20 August, 2011

Why I can’t get behind Soften the Fck Up

I wanted to like it.  I really did.  Mike Stuchbery and Ben Pobjie, who I linked to in the previous post about depression and who I respect both as writers and survivors are involved, which gives the initiative some credibility.  But the more I looked at it and the more I thought about it, the angrier it made me.

I felt the same way about RUOK? Day.  While on one level, it’s wonderful that people are getting the message out about depression and mental illness, it’s being done in such a dumbed down, made-for-tv way that I wonder whether it’s simply trivialising something that was previously ignored.  Definatalie wrote an excellent piece on RUOK? Day simply titled, I am not OK.  Don’t ask anyone how they are if you’re not prepared to hear that.

Soften the Fck Up is trying to reach men who bottle up their feelings due to the whole ‘boys don’t cry,” thing, and that’s a worthy objective.  But there’s no point in telling people to open up and get help if you’re not going to quantify that help. 

“Talk about it,” we are told.  Yep, good advice – I have no argument with that.  “To who?” they then ask.  Good question.  That’s the one that we really need an answer to.  “Could be your mates, your family…” Well yes, it could be, but it has to be someone who would understand and if we going with the premise that these blokes are in a dark place because they’re too tough to open up to people, I’d say their family and their mates may have had an influence on that.  This is assuming the bloke has mates he can talk to at all.  Then shit gets weird.  “Could be your neighbour…” yes, could be, “…the postman…”

WTF?  The postman?  Is this for real?  I don’t know where you guys live but my postman has got shit to do.  He doesn’t need to hear all my problems.  The biggest problem in talking about depression is trying to find someone who gets it, because millions don’t.  It’s not the blokey blokes who need to soften the fuck up, it’s the people they might be turning to.  Not everyone can be the listener.

I’ve been that postman before.  Okay, I’ve never been a postman, but I think you get the idea.  I’ve stayed with friends, helping them through dark times until I was sure they would be alright, but that’s one thing.  It’s another to get a call at work, out of the blue, from someone you taught the previous year.  This happened to me.  I had a student with a fairly severe acquired brain injury in one of my basic computer classes.  For the purposes of this story, we will call him Hank because nobody else does.  It was a four-week course, one day per week.

Six months later, when my role had expanded to reception work when I wasn’t teaching, I get a phone call:
“Hello, can I talk to a teacher?”
Hmm, strange request, but okay.
 - I’m a teacher, can I help you?
“I don’t know what to do with my life.  What should I do?”
How do you answer that?  How does anyone answer that, especially when they have work to do?

The calls continued for a while, and sometimes they were very brief.
“Hello, are you a teacher?”
 - Oh hi, Hank.  What’s up?
“I should say yes to education, shouldn’t I?”
 - Um, yes.  Yes you should.
“Okay, bye.”
Now understand that I wasn’t giving Hank the brush-off.  I wanted to help him inasmuch as I could but like the postman, I had shit to do and they weren’t paying me to be a counsellor.  Many times I tried to tell him that I was the wrong person to be asking, but Hank had got it into his head that teachers know everything.
“But you’re a teacher.  You know things.”
 - Hank, I teach computers.  I don’t know anything about this stuff.
Then I got a call when Hank said, as casually as if he were wondering what to have for lunch,
“I’m tired of life.  I don’t want to go on living any more.”
Right, that has to be taken seriously, but what can I do?  I knew that he must have a regular doctor so I gave him the ‘talk to your doctor,’ speech.  That didn’t seem to get anywhere.  Then I remembered that he had a worker who had come with him to class.  For the purpose of the story, we’ll call him Martin.
 - Hank, talk to Martin.  He knows you.  He’ll be able to give you good advice.
“Martin’s out of the picture, he’s in the past.”
I was confident that Hank wasn’t an immediate suicide risk.  He really did sound like he was just weighing up options.  So once I had convinced him he should “say yes to life,” (his words, not mine), I called the disability assistance centre that I knew he had been attending, at least at the time he came to class.  I told them everything that had happened, including that I’d suggested he talk to Martin.  What they explained to me was that Martin had left the organisation and moved on, as professionals (or volunteers, I was never really sure) will do and Hank was a bit cut up about it.  Muggins here, had just gone and told Hank he should talk to Martin.
Foot, meet mouth.

I apologised profusely to them for the faux pas and any knock-on damage it may have caused.  They assured me it wasn’t a bad thing and that it might have helped Hank by making him face up to the change in circumstances. 
But here’s the problem:
Hank had done exactly what STFU are suggesting.  He talked to someone.  He’d just picked someone who couldn’t help him.  And it was someone who had some understanding and empathy for mental conditions.  Imagine if it wasn’t.  Talk to someone?  Yes.  But it can’t just be anyone.  Are STFU going to take responsibility for the consequences if the postman says, “Shut up ya poofter.  Now piss off, I’ve got work to do,”? 

I suppose everyone who is approached by these newly softened former blokey blokes is supposed to utter the usual platitudes – get help, see a doctor, call Lifeline.  I’m going to tell a story here that I chose not to include in the Monsters post because I thought it might be counter-productive but now I feel that I should.

During one of my lowest ever phases, I called Lifeline. 
They didn’t answer. 
I spent somewhere between five and ten minutes listening to it ring until it finally rang out.  Don’t get me wrong, I don’t doubt that this is a reflection on Lifeline’s resources and not their services.  I fully support Lifeline in every way.  Even so, I cannot in good conscience advise someone to call Lifeline lest they have a similar experience to the one I had.  I can laugh about it now but can you even begin to imagine what that does to someone who is trying to get help?  It took me two years to get around to writing the previous post and I still haven’t yet sought a diagnosis for what happens to me.  I had considered calling Lifeline previously, and when I was finally low enough and desperate enough to call, they didn’t bloody answer. 

Now you can give all the rational reasons why someone shouldn’t take something like that to heart but to a depressed person, you’re wasting your breath.  That doesn’t compute in a depressed person’s mind any more than trying to tell an anorexic that they’re not fat.  What the person involved takes away is that even Lifeline won’t talk to them. 

All that isn’t what has rankled me the most about STFU.  What has really pissed me off is the stereotyping of men; that the problem is down to blokes being blokes and they just need to let their guard down and get in touch with their softer side.  I wrote last time about why I haven’t done anything more than ’blog about it and the reasons are nothing to do with an excess of blokiness.

I’m as soft as they come.  I was a sensitive new age guy long before there was even an acronym for it.  If I were any softer, I’d be liquid.  So what do I do now? 
Get help, talk to your doctor, call Lifeline, blah blah blah…
It’s as if the emotional repression of macho culture has gone so far that you have to be a big tough bloke before you can soften the fuck up and if you were already there, then too bad, we’re looking out for the tough guys here.

I still want to support them.  I think it’s great that people are putting it out there and sharing their stories.  The fact that people are describing experiences that others might relate to is good thing.  It’s at least better than Hugh Jackman waving his stupid bloody coffee cup in my face.  Doing anything is better than doing nothing but doing something useful is better still.  It needs to be backed up with sound advice and empowerment to go through with getting whatever help may be required, not just pulling a switcheroo on the “are you man enough?” line.  That assumes that men are stupid enough to do anything if you just challenge their masculinity. 

This is just my initial reaction.  I honestly hope to be rebutted.  If someone can show me where I’m wrong, I will shout their praises from the rooftops.  I will donate, promote and participate.  I am certainly not trying to shit on people who are making a worthy effort.  But right now, both RUOK? and SFTU strike me like GetUp campaigns: well intentioned, great production values but falling wide of the mark in terms of achieving something useful for sufferers.

I did tweet my concerns the other night:
They were kind enough reply:

I guess I’m in the minority then.  What else is new?
It’s not as if being made to feel excluded leads to depression or alcoholism or drug abuse or other forms of feeling crap, does it?


  1. "Are STFU going to take responsibility for the consequences if the postman says, “Harden the fuck up ya poofter. Now piss off, I’ve got work to do,”?"

    This is an excellent point. The response (or lack, thereof) that you get from the person you tell can have lasting impact. It may even prevent you ever disclosing again. Yes, we should encourage people to open up and talk things through with other people, but we really need to know we can trust those people to treat our disclosure with the care and respect it deserves.

    And, as you mentioned, what about the people we open up to? Are they equipped to hear it? Do they even *want* to hear it? How much more isolated are you going to feel when your best friend starts avoiding you rather than dealing with you, because they feel inadequate?

    Even professional services aren't always reliable. I once had a similar experience to yours with Lifeline (though at other times, they were awesome). I also had a rather dreadful experience with a mental health hospital - I walked myself in there in desperation, told them I was scaring myself with thoughts of suicide...and was given an appointment 6 WEEKS AWAY and told if I needed help in the meantime, to call Lifeline. Never even saw a doctor.

    That was about 14 years ao. Last year, when I found myself feeling the same way, I didn't even bother seeking professional help. The damage was done. (I was just incredibly lucky that someone fell into my life at precisely the right moment and dragged me out of the hole I was in).

    I think campaigns like STFU and RUOK? are fabulous and invaluable, but I agree they need to be careful not to over-simplify the issues. People are complex, mental illness is complex, and the 'cure' is much more complex than many of these campaigns suggest.

  2. I think it's probably impossible to say that everybody's depression can be cured the same way. Short of lobotomies.

    I like to think of myself as a pretty empathetic person, regardless of the above, but I may be the last person anybody should talk to about depression.

    Maybe blogs are a good outlet for such things. You can say whatever you want without concern over whatever specifics with which the reader may identify.

    It's like writing a letter you never send for the sake of writing it. Only somebody might read the blog.