Shedding Our Masks on #WorldMentalHealthDay

older woman hiding happy and sad face behind mask

Today is World Mental Health Day, which is observed on 10 October every year, with the overall objective of raising awareness of mental health issues around the world and mobilizing efforts in support of mental health.

We now know that the incidence of depression following a cancer diagnosis is high. While most people will understand that dealing with a chronic illness like cancer causes depression, not everyone understands that depression can go on for many months and even years after cancer treatment has ended (one of the most frequent searches that come up on my blog analytics is “depression following cancer”).

When I first started this blog, I thought I would write about how my cancer experience had enriched my life (rather than to admit any other darker truth). I wanted this blog to be about hope – as a young woman newly diagnosed with cancer, I only wanted to hear that there would be a good outcome to all of this. When I finished treatment, I wanted to be that survivor  – the one with the story of hope for other young women. But over the past nine years of writing, as I have struggled to come to terms with infertility (a legacy of cancer treatment) and the death of my beloved mother from a brain tumor, I could no longer write that cancer was a life-affirming, positive experience. Cancer robs you of so many precious things, leaves your spirit broken, and your hopes and dreams shattered.

This is not to deny that for some people cancer is a life-affirming experience.

There has been a lot written about “post-traumatic growth” – the positive flip side of PTSD.  According to the Posttraumatic Growth Research Group at UNC Charlotte, “Sometimes people who must face major life crises develop a sense that new opportunities have emerged from the struggle, opening up possibilities that were not present before.” This is undoubtedly true for some. But equally the emergence of PTSD is a reality for many of us.  The research group clarifies that posttraumatic growth is not universal: “It is not uncommon, but neither does everybody who faces a traumatic event experience growth.”

So while I don’t deny that cancer can open up the possibility of a new positive direction in life, for many of us it is a traumatic experience which leaves scars and wounds that need to be acknowledged before they can be healed.

Depression is an isolating and lonely place and people are reluctant to talk about it for fear of being stigmatized or just plain misunderstood – which of course adds to the feelings of isolation and loneliness. Like Eleanor Rigby (with a face that we keep in a jar) we can put on a mask to face the world.

For me, writing about my experiences and being part of a caring, compassionate and wise blog community has helped me enormously. Knowing that there is a place where I can write from my heart, a space where I can shed my mask is empowering for me.  In the words of Natalie Goldberg, author of Writing Down The Bones: “I write out of hurt and how to make hurt okay; how to make myself strong and come home, and it may be the only real home I’ll ever have.”

“When we write, we create, and when we offer our creation to one another, we close the wound of loneliness, and may participate in healing the broken world.” – Pat Schneider

Authentic writing, writing that comes from a deep place within us, opens up our vulnerabilities – what writer Michael Lewin calls our places of wounded-ness. Blogging in a community of like-minded people counteracts the isolation we so often feel. It carries within it the seeds of community and connection which are lacking in so many of our lives and a key component of good mental health.   I am grateful for those of you who have shared your own stories of wounded-ness and healing on your blogs. In reading them, my journey of discovery has been enriched and I have gained solace and strength.

So my message to you on this World Mental Health Day is to take off our masks and tell it like it really is. If you are feeling down and you want someone to reach out to you today, please let us know. Let’s support each other here through the good, the bad, and the sad days. We are a community that is built on compassion and understanding. Let’s show that to those who really need it today.