How are you? According to the Mental Health Foundation, it’s a question we get asked about 14 times a week.
I was at an event recently where I asked the audience this exact question. Without exception every person I asked answered “I’m fine”. But the Mental Health Foundation research also suggested that every time a person says “I’m fine” they only mean it 19% of the time. That means every friend, every colleague you ask that question is hiding how they feel 81% of the time. Why?
A member of the audience offered his thoughts by explaining that in the UK it’s a cultural thing. “It’s social protocol” he said. He went on to tell me a story he’d heard of a gentleman who visited recently from the Middle East. When asked “how are you?’, the gentleman from abroad proceeded in great detail to talk about everything that ailed him, including his job, his health and his family. About half way through his answer, an English man stopped him and said “let me explain. In this country, when someone asks you how you are, the correct answer is “I’m fine”.
If we are going to encourage people to talk about their mental health, this is one “social protocol” I believe we have to address. Otherwise we are only enforcing the stigma that already exists around opening conversations about our mental health. If someone asks you how you are, and you feel safe to do so, tell them. We don’t have to talk about it, but we need to create a safe environment that at least makes it possible.
So if you have the time, ask someone how they are. If they reply “I’m fine”, and especially if you feel they’re not, ask them “how are you really?” Create the space that lets them know you’re listening; that it’s okay to say how they feel.
People sometimes say to me, “but I don’t want to be a burden, and besides they don’t really want to know”. My suggestion is that if there are people who make you feel you’re a burden, or who don’t really care how you are, then it’s time to consider the company you keep.
If someone doesn’t have the time to hear what you have to say (we are all busy from time to time) instead of asking how you are, could just say “It’s good to see you”.
If you’re not okay it’s okay to say. We don’t have to be fabulous and sparkling all of the time. We don’t have to be perfect.
There may be days when you genuinely don’t feel like saying how you feel, and that’s okay. You may even still be processing or trying to define what that actually is. It’s just so important that we create a culture where it’s absolutely okay to say how we feel if that’s what we need to do.
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If you or someone you know is struggling, the Samaritans are available 24/7 on 116 123.
Copyright Delphi Ellis