by Grace Welsh

“Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter, and those who matter don’t mind.”Bernard M. Baruch

It’s widely recognised that when one replies with the phrase “I’m fine”, it is undoubtedly one of the biggest (white) lies ever spoken- probably somewhere up there with “I have read the terms and conditions” and “there are sexy singles in your area”.

So, let’s be honest. How many times have you been guilty of saying “I’m fine”, when really you’re not? A few? Quite often? Too many times to count? In fact, a survey of 2000 adults commissioned by the Mental Health Foundation (MHF) found that the average adult will say “I’m fine” 14 times a week, though just 19% will actually mean it.So why do we feel this need to falsify all is dandy, rather than just admitting we have a problem? But crucially,what impact does this non-committal exchange have on our mental well-being, and what can we do about it? For this, I propose 3 theories.

Theory 1: They’re just being polite.

The simple exchange initiated by asking “how are you?” is ritualistic; it’s a social norm learned from a young age whereby violating it would be like prolonged eye-contact whilst eating a banana – you just don’t do it. Indeed, it is an automatic script of sorts whereby we’ve rehearsed our parts so well, we’re basically Meryl Streep.

However, as we’re acting out this well-mannered illusion of checking in on one another, we’re actually gaining as much insight into each other’s state of mind as simply saying hello; and we’re not really expecting otherwise. Unsurprisingly, such superficial – almost-reflexive – questioning and answering means we’re less likely to speak openly and honestly about our mental health if we believe the other person isn’t actually intent on finding out (or perhaps prepared for) a real answer.

Now, of course there are times when delving into your troubles is quite tricky; saying “I’m fine” can just be… convenient. I mean, we liberally douse this phrase on one another in lectures or in supermarkets. I guess we must choose our moments with those where we can allow our conversations to become more substantive. By returning meaning behind our words, we can seize vital opportunities to both seek and offer support.

Theory 2: You’ve got this! (You really haven’t got this)

My wonderful Grandma always says “you can either sink or swim… and I choose to swim”. Whilst I think there’s something impressive to a person who can solve their own problems… I also think we’re fooled by the misconception that if self-reliance is a virtue; requiring help is a weakness. So, we present a “brave face”. We hide our vulnerabilities. We act like dogs who get stuck in things but pretend everything is ok. We precipitate a culture whereby we won’t discuss our own mental health for fear of judgement, particularly amongst males.

 “Why does everyone seem to have their act together but I don’t?”, “Am I the only one who feels this way?” Such self-doubt clouds the reality we often have common struggles. When I first acknowledged I wasn’t fine with my GP, it kind of felt like that moment when someone asks the question in class you thought was too stupid to say out loud. Suddenly you realise you’re not alone, and the question wasn’t silly at all.

(Whilst writing this, I noticed something else…. I only feel relatively okay referring to my own experiences of mental illness in past tense – like “last week was hell – but look! I’m stronger now!”. It’s as if confirmation of illness is an admission of failure? I’m attempting to challenge societal views, yet struggle to address my own self-stigmatisation. I’m still working on this).

Those asking for support when they need it are incredibly brave; it takes great inner strength to work on yourself. Sometimes an individual can’t quite initiate this first step alone. It was actually my friend who first contacted my personal supervisor after noticing I fell off the uni treadmill following traumatic events. Sometimes it’s not sink or swim; sometimes you need a lifeboat and she was that.

Theory 3: We don’t want to burden others

The phrase “I’m fine” can also act as the conversational equivalent of Crocs; swiftly able to shut down any chance of further discussion. Quite often, this defensive action results from a fear of worrying, burdening, or annoying the listener.

Personally, by insisting “I’m fine” I force myself to be the person I, and others, expect me to be (I’d LIKE to think humorous, and enthusiastic…) Sometimes this distracts me temporarily from my own thoughts and feelings – yay! Often, attempting to simulate these qualities whilst depressed is gruelling, and afterwards, I simply crash. Occasionally I’d rather just hide away until I’m feeling ‘myself’ again so no one will notice or be affected – surely if people can’t see it, it won’t exist, right? Exhaustion and alienation is a high price to pay to think (mistakenly) that I am ‘pleasing’ or ‘protecting’ others. It took me a long time to realise neither have to be an option if you can have an honest conversation. People are more understanding than my mental illness lets me believe.

When a loved one says they’re not fine, as a listener, you may not always have the solution or the ability to fully relate – that’s okay! Professionals are there! What friends do have is time, care and compassion. Friends hold the ability to reassure each other they can be open and listened to, but friends also have the capacity to learn what the other may want but won’t ask for, and what they need but didn’t know. An open ear? A hug? A nice surprise? Cup o’ tea? It’s the little things too.

Overall, we’ve got a responsibility to push for cultural change regarding the discussion of our mental health. Speaking openly and honestly can begin by asking simply, and genuinely, how someone is. As humans, we experience a spectrum of emotions… so chances are you’re probably not just “fine”. It’s about time it’s okay to say we’re not okay

You can read more from Grace on her blog here