Enabled, not limited: how can we support those with mental health struggles without limiting their potential?

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“Enabled, not limited”. I attended a mental health conference recently where this phrase was used, and it really stuck with me. My first thought was: of course. Of course we should all be striving every day to continue enabling people who suffer with mental health issues, rather than limiting them and thus making them feel incapable of achievement. My friends and family often say things like, “Are you sure you’ll be able to do that?”, or “But what if that sets off your anxiety?”. It always comes from a loving, supportive place but phrases like this, although well-meant, are fundamentally limiting.

And yet it’s when I get to roughly this point in my thinking that I start to question it all.

I am a passionate advocate of people with any mental health issue feeling empowered to do anything they set their mind to, rather than feeling as though they’re incapable, or that their anxiety might set them back, or that they’ll be judged, or discriminated against. No one should ever feel inhibited, limited or set back by any sort of mental health condition. And yet I just as firmly believe that no one with a mental health condition should ever feel pressured (by peers, colleagues, anyone) to do something they don’t feel they’re able to do. And so there emerges a slight dichotomy between these two approaches. How do we empower mental health sufferers to feel enabled, whilst also ensuring they don’t feel under any pressure to do something that will bring on difficult feelings or emotions? And how do we then remove pressure without inadvertently enforcing limits? As a sufferer of anxiety myself, I want to feel enabled to do anything I want to do without my anxiety setting me back – but I also don’t like being put under pressure to do things that I know will make my anxiety worse. But then again, I don’t want anything or anyone to make me feel limited by my anxiety. Hence, a conundrum. I may sound demanding, but isn’t this all anyone wants? Doesn’t everyone want to feel enabled, whether that’s by their family, their peers, their work or by their own sense of self-worth? Does anyone ever like being put under pressure to do something that may damage them? Does anyone ever want to feel limited, regardless of whether those limits are enforced by society or limits they’re enforcing on themselves?

I’m aware this is all coming across as more than a little convoluted (I’m currently typing this with an excitable puppy crawling all over my lap and trying to chew my fingers) and I’m asking a lot of questions here that I can’t answer. But essentially, I think we have to start with the word “enable”. What does “enable” really mean, in this context? Does it simply mean not discriminating against those experiencing mental health issues, e.g. in the workplace (in which case: while a positive step forward, is this really enough?), or does it mean actively encouraging those same people to push themselves out of their comfort zone, by saying things like “You can do it”, etc. (in which case: is this exerting undue – and possibly damaging – pressure?). This isn’t a hypothetical question; I’m genuinely asking, and would love to hear any thoughts people may have on this issue.

A lot of people reading this might think I’m over-complicating a very simple phrase, and maybe I am. But the thing is: mental health is complicated. The word “enable” will mean very different things to different people, with variables like the type of mental health issue, its severity, the strength of individual support networks and dozens of others.

I’m writing this not only with a puppy on my lap, but also with World Mental Health Day 2018 in mind (currently three days away). How can we use this day to keep making a difference? To keep shining a light on what it really means to suffer from a mental health issue? How can we help people feel enabled, without pressuring them into a dark or scary place – and how then can we subsequently leave pressure out of the equation without inadvertently creating limitations? I’m not asking these questions for a dramatic finish to this article; I really, genuinely want to hear any answers anyone may have. Because at the end of the day, we’ve got to keep talking about it – and when better to do that than the week of WMHD 2018?

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