Being ‘strong’ is an aspiration of many. Does being strong help improve mental health? Sometimes we’re told that being ‘strong’ can be detrimental to our mental health; trying to hold it all together and keep everything inside can lead to a build up of emotion which eventually manifests as a mental health condition. But is it helpful to simply start stigmatising the concept of ‘strength’ and tell people that they don’t need to be so strong? Is it not the case that, that same strength may have served a purpose earlier in their life? Maybe there are other ways that we can understand the relationship between ‘strength’ and mental health.
Firstly, being told to ‘let you guard down’, ‘let people in’ and ‘not be so strong all the time’ is not so easy. Why? Because if you are experiencing a mental health issue, the likelihood is that you have also experienced another form of challenge in your life.
Mental health and trauma have an inextricable link. Childhood trauma is one of the largest risk factors for adults developing a mental health issue later in life. The Mental Health Foundation claim that 1 in 3 adults in England have experienced a traumatic event which could lead to episodes of depression, anxiety or more complex psychological experiences such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Child maltreatment also increases the risk of behavior problems, including internalizing (anxiety, depression) and externalizing (aggression, acting out) behaviour (Gilbert et al., 2009). In other words, experiencing neglect, abuse or other forms of mistreatment in childhood increases the likelihood of developing negative behaviour patterns and/or a mental health issue.
Let’s say you are an 8 year old child. You have an abusive parent. Your parents split and you are now the child of a single-working mother. She is working all hours to get enough money together to get you out of the council estate you are currently living on. You learn to take care of yourself, to turn a blind eye to the events occuring on your estate, to ignore the abuse your dad is still trying to impose on you and to bury to embarrassment of having old and second hand clothes whilst your friends have new trainers and games consoles. Later in life, you develop episodes of intense anxiety. People tell you that you don’t need to be so strong, and that you need to let your guard down.
These people often don’t stop to think about why you have your guard up in the first place. If you’ve experienced difficult/ traumatic/ upsetting/ abusive/ frightening/ lonely/ financially tough times in your life, you will have needed that strength and resilience to get you through it. That ‘strength’- those ‘walls’, that ‘guard’- is what protected you.
So what is the problem? Sometimes somewhere along the way you get labelled as the ‘strong’ one. The ‘one who can handle anything’. The ‘tough one’. The ‘reliable one’. You might even hear words like ‘brutal’, ‘harsh’, ‘cold’, ‘blunt’, ‘ruthless’ or ‘hard’. If you’re anything like me, you might like the labels at first. They make you feel strong, protected and safe. But soon those labels become a burden.
What people might not realise is that by constantly giving you the label of ‘the strong one’- whether they think you’re choosing it or not- they are making it even more difficult for you to talk about things you’re finding difficult.
The irony is, the stronger you seem, the more you have probably been through and therefore the more you might need to talk. But because you’ve been labelled, and maybe even respected, as being ‘strong’, the huge leap to open up and make yourself vulnerable is even more intimidating. Not only do you risk the standard respect and likeability, but you have an increased risk of not being seen as ‘strong’ anymore. If that strength has been a key part of your identity and background, the potential of losing it can be terrifying.
So what can you do to help? We’ve seen how scary, and counter-intuitive, it can feel to try to open up. We’ve seen that it’s also unhelpful to tell someone that ‘being strong’ is a bad thing and can negatively impact their mental health. Sometimes, it’s actually the opposite.
The best thing you can do, if you want to make someone feel that they can be honest about their emotions, is create a safe space to do so. The following suggestions might be a good place to start:
- Ask the direct question: Indirect questions can be misinterpreted. Also, sometimes if someone asks an indirect question, you might feel self-conscious about making the answer serious and about yourself. Never be afraid to ask a direct question. You’re actually giving the person permission to answer directly. Of course, it might not always work perfectly, but the more directly you ask questions, the more honest the conversations become over time. Try it and see…
- Be a good listener: Sometimes all someone needs is an outlet. They do not need to hear stories from your own life, or how what they’re saying relates to you. Leave pauses and silences and you will be surprised at how people might fill them. This is a good one for people who might feel uncomfortable about the ‘pressure’ of having a conversation about mental health. You are not a counsellor or psychologist; your job is not to fix it. Just listen…
- Make yourself vulnerable: We’re more likely to share secrets with people who share secrets with us. It creates a sense of trust. Again, this one doesn’t work straight away, but can help build up over time and make someone feel that they are not alone, or ‘weak’ for experiencing moments of fear/sadness/anger/anguish.
- Validate their feelings: This one can be tricky. Sometimes people mistake this for agreeing with their feelings, or finding a really patronising way of trying to understand (“Awww that must have been so hard for you [heart emoji]”). Validating simply means letting someone know that their feelings are meaningful. Avoid a judgement, but maybe just repeat back what the person is saying in the form of a question (e.g. ‘So it annoyed you out when they made that choice because you felt it was unfair?’)
- Create a safe space: Rather than ambushing someone with a list of direct questions, cushion it slightly by indicating your concern and making less intense plans. For example, tell your friend that they seem a bit stressed/quiet/down and invite them for a FIFA session. Or dinner. Or drinks. Or a gym session. Whatever will act as a distraction. It can be quite intimidating to be asked personal questions, especially when you’re not used to them, so give the person something safe they can get into when the conversation gets difficult.
All these suggestions are ways you can create a safe space for your ‘strong’ friend to keep their ‘strength’ and still talk about their mental health.
Remember, the more you use the label, the harder it is to escape it. At the same time, stigmatising ‘strength’ isn’t helpful either and shows a lack of understanding of the life experiences that can lead a person to mental health issues. Instead, allow a person to show or highlight their own strength when they need to and create a safe space for them to talk.
For more advice regarding symptoms and statistics jump to the Facts Only page.
For resources and support jump to the Talk page.