Mental Health All the rage, but don't forget your Stiff Upper Lip

By Martin Seville Wellbeing Coach

I read this article recently, by James Harris from the Mental Health Foundation.  

Essentially, it’s about how widespread mental illness is, the response to publishing new findings and how things might look in the future. The stand out message is that latest research shows nearly 2 out of 3 people experience a mental health problem in their lifetime.  

It’s a good article and worth a read. I was familiar with much of its content, but something in it bothered me and brought back my experience of battling mental illness. Surprisingly, what bothered me wasn’t something new; I’d heard it before, many times in fact. But for some reason, in this moment, it really made me think and want to express my thoughts.  

So, what was it that vexed me so? It was the response from some quarters on the extent of mental illness. It was the “bring back the Stiff Upper Lip” mentality. It was the “time for our gender to get a grip … man up”. And exploring deeper into some of the sources for this reaction I was intrigued by the views of ‘over diagnosis’ and that having mental illness is apparently “all the rage”; in fact “you’re no one unless you’ve had a mental episode”.  

Having thought about all of this, rather than being defensive, I’m going to be compassionate. I can see the big picture. So, there are three things I’d like to explore and express.  

You don't know what you don't know ...

I remember, before my illnesses took hold, colleagues going through depression and anxiety – not that that’s what we were calling it - they were “stressed”. I remember being compassionate. I remember being supportive. I remember encouraging them to put themselves first, forget about work and get the right support.  

Looking back, I’m pleased that I handled it sensitively, with care and compassion; but I can also see that I knew absolutely nothing about what they were really experiencing - the complexities and the support that was truly needed. I also now realise that unless you’ve been through it yourself, you’ll never really know. That’s certainly not a failing though, that’s just life experience. I wouldn’t wish mental illness on anyone. But, with or without experience of mental illness, you can still support and treat people with compassion.  

Thankfully my concern for people and my approach provided adequate support in years gone by; also remembering it was a time before the huge mental health push of today. But, what if I hadn’t been a natural “people person”, or wasn’t overly compassionate? Some people just aren’t. There’s no judgement about this type of individual, they’re just different. But, how might they handle the situation if they came across a colleague struggling with mental illness? With indifference? With sensitivity? With caution? …. The truth is that all of these responses occur in real life. The key you see, is that without education, those who have not experienced mental health issues will innocently react to things purely based on their upbringing, life experience, values and morals.  

So, being mindful of different views and importantly where those views might come from, helps us to understand the type of education people may need on identifying and supporting those with mental health issues. It may also provide clues on how to engage with people on the topic, especially when they have no prior experience of mental health illness. After all, people don’t know what they don’t know.  

The new trend that's been around for 200,000 years

There is, of course, a great movement today educating people about mental illness. It’s getting more coverage than ever before, thanks to the ease of global communication. Despite its mysteries, it is also understood better than ever before.  

Rather than being “all the rage” – which suggests a conscious decision to have it and shout about it – I see today as more of an Awakening. An Awakening to the fact that we are all individuals, with limits that can have an impact on both physical and mental health. An Awakening that today’s world is both a blessing and a curse – with its instantaneous culture, constant online existence, continual access to information from around the globe, and the unrelenting business pressure, speed and demand of the 21st century.  

We are operating with a pace and visibility like never before in human history. And, it’s this same instant, pressurised, demanding, high speed life that pushes individuals further than ever before; both mentally and physically. Rather than ‘over diagnosis’ or ‘being a trend’, mental health is at risk because of today’s environment, but equally with better data, findings, communication and diagnosis, we have a truer view of the number of sufferers today.  

Mental illness has been around for as long as human beings have been on this planet. Today we just know more about it and can assess its impact better. More coverage isn’t a reason to dismiss or belittle it.  

Stiff Upper Lip is so last season

My final topic of conversation, for me, is a little more emotive. It’s that ‘Stiff Upper Lip’ mentality.  

Let’s throw some more out there shall we …  

  • Carry on regardless
  • Man up
  • Grow a backbone 
  • It’ll be alright in the morning
  • Just get on with it
  • Buck up
  • Stop being so pathetic
  • Stop whining 
  • Cheer up
  • Move on
  • Smile, it’s not that bad
  • Be stronger  
  • You just need a slap with a wet kipper!

Now, luckily for me, I had a very supportive network and no one actually said any of those things to me – at least not to my face! But, I am aware of the countless number of people who are faced with these sorts of comments daily. And indeed, let’s not forget that some of the reaction to the Mental Health Foundation’s new data was in the spirit of these comments.  

I’ve come to realise that my view on this is quite simple. For me there is a simple truth. A simple fact. A simple point that will help everyone without mental health experience, better understand a person with mental health illness.  

You see, at the point you visibly and/or verbally see a person struggling, reaching out, breaking down, or being diagnosed with a mental health illness such as depression or anxiety, they have already applied the ‘Stiff Upper Lip’. They’ve already ‘carried on regardless’. They’ve already ‘manned up, grown a backbone, been strong, got on with it, bucked up’ and all those other wonderfully ‘helpful’ things. There is nothing they won’t have already said to themselves or criticised themselves about.  

By the time you see them in despair, they’ve been there and they’ve done it. For a long time. Probably, a very long time. In my case, it was 7 years of ‘manning up’. They will have been so strong, so resilient, so courageous, that it’s unlikely they could put it into words. So, at that point, they’ve exhausted the ‘Stiff Upper Lip’ list. Their mental and physical body is broken. It can’t take any more. The person cannot take any more. They’ve reached their limit. In fact, they exceeded their limit a long time ago. Professional and medical help is required immediately.  

Hopefully this illustrates why the ‘Stiff Upper Lip’ response is not only inappropriate and unhelpful, it’s completely redundant and out of date. But, as we said earlier, people don’t know what they don’t know.

The footnote to this discussion of course is that it would be so much better for people with mental illness if they got support before they had to apply the ‘Stiff Upper Lip’. At that point, so much could be done to help them avoid the serious, life-threatening lows of depression and anxiety. That however my friends, is a discussion for another day!  

Light and reflection ...

So, for today, I hope that this article has thrown some light onto some of the matters raised and inspired by James Harris’ article, from the perspective of someone who has ‘been there and done it’. If nothing else, I hope that my discussion has at least initiated your own reflections on the matter. And while the views of the general public it seems are still very much in the balance, I hope that by sharing my thoughts it can cement the support of at least one more person in the pledge to appreciate and support those suffering with mental health illnesses. 

Take care and remember to always be Kind To Yourself.  

Martin Seville  

Martin Seville is a Wellbeing Coach, with 20 year's experience in the Financial Services industry. He also has 10 years experience of battling Depression and Generalised Anxiety Disorder, whilst working and raising a family. Having experienced it himself and witnessed others struggle with mental health issues, Martin set up Empathy Coaching, a new venture to coach and support corporate workers with signs of stress and anxiety.