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Every night after the RTÉ news the weather comes on and a soft-spoken Met Éireann meteorologist calmly delivers their prediction on the conditions for the days ahead. However, there is an alternative way of reading the weather and as someone who has experienced issues with mental health, I think there is some insight to be gained from looking at it as an analogy.
The concept I’m referring to is RealFeel®. Meteorologists at Accuweather created it in the 90s and using a formula that takes in variables including humidity, the suns intensity, cloud cover, and wind, it reveals how hot or cold it really feels when you go outside. So although Met Éireann might tell you that it’s 8°C, RealFeel might say it’s more like 2°C. The information from both sources is valuable and neither is more right or wrong. However, if we determine why we need the information in the first place, it can help us reach a conclusion as to why one source might be more appropriate than the other.
For most Irish people the Met Éireann forecast will suffice. We know what to wear in certain temperatures and we quickly adapt if we aren’t adequately prepared. If we venture out one wintery day and find that the air is particularly cold on our hands, we might make a note to ourselves to buy a pair of gloves and we carry on with our day. Now if you are a hiker driving an hour from your home to head up the mountains for a nice long stroll, RealFeel might be of more use. After all, it would be a shame to arrive to your destination only to step out of the car unprepared and feel like you could do with another layer, or two. And although neither situation is life or death, RealFeel is arguably more appropriate in preparing you for your hike. Better still, you could combine both sources and come to an even more informed conclusion.
A very kind colleague recently asked me if I was feeling alright. I was humbled by his act of compassion, yet I felt I couldn’t quite express my true feelings in response. At the time I wasn’t sure why, but on reflection I realised that the question itself led to me to reply with a straight answer. I had to be feeling alright or not alright. That was the “correct” way to answer this question — quickly take into account lots of bits of information and short circuit it all into an overall feeling or forecast. The problem with this type of straight edged answer is that it can easily mask the pain or angst someone is really feeling inside. Worse still, someone could give you a forecast with a sunnier disposition than the reality they really face.
Now, before you say that the phrasing of this question is not a big deal and that it’s still an opportunity for someone to relay his or her qualms or fears to a close friend, let me give you an insight into the thoughts that can swirl around the head of someone battling mental health. The expression ‘life’s a drag’ is very apt here. It can feel like you are fighting against some force, some resistance. What’s worse is that it can make you feel helpless. You might know the general area that is causing you distress but it can be hard to pinpoint the exact source of the negative emotion. It’s like being able to see a tree above ground but not knowing exactly where the roots travel.
Even if you acknowledge this reality to yourself, it can be difficult to share these details with others. You are wary of this weight you are carrying around, and although you wouldn’t have a problem asking someone to help you move a kitchen table because you know an extra pair of hands makes lighter work, it isn’t as obvious a solution when battling mental health. You can sometimes think that other people don’t need to be burdened with what you’re going through as well.
Perhaps the thought has crossed your mind to speak to someone close to you who doesn’t seem to be his or her usual self, and maybe you are unsure how best to approach it. Embrace this feeling as a cue to take action. Liken yourself to the hiker going up the mountain. The general forecast can offer a good barometer of the situation, however it can also leave lots of information out. If you have genuine reason to be concerned with a friends mental health, gauge his or her RealFeel and get a more holistic view of their situation.
Ask how things are at home, if anything is on their mind. Ask them how work is going, have they done any exercise lately, or ask about the areas of their life that you know are important to them. Piece together multiple variables to build a better picture of your friend’s true wellbeing. Worst-case scenario you learn a little more about what’s going on in your friend’s life. And at the other end, it might help a close friend deal with some real issues that they might be suffering through.
It must be said that as a country we have come a long way. Conversations about mental health were non-existent when I was growing up. We can pat ourselves on the back for coming this far while still being humble enough to know that we can always make improvements. This is one approach that could help someone close to you.
And for anyone thinking that discussing the topic of mental health isn’t for them or they wouldn’t be good in that situation, let me say this. No one can give the perfect answer in that situation because there’s no such thing. All you can do is offer the benefit of your life experience, some advice, maybe an anecdote about a time where you struggled or battled something similar. Someone might even spring to mind that you think your friend could benefit from talking to. You might just be able to open a door that your friend might never have thought of, and it could make all the difference in the world finding out how they really feel beneath the general forecast.
Original Featured Artwork by Chelsey O’ Connor