In the latest in our series of wellbeing and mental health articles, Phil Green provides insight into the impact of mental health issues and offers advice on what’s needed to help those suffering to improve their lives.
In January 2017, my wife and I adopted Scarlett the beagle - she’s a very special dog who was rescued from an animal-testing facility in Hungary. Many people are unaware that testing on animals [still] occurs, but it does, and on an industrial scale across the globe. Every year more than 100 million animals – including rodents, cats, dogs, rabbits, cows, pigs, and non-human primates – are killed in US laboratories alone.
Dogs, such as Scarlett, are a favored species for toxicology studies, where large doses of a test substance (e.g., a pharmaceutical, industrial chemical, pesticide, household product, etc.) are force-fed or injected into the animal for up to ninety days at a time, slowly poisoning them. Very few of these dogs make it out alive, and those that do are left with physiological and mental health issues.
Mental health issues are more prevalent than you think
We don’t often think of animals as suffering from mental health issues, but, as anyone that has adopted a rescue dog with a troubled past may be able to attest to, they certainly can.
Scarlett is no exception; she has many fears and phobias from her past life as a test subject and regularly shows symptoms of anxiety and depression. She has good days and bad days but is slowly, and very courageously, improving her life, with good days becoming more the norm than bad days.
It’s hard to say the right thing
Many times, we’ve wished we could talk to Scarlett. We could reassure her that she’s safe, loved deeply, and will always come first. I’m sure many owners of rescued dogs share this sentiment, but having had Scarlett in our lives for two years we have come to realize that language can be more of an impediment than a benefit when it comes to mental health issues.
How many times do people open their mouths to speak, only to put their foot in it?
Unless you’ve at least second hand – better still first hand – experience of mental health issues, it’s a minefield. It’s extraordinarily difficult to say the “right” thing. You can’t apply reason and logic. You can’t say “I understand” because, even if you’ve been there yourself, the experience is so complex and unique to the individual that you can’t possibly understand the detailed nuances of their innermost feelings.
So, what can – and should – you do?
What has Scarlett Beagle taught us? It’s simply this: make a difference through actions, not words!
For example, a depressed or anxious person often wants to retreat to a safe place. Although Scarlett loves us, trusts us, and knows we’ll never hurt her, her emotions cause her to want to retreat to her safe place when she feels anxious, depressed, or threatened.
Our job is to provide that safe place, with familiar comforts, toys, and smells. We ensure through actions, not words, that every new experience for Scarlett is a source of joy, not anxiety and fear (as it would have been during her past life as a laboratory subject).
Scarlett is finding inner strength and courage to slowly overcome her past and live life to the full. And, having experienced mental health issues first hand myself, I feel this is one of the hardest things you can ever do in life. I explain more in three of the things I learned from my experiences:
- Drugs, counseling, and support groups provide valuable emotional and moral support, but something else is needed. As a severely depressed student in my twenties, I got all of this help, only to find that my depression got worse, not And then it hit me: getting better would be down to me, not the drugs or psychotherapy. I really needed to want it, dig deep, and make a herculean effort to get there, wherever “there” was.
- More practical help than I was afforded would also have made life easier, but these were the days when mental health issues were barely acknowledged, let alone understood. It’s critical to seek help even though I’ve just stated that “getting better would be down to me.”
- Just because I didn’t say much, it didn’t mean I had nothing to say. Just because I wasn’t enthusiastic about going on a night out, it didn’t mean I didn’t want to. Just because I didn’t ask for practical help such as with grocery shopping, it didn’t mean I didn’t need it. The curse of language was getting in the way, and actually slowing, not helping, my recovery.
Please be aware of these three things if you suspect that yourself, a colleague, friend, or family member is struggling.
Finally, watching Scarlett Beagle find the inner strength to overcome her past is not just an inspiration, but a strong reminder of the need for setting language aside and looking for practical ways of helping people with mental health issues. Less talk, more action, please!
I hope that my article has you thinking differently about mental health issues and how best to help others if they’re suffering. If you have any advice to add, please do so in the comments. Or even better, if you have a story to tell, please contact ITSM.tools re sharing it. If you would like to speak with someone about how you’re feeling, or about a friend, family member, or colleague, then please contact (charitable) mental-illness organizations such as SANE (in the UK) or similar that are available where you live.
If you want to know more about Scarlett’s journey, you can follow her on social media: