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“But they don’t look ill!”

10 Oct 2022 | Written by By Peter Slee

Photo of a person standing in front of the sea, at dusk, gazing the right of the frame

Today is World Mental Health day. To honour that, we had former chaplain, current host of our Guided support group, Peter Slee write his advice for helping those who might be struggling with their mental health.

“But they don’t look ill!”

Have you ever thought or said this of an acquaintance, I wonder?

There are a number of conditions that might be considered “invisible”, as there are no obvious presenting symptoms, and those that affect our mental health are particularly prone to be missed or misunderstood by others.

With today being World Mental Health Day, there is an opportunity for each of us to reflect on this very important, but often overlooked, health concern.

Many of us will have had personal experiences of the effects of mental illness, either on ourselves or those close to us. I had a period in my life when I was carrying unhealthy levels of stress which led to a complete breakdown; also, my mother lived with depression throughout my life – with several spells in psychiatric hospitals and permanent dependence on antidepressant medication.

Mental health awareness has two facets – both equally important – and which I would like to highlight below:

First, being aware of those with mental health problems, here are a few pointers: 

  • Mental illness may not be obvious – it doesn’t need a pair of crutches or a neck-brace
  • Mental illness may be hidden – nothing about the person, initially, seems affected
  • Mental illness may be hidden – because the symptoms could mean something else
  • Mental illness is often a chronic condition – it can affect a person’s long-term health

Let’s consider some case studies:

  1. Cyril was subjected to considerable physical and mental abuse, in childhood. When he senses people are becoming too close, emotionally, he may withdraw.
    Some people may consider Cyril rude; others may try and cajole him into joining in, which will likely be counterproductive.

    Unless Cyril is prepared to confide in you or others in the social group, it will be very difficult to recognise this problem.

  2. Amanda suffered with postnatal depression after the birth of her second child. Even she assumes her lack of energy is due to the general pressures resulting from the demands of caring for a toddler and a newborn.
    While friends and family were understanding for a while after the birth of a child, they expected Amanda to revert to her normal self, after a while.

    If Amanda continues to show ongoing signs of stress, it may be that a trusted friend or relative may be able to gently suggest a chat with her GP could be worthwhile.

  3. Olivia seemed to cope well when her husband was diagnosed with terminal cancer and his subsequent death. Three years on, her extreme lethargy is assumed to be a symptom of an unknown health condition.

Olivia’s family have been nagging her to insist on further scans and tests, as they are convinced that there is a physical cause.

If those close to her could reflect on the recent changes in other areas of her life, they might identify something which may have triggered a disturbance in her wellbeing, linked with the loss of her husband.

Secondly, let’s look at our own mental health

Problems with our mental health tend to be the least talked about aspect of our lives. How often have you played down or brushed off a genuine concern shown with words like:

  • “I’m OK. Nothing an early night/stiff drink/brisk walk won’t put right.”
  • “Just feeling a bit under the weather, but nowhere near as bad as ‘x’ or ‘y’.”
  • “Can’t complain. Just off to book a winter break in the sun.”

Similarly, we can be guilty of dismissing another person’s obvious suffering with words like:

  • “You can’t go on feeling sorry for yourself forever.”
  • “Think of those around you and snap out of it.”
  • “I can’t imagine why it takes you so long to get ready in the morning.”

So, here are ten questions for you to ask yourself (or maybe apply to others):

  • Do I find myself avoiding certain people or places for no apparent reason?
  • Do I feel anxious when I am not able to control a situation?
  • Do I make up excuses for my failure to engage in the usual activities?
  • Do I dread the phone/doorbell ringing – even before knowing who it might be?
  • Do I feel unusually tired, with no obvious reason?
  • Am I finding it difficult to sleep, or often going to bed much later than usual?
  • Am I choosing to eat comfort foods rather than preparing healthy meals?
  • Am I drinking/smoking more than is normal for me?
  • Do I notice myself being short-tempered with those I know well?
  • Have I suddenly become AGOG (A Grumpy Old Git)?

It goes without saying, I hope, that answering “yes” to any of the above does not mean you are suffering with a mental health illness – but it may give you cause to reflect, chat to others, or seek professional advice from your GP. There are other options too, such as the MIND helpline: 0300 123 3393 (email: info@mind.org.uk) the Samaritans 116 123 (email: jo@samaritans.org) or SANEline: 0300 304 7000.  

Peter Slee has recently retired from a senior position with a charitable care provider in a chaplaincy role. Peter has also held positions of responsibility as a Baptist minister, and a retail manager, in varied contexts. Retirement, which came sooner than expected, has given him the opportunity to develop his photographic and artistic inclinations (landscape photography, lino-printing and dabbling in acrylic painting). His 3 grandchildren also bring him great joy. 

Peter is one our pastoral specialists at The Joy Club who runs our Guided support group sessions. You can find out more about these meetings here

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