"It's high time all of us learnt this important lesson – it's OK not to be OK. The problem we are faced with, or a diagnosis, does not define us as people. It's OK to ask for help, including professional help. With the right kind of support, suicide prevention is possible, as is overcoming psychological difficulties or disorders," journalist An Mari Ćurčić says. After a tragedy in which she lost her daughter, she devoted herself to efforts to protect and improve mental health, launching the drive "For you #it's important". She endeavours to help those who contact her – mostly young people – on social media.
What sorts of problems do people come to you with?
"Problems vary, but I think they essentially reflect the statistics – depression, anxiety, panic attacks are the most common ones. Moreover, what most people have in common, no matter what the difficulty they are faced with may be, is the lack of understanding and the disapproval of the social environment. We must not forget the fact that identifying a psychological difficulty is not at all pleasant, especially when we encounter it for the first time. It is often a very confusing process which – for the reasons that I have just mentioned – is accompanied by the fear that, if we confided in someone, we would be judged and criticised rather than receive the support and understanding that we need. This only intensifies the feelings of isolation, shame, and inferiority … "
Why do mental health and mental hygiene still appear to be taboo? One gets the impression that seeking help is still considered shameful.
"I think this is mostly due to prejudice, negative stereotypes, and stigma that often accompanies people having psychological difficulties. 'You're fine. Don't overdramatize. You're exaggerating. You're just an attention-seeker,' are some of the things that a person experiencing a psychological or emotional crisis typically hears in their immediate and broader social environment. It is precisely this fear of being misunderstood, judged, and labelled, of having your problems diminished, even ignored, that prevents many people from asking for help."
In a nutshell – how do we look after our mental health?
"For starters, we need to understand what mental health is. The World Health Organization (WHO) defines it as a state of well-being in which we can realize our full potential, cope with the challenges and stresses of life, work productively, and make a contribution to our community. At the same time, we need to understand that being mentally healthy does not only mean having no mental disorders – mental and physical health are inextricably linked and affect each other, and maintaining mental hygiene is as important as maintaining personal hygiene. There is an entire array of techniques for maintaining and improving mental health which are taught in many countries from a young age. They are an integral part of the curricula, from kindergarten onwards. These techniques can help us overcome the psychological and emotional challenges that are part and parcel of the human experience, i.e. the experience of each human being – the kinds of challenges that sometimes harm our mental health. We need to free ourselves of what I think is a cultural pattern – not talking about how we feel, especially if what we feel is unpleasant, e.g. sadness, anger, fear … We must learn that caring about oneself isn't selfishness, and that when we listen, we should truly hear one another, and not judge."
Recent years have unfortunately seen an increase in the number of young people committing suicide. The reasons cited often include the pressure of their social environment, inability to fit in with society, even love-related problems. How can we step up the efforts to prevent suicide?
"According to the WHO estimates, one in five adolescents is at risk of experiencing a mental health issue, with depression and anxiety being the most common. Global statistics figures indicate that suicide resulting from depression is the second most common cause of death among 15-29 year-olds globally. Furthermore, experts point out that at this age depression can manifest as rebellious, irritable, even aggressive behaviour, which we often see as a usual developmental phase in teenagers. Isn't that reason enough to have an open conversation about this and expand our knowledge. There is no place for taboo when it comes to mental health, whether we are talking about children or adults. As individuals and as a society, we must understand that the key to successful prevention, aimed at protecting and improving mental health, is above all education at all levels. Education here refers also to the media, which play a huge role in this process."
Where do the media come in here?
"Sadly, we live in a country in which suicides are reported on, to put it mildly, in an unprofessional and inappropriate way. We are not only talking about violations of the journalists' code of ethics, but also of the law and the citizens' rights guaranteed under the Constitution, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and so on and so forth. It's high time we put a stop to this practice of callous disregard for the right to privacy and dignity, revealing the identity of underaged persons, and the growing trend of turning tragedies like suicide into reality shows of sorts, especially in print media and on portals. Journalists, above all editors-in-chief of media outlets, must be aware of the responsibility that they have when they report on such topics. You cannot whitewash your conscience by providing a suicide prevention helpline number right under a sensationalist headline and a text filled with details of how a person took their own life, speculation, photographs, and such. The damage is already done – from stigmatizing the suicide victim, re-traumatizing his loved ones or those who have had the same tragedy happen to them, down to putting the people fighting suicidal thoughts and feelings (the so-called Werther effect) at additional risk."
Advice for parents
'Talk openly with your children'
How can a parent recognize psychological problems in children?
"Let me just mention some of the things that experts point out: If you've been noticing changes in the child's behaviour for some time – being in a bad mood, sad, irritable, or angry; no longer enjoying the activities he or she used to enjoy; and retreating into himself or herself – these are all signs pointing to a possible problem. Bodily symptoms should be included as well, e.g. changes in appetite, sleeping disorders, fatigue, and headaches. If possible, it is important to find out what is causing these problems, lend an ear, talk openly with our children, and let them know that we are ready to listen to what they have to say whenever they wish to do so. Of course, if as a parent you find yourself in any kind of quandary, do not hesitate to seek the opinion of an expert. They can provide direct guidance on how to proceed."
(Kurir.rs/ Boban Karović)