn’t easy for him to open up. He admitted he had pulled away from people—even those closest to him—partly out a sense of shame and partly out of a sense of other’s judgment. He doesn’t like whom he has become—dark, negative and pessimistic. He told me, “I’ve changed from being a glass half full guy to a glass half empty guy. I don’t like what has happened to me anymore than I see others don’t approve of it either. No matter how hard I try or what help I get, I can’t find the man I used to be. I’ve tried. He’s no where to be found.” He admitted he preferred isolation to avoid the questions. He has never felt so alone.

The truth is, I was deeply impacted by my friend’s story. My heart went out to him. It wasn’t a few times one or both of us reached for our napkins. I was determined to do more myself and also challenge the many who read this column. The insights he shared that night have taken me a long way toward a better understanding of the turmoil of the brokenhearted. Here are 3 conclusions I have reached about approaching those in a difficult headspace. Why don’t you join me in living these out?

3 Way to Reach Out to Those in a Difficult Headspace

  1. Choose Understanding over Unawareness: Start your education now. Realize that the mind is a complex entity with incredible capacity to both overcome and self-destruct. The brain itself is a fragile, emotional echo-system needing to be kept in balance by love and nurturing. And since mental health challenges face many people, learn all you can at least about the emotional disorders and conditions of those closest to you. Show maturity by gaining new insights. Drop the stupid jokes that cause even greater stigma.
  1. Display Compassion over Condemnation: Let your heart go to those you meet battling mental health issues. Show empathy and listen to their story. Listen. Try to understand. Ask intelligent questions. Don’t judge. You don’t know all that they are going through. Drop all lines like ‘pull yourself out of it’ or ‘quit making excuses’. Cut them some slack on their road to recover. Stop giving your cereal box insights. What do you know? Unless you are a care professional, stop with the advice. Love them by being a steady encouraging presence in their life.
  1. Welcome Identification over Isolation: Go to them. Gently keep loving them even if it feels they are pulling away. Move toward their tears and brokenness. Slow down and listen. Don’t try to fix things. You are not their therapist. Make yourself available without crowding them. Assure them that they are not alone. Remind them that no matter how low they might get that a life that is loved can’t be taken. Convince them of your love and support. Keep reaching out. Text, call and coffee regularly. Accept where they are. Focus on other joys of life while still being willing to discuss the hard topics. Be a safe place.

Remember, God’s commission to Jesus was to bind up the brokenhearted and to set the oppressed free (Isaiah 61:1 and Luke 4:18). We are called to do the same and to “Bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ.” (Galatians 6:2). Let’s do our part in helping others get into a better headspace.

Also listen to Podcast 78 to learn more about living with mental illness or helping someone close to you and  keep coming back each month so I can help you keep on Doing Family Right.

© Dr. Dave Currie – March 2016