Talking about mental health is very important to me. In the UK, I found the differences around this conversation to be an unexpected challenge.
My ex is British. There were quite a few things I loved about him: his accent, his humor, his wit. One thing I didn’t love? His tendency to be rather emotionally reserved. Discussions of mental health were few and far between. I did not feel particularly comfortable sharing my depression with him. Instead, I spent our relationship slapping on a smile and playing pretend that things in my head were hunky dory. In truth, everything inside me was unraveling.
Three months into our relationship, I sat eating Special K in the kitchen of his Brooklyn apartment. His colleague had scheduled a last-minute virtual meeting for the two of them, and he closed his bedroom door to take it.
As I scrolled through my phone, eating soggy cereal, he came back into the kitchen with a look of utter confusion on his face.
“I don’t get why she did that,” he said to me, after he explained that the “meeting” involved his colleague expressing to him how unhappy she was in the position at their company. I suggested that maybe it was her way of seeking comfort and that it said a lot that she came to him; she clearly respected and trusted him.
He scoffed, put off by the emotional intimacy of the conversation. “I don’t get why she did that,” he repeated, more to himself than to me. What is there not to get? I remember thinking. She opened up to someone she trusted. I didn’t get why he was so weirded out by it.
Flash forward a year. I am single and living in London. Being here has not been terribly different than living in New York City. They’re both diverse, metropolitan cities with fairly similar cultures. But I’ve noticed two big differences. One, London is remarkably cleaner. And two, I’ve found that British people tend to be much more reserved. Of course, this isn’t true for everyone, but it is something I’ve felt.
On the other hand, I fit the American stereotype. I am chatty, friendly, and open. I love asking strangers questions and getting to know them on a deeper level. In the States, this is celebrated by my friends and partners; our openness is something that is seemingly integrated into our cultural fabric. Here in the UK … it’s been a different experience.
On my first date in London, I met up with a guy in Soho for drinks. While chatting, I asked him to describe himself in three words. This question completely stumped him. After a few minutes of fumbling, he provided me with one descriptor. “British,” he said.
The introspection ran deep.
I tried to open a conversation about mental health. I asked him if he had ever been in therapy, and my question was met with a laugh. “Who do you talk to about your problems?” I asked in an awkward silence. “No one, really,” he replied.
I changed the subject, and we moved on to talking about “Bridgerton.”
And no. We did not go on a second date.
I eventually befriended a British psychiatrist. After a night out (and a few pints) I asked her if she would ever try therapy. No. Why didn’t she want to try therapy? Shrug. I casually mentioned I was on antidepressants. Awkward laugh.
I changed the subject, and we moved on to talking about Komodo dragons.
Now, these are isolated experiences. I am sure there are many British mental health advocates in the UK who are open with their experiences and feelings. But in my time here, almost all of my discussions about mental health have been met with discomfort. Because of this, it’s been easy for me to feel a bit too … much. Several British people here have commented that I’m remarkably open. Sometimes it has felt like a trait they admired in me. Other times, it’s felt like a veiled insult.
As someone who is usually forthcoming in asking questions, it’s been odd — and also sad — to notice myself beginning to hold back in conversations. Signs of discomfort signal me to switch topics. I do not want to intrude on people’s personal peace, nor do I want to scare them off. I am happy to talk about how season 2 of “Bridgerton” is far superior to season 1, and I love learning about the ferocity of random giant lizards. Some connection is better than no connection at all, right?
So, I’ve tried to conform. I’ve scaled back in talking about my feelings. And it’s been weird. My mental health is a big piece of who I am. I feel as if I’m hiding myself, once again slapping on a smile, once again playing pretend. But more than that, I feel I’m sacrificing sincere moments of connection with these people by not talking about it. Sure, some connection is better than none at all. But is that connection truly sustainable if both of us are hiding ourselves in some way?
It’s been a conundrum and one that’s made me reflect deeply. Can I really have a deep friendship or relationship with someone if they can’t talk openly about mental health? Or if I feel judged for bringing it up? Is that why my relationship with my British ex ultimately failed?
But I understand that the lack of emotional openness I’ve seen in British people is not so much a reflection of their personal character, so much as a reflection of their culture. Who am I to assume we cannot form long lasting relationships? We are different. We have different experiences, and different exposures. And that’s OK! So why am I expecting them to pass an exam for a class they haven’t taken?
We are, simply, products of our environments. Normalizing conversations about mental health is a fairly recent development (perhaps 10 years or so?) in the States. I can’t speak to when, where, or how often these conversations happen in the UK. But I hope they continue — globally — and I hope they become more fixed in everyday life.
I think of that moment with my ex often. I don’t get why she did that. I wonder how he might have responded if I had told him how horrible my depression was. Would I have made him uncomfortable? Would there have been judgment?
I suppose all of us — no matter our origin — are constantly trying to make sense of what makes no sense to us, be it mental health or something else entirely. We’re doing our best, however we best know how. And our best is constantly evolving.
It’s funny, isn’t it? For an American claiming to be so open, I was rather reserved and closed off when it mattered most, from the person who mattered most to me.
And I don’t get why I did that.
Medically reviewed on January 27, 2023
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