It has long been considered that talking can improve one’s mental health – but is this always the case?
Is it always good to break the silence?
There can be little argument against those telling us that breaking the silence around mental illness is good. Countless campaigns over the years (and even nowadays) drill into us that such silence is harmful and that we should try to break it wherever we can.
Britain Get Talking is one such campaign. Doubtlessly, campaigns like this have helped many people open up about their mental health problems, particularly those who have stayed silent because of the fear of prejudice and stigma.
However, such campaigns should be considered with a health warning. They can also feed misconceptions about silence in mental illness, implying that silence in and around mental illness is always negative, rooted in fear and stigma, and any effort to break it is a good thing. This is not always the case, however.
Silence can form part of a condition.
Silence in mental illness comes in many forms. Some kinds of silence can form part of mood disorders like depression. People who have written about their experiences of depression often describe losing the ability to create thoughts or feeling unable to speak.
This aspect of depression is well-known in mental healthcare. Thinking and speaking less are considered two different symptoms of depression.
Some research even suggests silence is such a reliable symptom that it might be possible to develop automated tools that diagnose depression based on a person’s speech patterns.
If you have experienced this sort of ‘depressed silence’ at all, then being confronted with campaigns and people urging you to speak up might not help. After all, the problem isn’t that others aren’t open to what you have to say or that they might react poorly to it. It might be that you have nothing to say.
Indeed, other kinds of silence can be empowering. Some people with mental illness are silent because the people around them ask unwelcome questions or give them unhelpful input. They might unilaterally choose to save difficult conversations for their counselor rather than engage in difficult discussions which feel ‘forced’ upon them.
Such a choice isn’t necessarily rooted in stigma. That someone might be well-meaning or know only a little about mental health. But this doesn’t mean they are the right person to talk to about mental illness.
Silence can be a good thing too.
Silence in mental illness can also feel good. While some people struggle to think and speak, others struggle with thinking and talking too much.
That might, for example, be the case for someone with bipolar disorder, who experiences episodes of depression and mania, which can involve racing thoughts and an overwhelming compulsion to speak.
For such people, moments of peaceful silence can be a hard-won achievement
We rarely hear about these other sides of silence in mental illness. But therapists and counselors have recognized the role silence can play in supporting mental health.
When Donald Winnicott published his seminal paper The Capacity to be Alone, silence was said to play a crucial element in meditation, which studies have shown can prevent the recurrence of depression.
What are the right circumstances for silence?
Silences should be broken under the right circumstances. Since depressed silence seems to form part of depressive illnesses, it may be something the patient has to break with the help of a mental healthcare professional as part of their recovery. Similarly, someone might benefit from breaking their silence in therapy, even if the silence feels good.
For whatever reason, many people won’t find those circumstances with their family, friends, or colleagues. The fact is that it is tough to talk about mental health problems, even with people who love and support you. Sometimes that is because of stigma – but sometimes, it isn’t.
We should continue to strive to make it easier for people to open up about their mental health problems in the right setting. But we must dispose of the rhetoric that pressures people to break the silence without considering why they are silent or if speaking actually benefits them.
What do you think about the points raised in this article? Do you use silence to support your mental health? Tell us more in the comments.