The Mental Health Toll of Silence in Families
Rob Kendall grew up in a loving but emotionally-reserved family
His grandmother's suicide changed everything, and he wants to share how open conversations can heal intergenerational pain
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I grew up in a stable family, with parents who were deeply loving and caring. Without exception, everyone who knew my mother referred to her as a saint, and my father was the most honourable man you could wish to meet. I did nothing to earn such good fortune and have been immeasurably lucky.
At the same time, my parents were the product of their time, growing up in the shadow of two world wars. I remember quizzing my grandfather, Donald, about his experiences during the First World War, asking tactless questions as only a child can. He was always quick to change the subject, choosing not to recount how he’d been shot on the opening day of the Battle of the Somme in 1916, along with 60,000 other British casualties.
As for my paternal grandfather, Maurice, he never talked about the pain of losing three quarters of his men to death or imprisonment – while also fighting a heroic rearguard action and retreating to the beaches of Dunkirk. Like so many of his contemporaries, he stuffed grief and pain into the dark recesses of his being, in the hope that it would dull and eventually fade. It didn’t.
Against this backdrop, it’s hardly surprising that my parents’ generation were reluctant to talk about their feelings. My father became a senior-ranking officer in the military and had to deal with loss and heartbreak as part of his job.
I remember the phone ringing one Sunday lunchtime, and hearing news that our next-door neighbour had been killed by a roadside bomb. Dad took a deep breath and went next door to tell the man’s widow – a mother of four children, including newborn twins – while we stared at our plates of food and Mum held her head in her hands. Many years later I asked Dad how he had dealt with mental health challenges amongst his men and their families. ‘It didn’t come up,’ he replied.
The cost of silence
Just as my grandparents and parents struggled to express their feelings, so did I. Being in a military family meant that we had an itinerant life, packing our belongings into wooden crates every year or two, as ‘home’ changed from Europe to Africa to Asia. As a consequence, I went to boarding school at the age of eight, as my brother and sister had done before me.
I vividly recall being dropped at the front door on my first day at school. My dad shook my hand – hugging didn’t feature in his upbringing – and said he’d see me in a few months. I quickly concluded that I needed to hide feelings of homesickness from public view. Even when I went home for the holidays, I would tell my parents everything was fine at school and change the subject, especially if I was struggling.
It was only during my university years that I started to appreciate the cost of withholding my state of mind. Dad rang me one evening to inform me that my grandmother had died and, when pressed on the matter, admitted that it was ruled a suicide. It turned out that she had made previous attempts to end her life, but we hadn’t been told, even though we were adults. My grandmother didn’t want to bring shame on the family, and I felt so distressed that she had carried the stigma of depression in silence.
Following my grandmother’s death, I resolved to catch up on lost time and start communicating with my family. Since love was assumed rather than expressed in my family, I wrote a card to my parents thanking them for everything they had done for me and saying that I loved them. As I heard the card drop into the post box, I was overcome with fear that my words would be met with silence.
I was right. Over the following week or so, I would regularly check my answerphone and post, but heard nothing. Eventually, I rang my parents but avoided mention of the card, and we had a chit-chat as if nothing had happened.
It was only a while later, when I went to see them in Norfolk, that something unexpected occurred. My mother took me into the kitchen, out of earshot from my father. ‘You’ll never guess what happened on Valentine’s Day,’ she whispered. ‘For the first time in 40 years, Dad sent me a card saying that he loved me!’
Funnily enough, the card I’d sent was never mentioned – even though I could see it on the mantelpiece – but that wasn’t the point. A seed had been sown and, over the following year or two, we experienced a genuine transformation in our family relationships. Taking encouragement from those early gains, I gave my father a hug the next time I saw him, and he eventually became the best hugger in the family. In his twilight years, he communicated his love for us whenever we spoke.
I recount this story as a reminder that small expressions of love, appreciation and concern can cause profound and positive ripples in the lives of the people around us.
What to do
Step 1: Invest in the relationship
Every conversation has a relational dimension. Even if the topic is trivial or transactional, we still need to manage the tone and manner in which we conduct the interaction, and be responsible for the impact we may be having on them.
Every conversation is an opportunity to invest in the relationship, and it starts with taking an interest and bothering to listen. Over time, this creates a reservoir of trust and affinity.
Step 2: Ask how people are really feeling
According to the World Health Organisation, approximately 280 million people in the world suffer from depression. The resulting feelings of emptiness, hopelessness and even thoughts about dying or suicide are bound to influence the way people communicate. For example, someone suffering from depression may become more withdrawn and use language that indicates they are struggling to cope. In short, there are warning signs, if only we can pay attention to them.
Like my grandmother, many of us feel ashamed to say that we are struggling and have well-grooved mechanisms for hiding our true feelings.
We resist expressing ourselves because we don’t want to burden people, especially when their question is intended as a courtesy rather than a genuine inquiry. However, given the modern-day challenges we face in relation to stress and mental health, perhaps we need to develop
strategies for going deeper.
Based on Gallup’s Global Emotions Report (2022), 330 million adults go at least a fortnight without talking to a single friend or family member. Finding out how someone feels can making a life-saving difference when it comes to their mental health.
If someone seems particularly stressed or makes a comment that leaves me concerned about their mental health, I try to engineer a conversation to find out more. If I come across them in the workplace and don’t know them well, I’ll speak to their manager or a colleague who’s close to them. If they’re a friend, I may speak to them directly or to one of their family members. Without claiming to be a mental health expert, I can signpost people to professional support. The worst option is not to say anything.
Step 3: Share your own story
Being vulnerable is never easy. To let our guard down, we must let go of the idea that we need to be strong, coping and happy. Not long ago, my daughter spent hours consoling a friend who was distressed about the state of her life, only to see an Instagram post that evening by the same friend declaring that her life is amazing. Somewhere along the line, we bought the idea that we must put on a good front.
Yet the statistics prove that many of us are struggling to thrive in a world that’s become more complicated and mentally demanding than ever before. Our brain and nervous system are taking the brunt of this impact, which in turn can affect our emotional state and our mental health.
We can make it easier for people to speak up by sharing our own story. I spend many weeks each year with construction workers who – historically at
least – have operated in a macho environment, in which sharing your feelings was viewed as a sign of weakness. Over the last year or two, I’ve talked more openly about the challenges in my own family than ever before, from the demands of caring for my father after he fell down the stairs and suffered brain damage, to the deterioration in my sister’s mental health that led to her recent and untimely death. I have been deeply touched by people’s responses.
Rather than being met with a wall of silence, I’ve witnessed more honesty, compassion and authenticity than I could have imagined. Life brings its fair share of ups and downs, and it would be a tragedy if we had to hide our vulnerability. It all starts with a willingness to say, ‘I’m not feeling okay.’
Rob Kendall is the author of Watch Your Language: Why Conversations Go Wrong and How to Fix Them