This past week we marked the World Mental Health Day with a focus on suicide prevention.
It is customary in the mental health field to encourage people to speak out in order to reduce their risk of adverse outcomes in the event that they have a mental illness or psychological distress of any kind.
Indeed, on several occasions this year we have had mental health campaigns headlined by the exhortation that we need to talk more about our inner world of thinking and feeling, and that doing this will improve the quality of our lives and perhaps make us happier.
But it would appear that this campaign often targets the wrong people. We spend lots of time urging people with mental illness or psychological distress to talk about it, and thus fall into the same trap as those that stereotype mental illness as a simple thing that can be eliminated by as simple a measure as talking about our feelings.
It is one short leap away from insinuating that mental illness is a product of choice, or some other individual's failing that can be corrected if only those affected take those extra steps to deal with it.
A few weeks ago during a suicide prevention campaign in which the main message was that people need to speak out more, a friend challenged me to examine whether it is always safe to speak out when in distress.
She pointed out that sometimes when we speak out people use what we say to our disadvantage one way or another.
We lose job opportunities because of the perception that we are somehow weak and incapable of dealing with workplace challenges.
We are “spared” opportunities for promotion because of the thinking that increased responsibilities will come with increased risk to our “fragile” selves.
It is time for a paradigm shift in how we communicate helpful messages about mental health and what needs to be done to keep us mentally healthy.
This shift must target the group one would call potential helpers.
Potential helpers are those of us in the society who are privileged to have good mental health, but in whose surroundings we find people at risk of or suffering from mental illnesses of all shades and sizes.
If our intention is to make life better for those with mental illnesses, we must target those to whom we look up when seeking interventions.
Thus it is imperative that in our messaging, instead of urging those in distress to talk, we must urge those not in distress to be available and willing to listen.
We must cultivate a stigma-free environment that makes it easier for those in need to speak out, and if we do this well enough we will not need to urge anyone to speak out when in distress.
People will find it easy to speak out if they know that whatever they say will not be used to make them feel less than human, but will be used to improve the quality of their life.
If we really want people to open up about their thoughts and feelings in order to reduce the suffering due to mental ill health and psychological distress, we must build a more listening society.
We must be more compassionate, more forgiving, and more open if we are serious about improving our collective mental health and wellbeing.
Lukoye Atwoli is Associate Professor of Psychiatry, Moi University School of Medicine;[email protected]