Don’t give false empathy to mental illness – learn how to be supportive

I work in a large factory, so I meet a lot of people with very different attitudes and opinions about mental health. I was diagnosed with severe depression just over 8 years ago. At that time I had a few months off work, had counselling and went on to medication. My employers were good and understanding. But the people I work with are a different matter. 

I don’t advertise that I have depression but I make no secret of it. If someone wants to talk to me about it, I will talk. And a few people have genuinely been interested.

I’ve had a few bad episodes where I needed some time off. I’ve tried to keep these to a minimum but sometimes just getting out of bed is all I can manage. All my efforts are spent fighting off the suicidal thoughts and just coping through the days.

I had a good working relationship with my manager and she was very supportive. It was during one of these episodes that the conversation happened. My manager was telling two of the crew members, who knew about my mental health issue, that I wouldn’t be in for a while. The two guys had always seemed to empathise with me. One of them, who had been in hospital years earlier because of a mental breakdown and depression, asked my manager: what use was I to anyone if I was going keep having time off?

My manager defended me, and told them: if I was fighting a physical illness, they wouldn’t be saying that.

A factory is a place where everything gets around – and when I got back to work I heard about it. Knowing that a factory is also a hive of gossip too I chose not to believe it, putting it down to rumours. But it ate away at me every time I saw them. 

I challenged my manager about it, and to my surprise, she confirmed that they had said it. Since that day I have been very wary about the false empathy and empty gestures that people throw out. It has made me very jaded and even more guarded than I was previously. 

It’s hard to know when people are genuine, so I now try not to discuss mental health with anyone. A very backward step for me but stigma and attitude, I believe haven’t changed. People are often just learning the right phrases to say, paying lip service to the buzz words of the moment. Where I think things have moved forward is that people that have these illnesses of the mind are coming together and supporting each other.

One of the crew members that said these things has a son who is now suffering from depression. He comes to me for advice on what his son should do. I inwardly hate this person and their ignorance but wear the “I’m ok” mask every day. I wouldn’t wish this illness on my worst enemy so I genuinely help the best I can. 

In my experience people don’t learn about mental illness until it hits them square between the eyes and they are forced to.

On a negative, you never know what tomorrow will bring – on a positive, you never what tomorrow will bring. Stay strong.

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