• Tô Minh Sơn

On being ok, mental health, and regrets.

For Alexis.

1. "Are you okay?"

I am often stumped by this question, despite the simplicity of its earnest demand - there are only so many responses to it. Yet it is precisely this simplicity that stumps me: I can only be either okay, or not okay. Oftentimes, I lie on a spectrum of okayness; there are shades of okays and not-okays. My often complicated situation, my complicated feelings towards it, and my inclination to honesty all makes it harder to respond to this question.

I might be inclined to respond with an affirmative - “yes, I am okay” - or negative - “no, I am not” - followed by a caveat - “but...”. I could tentatively reply with a prefix “maybe” to the typical response, already indicating the slippery feelings that escape the neatly defined responses. I could also opt for a more obstructionist response; I might defensively or aggressively demand why I was asked that way - “why do you ask me that?” - deflecting the question and the intention of the questioner, trivial though it might be. Etcetera, etcetera.

But what makes it even harder for me to answer it, beyond just a surface linguistic examination of the question, is that often, I am compelled to say that I am okay, while in fact, I am flat out not okay. Within the possible answers the question purports to have, there are certain expected answers. Imagine for once, the question was asked when I just stepped onto campus, or while waiting in line for my turn to the microwave, or as I was just seated for a lecture in the grand amphitheater. Given the fact that there is too little time for an elaboration of my feelings, and that everyone is around me, and maybe that I don’t quite know who the person asking is, it simply is more practical to answer yes, perhaps an indifferent “yea, I’m alright.” Even a “maybe” might be inviting too much attention; they might follow up with a “why?” and then there is no time nor space to properly address it. God forbids me saying “no”, then out of their assumed kindness and care for others, they might have to ask why, when they themselves most likely lack the time, nor the space, nor the real intention to care about it, given their busy lives. I would not want to bother anyone with that; you would not expect to listen to struggles from strangers, nor do you know whether you could do it effectively. So out of sheer practicality, or perhaps, more precisely, the pressure to be practical, I answer yes. And nothing happens; life continues, undisrupted.

But we can push this a bit more. Let’s assume, whatever the context is, no matter how impractical it could have been, I say no. And let’s assume also that they followed up with a why, expecting, genuinely, some concrete answer. Now, my answers to this might differ, depending on who I am talking to and the situation I am in. If, at the time, I am only facing something mildly annoying and short-term. the answer could be similarly short, followed by a brief and inconsequential exchange of dialogue. But if I am facing something more drastic, something - or multiple things - fundamentally problematic, that causes me significant distress, I am stumped again, because there is no time for a proper elaboration. The best compromise, one that conforms both to a need to express myself honestly and the lack of time and space, would be a truthful but short, reductive, and unsatisfying answer. A recent example of mine was “I’m depressed, and I can’t muster the effort to study or doing anything else” (some more unfortunate individuals encountered a “I’m suicidal”). Now it’s their turn to be stumped, probably uncomfortable; the effect only amplifies if the answer is longer, obliging them to listen for longer, straining their limited patience.

2. Mental health, but for whom?

The heart of the problem is that no one really expects to see others’ dysfunction in life, especially in the workplace or on campus. We carry on living with a facade of functionality: Here I am, punctually, I work, consistently and without problems, therefore I exist. We might care about others, genuinely or not, but in all cases, it is difficult to go out of our way to assist them. We have distanced ourselves from that task and rdelegated it to professionals, their improficiency notwithstanding. We actively distrust ourselves in the task of handling emotions, disbelieving in our capacity to listen, to empathize, to determine when and what to advise. There is a certain vicious, self-reinforcing, cycle to this logic: by believing that professionals handle it better than us, we avoid further engagement with others, and thus place more responsibilities to the professionals, encumbering them in the process. Paradoxically, this occurs alongside the very recognizable and palpable fact that all we do is emotionally intertwined; everywhere we walk, we speak, we work - there are emotions that trail behind. Yet we cannot act - or more precisely, we believe we cannot act - upon them, despite our own lived experience with our own problems. In a strict sense, everyone is lonely, everyone knows everyone can be lonely, but no one does anything about it, a fact admitted to me by someone to whom I once talked about my issues. A case in point is the fact that everyone has presumed the cause behind our recent tragedy, and acted upon it without a moment of hesitation or suspicion despite no explicit official confirmation, seemingly already knowing why and how it has happened.

Ironically, it is here that professionals might fall short of effective help: they might lack the critical insight on how we go about our daily lives. They suffer from the same fallacy as we do. There is nothing but formality in their offices, evident in their degree hung on the wall, formal attire, notes and pens in hand, despite the fact that to our logic, all emotions are is informality. I find it unhelpful to approach my problems through speaking about my dreams, like psychoanalysis compels the professional to ask of me to do. I find it frustratingly difficult to convey my issues, be they my studies, my finances, or my inability to find fulfilling social experiences, to this professional psychologist but absolute stranger whose relationship to me I have to start from scratch. The communicative labor falls not onto the professional, but rather on me who, already in distress and need of help, easily finds myself unwilling to exert much more effort.

This labor gets more difficult especially when there is a language barrier. I speak and express myself in English well, while the professional do so with only French. The linguistic barrier suggests a larger cultural problem: What if my ways of approaching mental health is different? What if I find more fulfillment in community engagement than individual exchange? What if I have never talked about dreams, ever, to express my problems? Professionalism operates well through processes of standardization, and standards perform poorly in intercultural conditions. But we can take it further: What if I cannot speak well? What if I stutter, or am mentally handicapped? Effective mental health assistance in both cases are then inaccessible to me; I cannot attain it unless I have acquired a certain language, and a certain way of speaking the language. I feel there is a certain exclusionary character of “mental health” as expounded in official discourse here on our campus: mental health is not only defined by your capacity to work well, but the paths towards it are limited by your ability to speak a certain language, in a certain standardized manner.

We often talk of inclusion and mental health, but to whom does this inclusion and mental health belong to?

3. Beyond a collection of individuals, towards a community

The writing here contains without doubt my very personal, emotional motives. I have felt too well my feelings of isolation and helplessness here on campus, and a lot of what I have written thus far seems like an indictment (I admit the process was very cathartic). Nonetheless, I would like to restrain myself for a moment, and say that I am not trying to accuse everyone of being callus (not entirely anyway, cheek-in-tongue-ly). In spite of my critical view, I know painfully well the fact that everyone has their own priorities in life - perhaps the rent is coming, the civic engagement project or presentations have been procrastinated too long, the papers are long overdue - and caring for others sometimes takes a backseat. To quote from my favorite writer in Vietnamese literature, Nam Cao, who luridly described the selfish nature of pained individuals during Vietnam’s colonial period: “A person with an aching foot could hardly ever forget about their aching foot to think of anything else? When one is in so much pain, one could no longer think about other people. Their kind-hearted nature is obscured by their selfish worries and pains…”

But I must remind you all that we do not live in the miserable hellscape of French-colonized Vietnam; our feet do not hurt as much, and our kind-hearted nature still shows and glistens at occasions, to friends more so than to acquaintances. We need not religiously follow the liberal, individualistic logic of caring for yourself first and having sole responsibility for your own problems - it is this logic that formed the baseline of the toxic internalization of my problems that drove me to destructive suicidal ideation multiple times before and during my studies. Such mentality prizes independence beyond all else, and, in the process, anathetimizes seeking help.

I find the mentality incredibly frustrating, toxic, and cumbersome, and we’d do better not to think of life that way. And indeed we say we do not for most of the time, but I could not help but feel that we do not do what we preach. At times, I feel myself dismissed by others when I express my emotions, superficially or deeply, either through a blunt dismissal or suspicion of my feelings, or through a blanket statement that I would be fine, more reassuring to the speaker rather than me. No, I am not fine, and neither are many others, I believe, who share my sentiment, at times or always. Perhaps the problem in those occasions is that, while they do want to listen and help, they simply do not know how to do so well. But my deeper concern resurfaces when I ask them to do better than that, to listen better, to empathize better. They would be likely to defensively respond by saying they do not have to, or that they could not, do that.

We would do best by recognizing problems as they are, seeing that we all have a stake in it and we have the capacity to address it as a community. This does not necessarily call for a rejection of professional assistance to mental health, but it does question an overreliance on such an approach. If we do treat mental health as seriously as we do with physical health, then we would not advocate for an overdependence on medicine. Treatments of both kinds should be reserved, applied when necessary, not whenever a sign manifests. More importantly, we should first look to a simple vigilance and attentiveness towards others, expressed through each person with a handful of genuine statements of care and wholehearted exchanges, and through the entire community, a network of active support and positive integration, beyond faux-functionality.

In striving beyond my casual cynicism towards a kernel of hope, I urge all of us to care more as a whole, truly, lest we find ourselves regretting what we did not do or pondering we could have done, a trope that should have been put to rest before we received our most recent tragedy.

Photos: author


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