Invisibility is not always a superpower

08 October 2021 | Opinion

DR JOHN STEYTLER

Ever since I started writing about mental health, I’ve been praised for speaking about the subject. This is a pleasant but unanticipated result of the articles and it was certainly not the reason for writing them. The raising of awareness was, and still is, my intention. The more feedback I got, the more I heard; “I never knew you also battled mental health issues.” This is where we get to the crux of the issues surrounding mental health. It is not visible, you don’t walk around with a bandage on your head, or show any other outward signs. This makes it so much harder to deal with. To the world, your mental health issues are invisible.

In this way you can equate it to a chronic illness: take diabetes, asthma or chronic back pain, for example. Outwardly you see no signs that someone is suffering, or trying to deal with the illness. A broken leg is easy, it is visible to the outside world and people act accordingly, are sympathetic and hopefully will assist a person on crutches or in a wheelchair. You don’t need to tell the world what is wrong for people to adjust their actions.

With mental health, we often battle privately; we don’t talk about it in public and therefore people are not aware of your challenges. It’s not a question of wanting to be treated differently, but going through mental health issues is often all-consuming and even everyday normal activities can be struggle; sometimes getting out of bed or getting dressed is a major victory. There’s a saying attributed to Plato, the Greek philosopher: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” This quote is centuries old, but is as true today as it was many centuries ago. Kindness goes a long way, and so does understanding. That is why it is essential to speak about these things. It is not necessary to be asked every day how someone’s mental health is, but let’s be honest, we do constantly ask how someone’s injury is healing.

Imagine you had a visible impairment or disability of some kind and others could see, but still made callous remarks, or did nothing to assist you. That is not ‘socially acceptable’ behaviour. However, people have no problem referring to someone as ‘mental’, when they think someone does not fit in with their societal norms. Imagine people battling, dealing and each day doing their best to function, whilst suffering from depression or another mental health issue. It brings a huge, extra burden that people should not have to deal with. However, this is where the ‘invisibility’ of mental health issues comes in. There are no outward signs, so therefore a person cannot be suffering or dealing with issues. Trust me, in this case, invisibility is not a superpower.

Telling people to ’cheer up’, ‘it will get better’, ‘they will pull through’ is not the right approach. Therefore, I would like to reiterate Plato’s words and ask people to be kind and, because you can’t see the outward signs, be kind and gentle to each other. Read up and educate yourself. It is important to talk to your family, friends and also at work to see what your ‘wellness’ department can do, if you have access to one. Perhaps they have people professionally trained as social workers and psychologists on call that can be engaged with. It can make all the difference to them to be seen and acknowledged and no longer feel invisible.

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