Some time ago I read an article on psychiatric detention written by an American university professor. It’s very uncomfortable (if this is the right word) reading. But what struck me in particular, was that the author of the piece wanted to remain anonymous, even though he says that the time in the secure unit was valuable. Why?!
As I was reading it, I was reminded of two (interrelated) things. The first was the sentence: “It’s OK to talk”, often finding its way to social media and not only. The sentence is to encourage people to talk about their, I don’t know, problems? Difficulties? The weight on their shoulders? Yes, you guessed it, I am talking about depression or, if you wish, F32 or F33. When it comes to suicide (no code yet – watch this space), it is to encourage (mostly) men to talk about their experiences, or, if you prefer, suicidality (how I hate the word).
And yet, the author of the article preferred to remain anonymous. Didn’t he know that it was OK to talk, that talking helped and so on, and the like? Well, I have no idea, I do know, however, that if ever I was to write any such thing, I would make very sure (like: VERY SURE!!) that I remain anonymous! Why? Oh, all those things that are often rendered by the word ‘stigma’, which I find so inadequate in describing men’s experiences of depression. Yes, yes, I soooo know that it’s OK to talk….
And here I was reminded of the other thing. A story of a man in depression told by his wife, which I described in my Men’s Discourses of Depression. The interview she gave was full of bitterness. She could only describe her husband in negative terms, at one point telling a story of what her husband doesn’t do. He didn’t go to work, he didn’t go shopping, you name it, he didn’t do it. But, there was one thing he did do – he took care of his personal hygiene. And the way she told the interviewer about it was something like that:
it’s not like that he does not wash or shave, I can’t say he doesn’t.
There are two points to be made. I think. First, it is quite striking that she refers to his husband’s personal grooming in a conversation with a stranger. Normally, we do this with reference to children, as a sign of their maturity and achievement. Does the statement infantilise the man? As the private activities of the man become an object of scrutiny, yes, I think so. The second point is that the last thing he actually does do, is not constructed positively. The informant is introducing the fact that her husband does take care of himself with a double negative: ‘It is not the case that he does not wash’. The two negatives cancel themselves out and a positive is achieved. And this is quite extraordinary.
Imagine that instead of saying:
I have a car.
It’s not the case that I don’t have a car.
That’s making quite a detour, isn’t it? Apart from the linguistic, shall I say, infelicity, it just takes much more of an effort to make a double negative. But perhaps, positivity in her story is simply impossible.
I do want to make a reservation here. It is very easy to be tempted to pass judgement on the woman and what she said. I reject any such judgement. Her husband’s depression meant that her life had been turned upside down almost overnight. The man lost his job, the family lost their very comfortable life; all of a sudden the woman had to pick up the pieces and take care not only of her children, but also of her husband. I want to stress it all, as it would also be easy to forget what kind of upheaval a family whose bread-winner suddenly stops winning the bread, goes through.
Yet, however understandable it is, this little snippet from an interview shows how difficult it is to talk about men’s depression. Depression takes away their masculinity both in their own stories and in the stories of their families. That in fact is really one of the main points of the book I wrote. Here, however, my point is different. No, it’s definitely not OK to talk. And I wish people stopped saying that!
And before (some of) you might protest, let me mention one of the oldest men I interviewed. He was well in his 70s, and in psychiatric care since he was in his 20s. How many people knew about his depression? 1. Yes, ONE. His sister, who also covered for him when he was in a bad way. No one else. Not even his wife, his children. NO ONE! Why? For all the reasons I mentioned or hinted at above.
No. It’s not OK to talk.
There is a postscript here, though. As I was writing this post, this article appeared on my Twitter feed. The author writes:
The task before us now is threefold. First, we must help people understand the signs and symptoms of mental illnesses and substance-use disorders. Second, we must shatter the stigma that prevents people from seeking treatment. Third, we must create more effective prevention and treatment resources and embed them in the places where we live, work, worship and learn
Yes. We must. This is indeed what the task is. This is what a linguist in me calls ‘need-talk’. We need, we must do all those things. I am yet to hear about how to do it.
So, please, stop saying ‘It’s OK to talk.’. It’s not.