I speak a lot about my mental illness. Anxiety is a tricky one to speak about. It’s not as stigmatised as other mental illnesses, it’s something people can relate to; we’ve all been anxious. The flipside is people don’t understand or know the difference between anxiety the emotion and anxiety the diagnosis. This is (partly) why I talk about it: let’s educate and break some stigma. I also talk about it because it helps me. Putting words to thoughts and feelings, no matter how irrational, is part of the playbook for treating anxiety. Talking about it openly to other people helps me specifically look after my anxiety. In framing my words to help other people try to understand, I further understand myself.
I’ve never had a bad response to talking about mental health, which is an amazing sign. That I can be so vulnerable and the communities I’m in pick me up and bolster me blows me away. It gives me hope that other people will see it and come forward themselves. I don’t want to corner the market on talking about mental illness in Software Testing.
What I also get a lot is superlatives: real, raw, honest. Brave. The last one makes me twitch.
Before I start unpacking I want to make it clear that I am overwhelming grateful for the support I get. I know that it is a compliment and I appreciate it. I even understand it. It’s taken me years to sort out my issues with this word. I’ve talked it out with a few of you who may be reading this (including a very drunken conversation with Andrew Morton before my talk at Testbash). I’m ready to do what I know will help me: put it into words, and shove it out into the open.
When I’m ill, bravery is unfathomable. I can barely deal with the shower, never mind bravery. If we keep saying that getting help and speaking out is brave, what message are we sending?
I know that getting help is a massive deal: navigating doctors who may not understand, therapists that might not gel, medication that might not work, getting time off work or school, never mind the stigma and the shame: it’s exhausting. But if we keep making a big deal of it, it will continue to be a big deal.
We can’t fix the gauntlet of treating mental illnesses entirely (individual psychology and biology means that it’s always going to be throwing treatments at the wall and hoping something sticks), but we can get rid of the shame and stigma that puts people off going as early as they should. I think part of that is making the idea of talking to medical professionals about any medical condition something that is entirely normal to do.
The same goes for talking out. Again, I absolutely agree that telling someone you’re suffering can totally be a shitting bricks moment, but talking about any bad news can be a shitting bricks moment.
Telling my teammate I have a chronic physical condition and a chronic mental condition should be equally serious (or mundane).
This is a bit more dicey as due to stigma and people not knowing how to deal with people sharing mental health struggles you may have to try to deal with unwanted emotions. This is largely the same with more serious physical health conditions, especially the less understood ones (Chronic Fatigue, Fibromyalgia, etc) or cancers which people generally panic about. I’d rather not be called brave for doing either though.
I’m now a trained Mental Health First Aider. I wear a different coloured lanyard at work, signalling loud and clear that I am willing and able to help people who are struggling. I am a person who is safe to go to. We do lots at work to point people to the resources available to them, and we normalise it as much as we can. I also want to try and offer resources for anyone to use. I want us all to use the resources that work for us to keep on top of our own mental health, just like you do with your physical health.
You mental health is a massive part of your physical health (your brain being part of your body and all). If we elevate one part of it to be brave to even discuss, how can we hope to make it easier to treat?
I also am aware that plenty of people with mental health issues think that it is brave to do this stuff. That thriving when mentally ill takes bravery, and I commend that, I do. I’m not here to say people shouldn’t claim that for themselves, only that it doesn’t feel comfortable to me.
Call me strong, fine. Stubborn, fuck yes: the only reason I’m still in testing is I’m too stubborn to let me own brain screw this up for me.
But please don’t call me brave.