I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how we respond to people when talking about mental health.
My six-month-old puppy Mia has been dealing with fear and anxiety for the past four or so months. I can’t take her for walks and trying to get her outside our apartment building to pee multiple times a day is a challenge – any small noise, sight or movement can make her panic. As she gets bigger, I worry that her panic response will become dangerous for both of us. After speaking with my vet and working with three different trainers, I’ve now booked our first consultation with a veterinary psychiatrist and behaviorist to get her the support she really needs (likely a combination of medication and training).
Almost everyone I’ve spoken to about it has been generally supportive and encouraging, which I appreciate. They’ve also responded to me with comments similar to “don’t worry, she’ll get better with time”, “she’s just a puppy, she’ll grow out of it”, “you should try these new treats or toys to motivate her”, “you should ignore her when she cries, so she gets over it and doesn’t think you’re rewarding her”, “my dog used to hate x but over time he just grew out of it”, etc.
I live alone and it’s just us two for the most part, so her anxiety is very present, real and obvious to me. I know the difference between her whining for attention and her cries (and body language) when it’s actual fear. But I also know that few people have observed her behaviour in person or heard all the details, so they don’t know what it’s really like and are just trying to be supportive. Everyone has good intentions.
Unfortunately, as the seriousness of the situation has become clearer, these kinds of comments have started to really feel dismissive and minimizing – despite people’s intentions. They make me feel like I can’t talk about this with people as they won’t really listen or try to understand, which in turn makes this experience even harder and lonelier. They’re rushing to diagnose and prescribe instead of empathizing or offering support. To make things worse, Mia’s anxiety feeds my anxiety and in turn my anxiety feeds her anxiety and so on – we are quite the pair!
I feel good knowing we have a plan now. But this feels like a really good example of why we should be mindful of how we respond and show up for each other when talking about mental health. I could have been talking about myself or a family member and these kinds of responses would have made me feel the same way or perhaps even worse. It’s not easy to be open about mental health and to ask for help and these kinds of responses make it even harder.
We don’t always know how serious it might be and how our words can have an impact, so I thought I’d share this reminder so we can all try to be more mindful for each other.