It’s 2018, and colleges all over America are ushering in a beautiful, supportive culture surrounding mental health. Never has there been a movement so sympathetic of and reactive to mental health acceptance, support and remedy. No longer can an individual callously disregard mental health as an illegitimate cry for attention.
Mental health is a complex affair. One’s mental state encompasses a variety of factors that are impossible to isolate and control. Amazingly, institutions of higher learning have come to understand the importance of mental health. Many colleges have created safe spaces and raised awareness to foster supportive environments for anyone seeking help or to open up to others. A culture of openness is emerging, and more and more people are being candid about their mental health and the associated challenges.
I want to raise a caution, however, about the act of divulging problems to others. My warning doesn’t stem from the sensitivity of the information individuals share, nor the exploitation of those secrets. Rather, one must be cognizant of how one opens up to others because it can make problems that are much more pervasive, powerful and permanent. Especially in today’s age where social media reigns supreme, individuals must pay close attention to how they share their hardships lest it becomes a habit to chronicle problems on Facebook, detrimentally rendering a hardship characteristic of one’s being.
Don’t get me wrong. It is important, even essential, to have people in our lives whom we can share with. Close knit circles comprised of family, a significant other and/or close friends are essential in ensuring individuals are equipped to handle arduous circumstances. We refer to these circles as “support systems.” A good support system is the key to great mental health; it acts as a home one can retreat to so that one may recuperate.
However, toxic “support” systems also exist, and individuals may not be equipped to recognize and supplant a detrimental support system with a legitimate one. It is possible to fall victim to a detrimental support system because poor and failing mental health makes the process of sound decision-making difficult; adversity may veil our judgment and make us desperate for salvation. Both issues amplify each other and coalesce into mad dashes towards safety, stability and comfort where they may only superficially exist.
Case in point: in my sophomore year of high school, I spent the worse part of six months in a rotting relationship. I was losing my best friend who was also my companion. I just couldn’t help but flock to anyone that was willing to listen to my problems. Originally, I told my parents and my closest friends. But, the more desperate I became, the more people I started divulging to. Among the laundry list of people who eventually knew what was up with me were my teachers, my arts directors and friends whose names I barely knew. I’d occasionally post an infamous black Snapchat story here and there hoping that broadcasting my problems would somehow make me feel any better. In hindsight, it’s obvious that my behaviors were extremely toxic. I was removing the dirt from right under me and throwing it out of the hole I was in hoping someone would see and come rescue me. In sharing my pain with the world, I gave my pain power and granted it legitimacy — it became more real the more I talked about it.
This went on for much of my sophomore year, and it didn’t get any better until I stopped over-sharing and focused my efforts on rebuilding my own boat instead of flocking to the rafts of others. The influx of sympathy from complaining was a temporary relief, but the pity was a constant reminder that my problems were monsters that continued to lurk and destroy me. That’s all that the pity I was craving was good for.
These acquaintances, for the most part, provided only transient aid, and when they disappeared, I didn’t have ground to stand on. When in a conflict or suffering from poor mental health, individuals often share with a lot of people or post to social media, bringing in an influx of temporary empathy and sympathy. This is a toxic and unsustainable support system. Once the initial support wears out, people feel lacking once again and finds themselves feeling even more helpless and alone than before, creating a snowball effect.
After analyzing the social media patterns of myself and people close to me, I’ve come to realize that advertising problems to the masses, who can’t be bothered to be empathetic, actually left people feeling way more alone and helpless, more so than if they hadn’t. Speaking to others about your woes serves as a springboard to think through problems with the comfort and support of another soul present. It’s a beautiful process contingent on progress. But it is easy to become a host for the crippling shadow of one’s problems and give it life as an individual broadcasts their ordeals. This kind of reaching behavior is liable to create a vicious cycle of fruitless over-sharing that leaves us feeling worse and worse. The snowball continues to grow.
Over-sharing to a weak support system is a self-deprecating behavior that can’t be helped. When a human being feels like they’re drowning, they’re liable to reach out to anyone and everyone hoping for salvation from their struggles. This is what close friends and family are for — not the kid from your 8:00 a.m. that sits next to you and can’t stop permanently borrowing all your supplies.
More is not better, and the adage of “quality over quantity” should guide the construction of our support systems. A small oak cottage is preferable to a large paper house. We should always have someone with which to share our hopes, fears and troubles. We just have to make sure that we’re cognizant of how we share and that the people to which we hand our glass psyche know how to handle it with care.