Toxic Positivity and Mental Illness
If we were to look back at our parents' generation, discussing mental health as openly as we do now would be uncommon and while we have made significant progress in our fight to destigmatise mental illness, it's still ongoing. For many people, having this discussion with our family and friends is still very new and hard to understand, and for those aiming to help a struggling friend, they might not know where to start.
The pandemic has introduced isolation and loneliness to many lives, and in the absence of socialising, partying and exercising, it has changed our coping mechanisms significantly. For some, the restrictions helped put life on hold for the better, for others it broke down a necessary structure that has triggered some to experience mental health difficulties for the first time.
Emotions can be placed in a spectrum with happiness and sadness on each end and contentedness balanced between the two. Permanently being on either end of the spectrum is not healthy or attainable, and the same principle applies to the expectations we place for ourselves and those around us, which in turn affects the way we react to our own situations as well as others.
When you don't know how to approach a situation, it's easy enough to say the wrong thing despite having the right intentions and unfortunately, this happens a lot when advising a friend or family member who is suffering from their mental health. Saying comments like 'just be happy' or 'look at the silver lining’ are subtle examples of toxic positivity and can be very damaging and insensitive when you’re struggling. It's hard enough to cope with it yourself without having people tell you to be more positive. We’re all human, we’re allowed to be upset, as and when we wish.
Social media accounts that publish posts spreading the message to 'always be positive and smile' are guilty of disguising toxic positivity as spreading positive vibes and presents a societal pressure that you can never be upset. There's already an expectation to 'fix yourself quickly' for many people, and these messages - although I don't doubt they come from a good place - can cause the complete opposite reaction. It might make someone already struggling to feel guilty they can't follow this mindset and cause them to mask their true emotions and spiral into a worse state.
Should we strive to always live on the 'happy' end of the spectrum while constantly avoiding sadness? If we were to 'always be positive and smile', we wouldn't be human. Reaching for contentedness seems like a more attainable goal than reaching for something that seems miles away.
If you have a friend who is struggling and don't know where to start, here are some basic Do's and Don'ts:
Listen before speaking: Sometimes an understanding nod can do way more than avoidance or a generic motivational quote.
Offer your support: Ask if there is anything immediate they need help with. When someone is struggling, it's hard to function normally and find the energy to do basic tasks. Ask if they want help with household chores or if they want company for a shopping trip; it might make a difference on how big a task seems the next time around.
Be a friendly face: If you have a friend that appears 'always okay', check up on them and simply be a friend to them.
Don’t tell a friend who is struggling to 'just be happy/just be positive’: Getting out of a struggling period might take a long time, it's not done overnight. You could, for example, point out when something has been fun - it might make them notice little positives during their day or week.
Don’t take on a role that should not be yours: If you are supporting a friend, you might feel a lot of weight on your shoulders. You should not be a substitute for professional help, support from a friend could mean helping them tidy their room, making a meal to share if they haven't eaten well lately; if it's taking a toll on you, think of stepping back.
Don’t mistake it for attention-seeking: If someone is struggling to take care of themselves or make deadlines, it's likely not by choice. If they already think low of themselves, invalidating and dismissing their feelings might make it worse. If someone mentions they are struggling it might be a cry for help.
Don’t undermine the issue: If someone has been struggling for a while, they will probably already know that a balanced diet, exercise and socialising makes you feel better, but if they can barely get out of the house saying this won't make a difference.