When saying "I'm fine" just isn't enough - feelya

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6 min read

How many people ask you ‘‘How are you?” each day?

Three or four? Ten? Dozens? And how many of them are genuinely inquiring about your welfare?

Most people believe that only a small proportion of people who ask, “how are you?” really want to know how you are feeling. And they may well be right.

“How are you?’’ or ‘How are you doing?” have become standard greetings that have come to mean little more than ‘‘Hello.” The stock answers are usually ‘’fine, thanks’’ or ‘’great!’’ – even if we don’t mean it at all and are feeling downright depressed, anxious or miserable.

Pasting a smile or blank expression on our face to disguise how we really feel, has become a national art form. But is this stoical attitude doing us any good? Most of us are hard-wired not to make a fuss and just carry on, when we may be secretly suffering inside.

A new study, published today (3rdOctober 2018) found that 78 per cent of people tell friends and family they are ‘fine’ when struggling with a mental health problem.

The survey of over 2,000 people by Time to Change, the mental health anti-stigma campaign, found that more than half of people failed to answer honestly because they didn’t want to be a burden or felt “just because people ask how you are, doesn’t mean they really want to know.”

Thirty nine per cent of those surveyed thought: “I’d only talk if I was confident my friend or family member really wanted to listen.”

Admitting you have been struggling with mental health is, for many people, still much harder than disclosing physical problems. How many people would hide the fact they have broken a toe, or have a chest infection? Practically none. But relatively few will tell colleagues, neighbours or even close friends their mental health is not good.

When making decisions about whether to open up, we make sophisticated judgments about whether we can trust the person who is listening, and whether they really care. The notion of trust is crucially important when disclosing your true feelings.

It is hardly surprising then, as the survey shows, most people feel reluctant to reveal how they are actually feeling to strangers who casually ask “How are you?”.

Why would we tell a waiter who asks ‘’how are you today?” before taking your drinks order, “well, actually I am feeling so depressed I sometimes wonder what the point is in carrying on,” or “I’m so anxious I don’t think I can actually function any more?”

Close friends and family members, kind people with a natural empathy and therapists we have built a relationship with, are often the easiest people to talk to.

But that does not mean that others are completely disinterested. You might find that people you did not expect turn out to be surprisingly understanding and supportive.

Maybe many of the people who asked, “How are you?” really wanted to know. They might have noticed you are looking down or preoccupied or are having trouble concentrating at work and are genuinely concerned.

Time to Change suggests that people who are concerned about someone’s mental health ask “How are you?” twice, so people know their inquiry is sincere.

Admitting that you are feeling down, worried or upset, does not mean you need to bare your soul. But it may draw support and sympathy and help those around you understand why you are not 100 per cent.

One head of a division would have far preferred her employees had disclosed how they actually were feeling when she asked them. She was genuinely concerned about two of her colleagues. One used to disappear for hours on end with no explanation, and rarely spoke; another smoked incessantly and jumped when the phone rang. When she asked repeatedly how both of them were they both simply replied “fine.”

She discovered from their friends that one was suffering from serious depression and the other from extreme anxiety. They had assumed their boss would hold their struggles with mental illness against them, but the opposite was true. She wanted to help them and to understand their behaviour.

You might find a boss, neighbour or friend turns out to be incredibly supportive if you are going through a difficult time.

Some people spend a lifetime living with depression, low self-esteem or anxiety and never mention it.

But why reply ‘’fine thanks’’ – if you’re not fine?

What is wrong with replying “Well actually I’m feeling rather depressed today ” or “I’m really anxious about something”, “I’m not coping very well with something or “I’m just overwhelmed by work.”

People are far more open minded now about mental health struggles than ever before in our history. You would be hard pressed to find anyone who, if they are being honest, has not felt depressed, overwhelmed, anxious or inadequate at some point in their lives.

Your inbuilt antennae will tell you whom to trust and whom you will feel comfortable really opening up to. How much you tell them will probably depend on the nature of your relationship, who they are, their generation and their attitude. But be open-minded. The stigma about discussing mental health really is disappearing.