Content warning: mental health struggles, mention of incarceration, death and estrangement.
It is consistently suggested that people who are in mental health crisis need to ‘reach out’ for support. This is problematic as the onus of support and help is put on the person who is struggling, this individual must be able to have the right resources, time and energy to engage others into helping them. This is impossible when you have reached rock bottom or are spiraling towards it. Episodes of intense mental health are all-consuming, they do not allow you to think straight and plan how to get out of the hole you are in.
This is made more complicated for people who struggle with understanding when and how they need help. If you come from a family background where you ‘grin and bear it’ you are not used to asking for help and probably wouldn’t know where to begin. Those of us with alexithymia (see…) and processing differences have a difficult time understanding what our bodyminds need, so what do we ask for help with? Add more marginalised status (gender, sexuality, race etc) and asking for help can be an uphill struggle riddled with stigma, toxic positivity and ignorance.
Asking people to reach out also suggests that we all have people to rely on. Not all of us have strong support systems (which is probably a factor in our mental health crisis to begin with), so who are we supposed to ask; friends who are swamped down in most of the same shit we are; health provisions which are woefully understaffed and underqualified to work with neurodivergent people; family members who probably had a hand in our trauma anyway?
Even if we do have support systems the quality of that support can vary, people we think will support us can sometimes make us worse. If we get help from the mental health team, we could be getting this help 9-12 months down the line, and in some cases even longer. The support we might receive could include involuntary incarceration to mental health facilities, which is a real concern for Autistic people, especially Autistics who are Black or of Colour and / or learning Disabled. The formal places where we should be able to get help are full of hurdles, such as confusing paperwork and admin, ignorant or overrun staff and waiting lists, and are a nightmare to navigate when you are Autistic and in crisis.
Help from family and friends could exist but that is not a given, especially if relationships are strained or non-existent. When asking for specific help from a family member earlier this year I was fobbed off with ‘maybe you should go back to the doctors and get your meds upped’. Even when we have the wherewithal to ask for help we can be denied and ignored, which hurts more than the lack of support in the first place.
More recently, the onus of support has been put onto others, this happens a lot around celebrity deaths which involve mental health struggle. Cries of ‘check in on your friends and neighbours’ ring out but this ignores the power differentials in relationships. One person will always give more than the other, uneven relationships and being taken advantage of is unfortunately usual for many Autistic people. We are often strong for others and neglect (or simply forget) our own needs as this is what makes a ‘good’ friend / partner / child etc. This intermingled with ridiculous cultural ideas of the ‘stiff upper lip’ and ‘boys don’t cry’, means that many of us are left struggling alone.
People will always assume that people who don’t ‘complain’ are okay, however they may also consider who talk about their mental health are doing so for attention or for social media ‘clout’ (which again is wrapped up in misogyny, racism and ableism – you know all those pesky people who just love to complain about things [/sarcasm]).
Reaching out and checking in on others is not easy, and for many of us it is unobtainable. Maybe instead of hiding behind fancy slogans mental health provision should up its capacity and offer individualised support. Maybe an ethos of mental health support should run throughout education, employment and care. Maybe what needs to change is not how the struggling struggle but how the powers that be ignore and ostracise us. Maybe if all these things happened then we wouldn’t need to reach out or check in, we could just live our lives.
Sign the petition to: Stop Children and Adolescent Mental Health Services Denying Support For Autistic Kids