Be the Person: Mental health and peer support

Feb 14, 2023 | Shooting Tips | 0 comments

Author:  Luther Cutts, Head Instructor (NSCA Level 3), Competitor

This blog is going to be different from all the previous ones.

It is the product of the confluence of 25 years of policing, many more years of shooting, a lifetime of being around people, and some recent events. It is my hope to craft something that has everything to do with shooting, and at the same time, nothing at all to do with shooting.

Most of us shoot for the enjoyment as well as the social aspects of our interactions with others. We like the company of people who share similar interests, and it is an enjoyable way to spend our leisure time. We know a lot about those we shoot with, like what vehicle they drive, what shotgun they prefer, the ammunition they like, and whether or not they like banana bread. Infrequently, we have friendships that extend beyond the shooting grounds, and we do things outside of shooting.

But in reality, we know very little about our shooting friends in most cases. We don’t visit each-other’s homes, we don’t know the other spouse, or children. They are not people we would necessarily turn to in emergencies. They are “just” shooting friends.

This, combined with a strange quirk of our society, makes for some impossible situations. The strange normative quirk I refer to is how we tend to share medical information.

If you break your leg skiing, when you come back into the clubhouse on crutches, everyone has a good laugh and everyone wants to know when you will be shooting again. Some will offer to be helpful, but there is not much they can do. Still, it is nice to hear them offer. There is no effort made to conceal the fact that a leg was broken and there was a medical intervention. That is all expected.

If you are diagnosed with cancer, there is great concern expressed by your friends, and they again offer to help. Generally, there is nothing they can do – your battle is a one-on-one fight with a deadly adversary, and it is your fight alone.

These two scenarios are quite normal, and if you have lived long enough, you have likely seen these play out more than once.

Why then does our behaviour change when the medical condition is one involving mental health? Those afflicted with a mental health challenge are loathe to disclose it to anyone. And those that hear of a mental health issue sometimes think less of the individual suffering from the problem. The uneducated and the unfamiliar believe that any mental health issue equates to the person being “crazy” or “nuts”, and their conduct aligns with those assumptions.

Why is it we offer to help the person with the broken leg, or with cancer, knowing full well that there is virtually nothing that we can do, but we avoid the one set of circumstances that we can actually do some real, measurable good? Why is it that when someone has a mental health issue, everyone scurries for the exit? We should all know by now that mental health issues are not contagious.
From the perspective of a non-medically trained, non-professional person who has cleaned up far too many instances of mental health issues destroying lives, I think it is safe to say we are frightened by the things we don’t understand, or cannot make sense of. How can someone be so happy one day, and so down the next? We do not understand the power and the grip of clinical depression, nor do we understand how something that happened in 1988 can haunt someone today. And that inability to understand these problems causes us to create space between ourselves and those struggling with their mental health.

There is no doubt that dealing with these issues is hard, both on the affected individual as well as those around them. And difficult situations are precisely what most of us would rather avoid. It is a natural response to unpleasantness. It is rather easy to offer the cancer patient to help out with anything – there is nothing you can do with their treatment, so it is an offer made without any real risk of creating a burdensome obligation. It is safe, and it is comfortable.

For someone struggling with depression or PTSD or any other of a wide range of mental health conditions, it is a huge gamble to reveal to others that they are not well. They risk the very real threat of rejection and humiliation – keeping it a secret is quite understandable considering the typical response. Over time, some people struggling with these disabling conditions develop robust methods to conceal their illness.

If the secret of a mental health condition is shared with an actual friend, the response is typically one that results in enormous relief for the person with the condition, and a great deal of clarity for the person being told.

For the individual disclosing the condition, there is relief in being accepted. It is all any of us really want in life, and the fear of rejection can be debilitating. On the other hand, for the person learning of the condition, a wide range of behavioural quirks suddenly made perfect sense. When one person reveals sensitive personal information to another, the response can sometimes be turbulent, as uncertainty swirls around the friendship as people figure out what is an appropriate next step. Normally, in a very short time, the friendship has taken a new course, with different priorities, and things are generally better for everyone. It takes two strong people to make this happen. One to disclose some intensely personal and potentially damaging information, and one to accept that information and treat the discloser with dignity and respect.

Relationships will be stronger when people who struggle with mental health issues understand that those around them, in their inner circle, have the strength of character and resolve to accept the news of an issue and not recoil in horror.

On the other side of this equation is the individual who learns of the condition, and how they react in the first instance. It can be quite shocking to have someone tell you that they suffer from clinical depression, or the long-term effect of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or a wide range of any other mental health conditions that affect so many people, across so many different walks of life. Some people, who are generally felt to have it all together, are actually the frailest in terms of their mental health. Our job, as recipients of this extremely sensitive information is to be accepting and supportive, and most of all, non-judgemental. We also need to understand that the solutions to the problems your friend is suffering from are not simple nor are they easily resolved. Clinical depression is not banished by making the individual laugh, or by offering to take them for a milkshake. We must accept that fact that these sorts of problems are long-term problems, that are complex and resistant to resolution. They are, regrettably, things that many people simply must live with.

As with many types of relationships, there is no small element of risk involved in divulging one’s struggles with mental health issues. One runs the risk of being humiliated, losing the respect of one’s peers, and perhaps even being shunned. But, as in almost all situations where there are significant risks, there also exists the possibility of big rewards. We will have made the world a better place when mental health challenges are no longer required to be a dark secret, that people are desperate to keep hidden. Who should not be interested in lifting a huge burden from their friend, with no cost to themselves, apart from simply listening to that friend?

Each of us needs to be the person who has the strength to share the details of our mental health condition with those we consider friends. And we also need to be the person who has the strength and fortitude to accept the news of someone telling us about their mental health condition, responding with kindness and compassion, and thereby preserving the dignity of those disclosing the sensitive information. We need to stand with them, support them and be a part of the solution rather than being judgemental or dismissive, which only tends to exacerbate the problem. They do not require advice, but rather, only acceptance.

Can you be the person?