Why talking about mental illness isn’t always the answer

I called the Samaritans for the first time, in the middle of the night, a few years ago. After three rings, a soft female voice, saturated with sympathy, said hello in an almost-whisper.

‘Hello,’ I said.

‘How can I help?’

Feeling awkward, embarrassed, but emboldened by my namelessness, I reeled off my woes. The woman was wonderful. She spoke to me without excessive formality, curtness, or judgement. She showed an interest in me, not just my grievances. I told her my name and where I grew up, which, it turned out, was very near her home, so we stopped that discussion quite abruptly, lest our enshrined anonymity be compromised.

She listened. She told me what she thought. She shared her own redacted experience. I was grateful. But when the ‘sharing’ part was over, I was struck with a sudden sense that the next part should begin. The ‘how do I make this better?’ part. The solution, the treatment, the path to wellness. The bit that is absolutely not the Samaritan’s job.

‘Perhaps your next step would be to go to your doctor to discuss treatment options,’ she said.

‘But I’ve already done this,’ I said. ‘he said there was nothing available for twelve months, and to call you.’ She took a deep breath in and said nothing.

As cathartic as the call was, it was clear that conversations of this nature were not a long-term solution. Offloading my woes was helpful – but only helpful once. Even knowing this, I called again a few weeks later, chasing the sense of blessed relief I felt after the first call, as one chases a hit from an illicit drug, sensing all the while that this was an abuse of the resource they were providing and hating myself a little for it.

When the volunteer asked the inevitable question, ‘Have you spoken to your doctor?’ the truth – that is neither universally nor locally acknowledged – hit home: the NHS in my area at least, is not really in the business of helping those with moderate depression get well. What I am expecting does not exist. I would have no choice but to piece together my own patchwork treatment plan with whatever was at hand. I thanked her and rang off, knowing I would not call again.

This experience has led me shrink a little from the campaigns that urge us to talk more about mental illness, as if words themselves were the antithesis of pain. ‘Talking about it,’ helps in the short term. It helps only if one can maintain the belief that the talking will ultimately lead to some upwards trajectory. Without this belief, therapeutic talking inevitably warps into mere complaining, which only leads to a spiral of negativity, and makes depression worse.

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