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Ways To Make It Easier For People To Talk About Mental Health


The two main things which stop people talking about their mental health are fear and shame. The fear is that admitting to anxiety or depression or any of the myriad mental health problems that are found in the modern world will be seen as a sign of weakness or failure. The shame comes from the internal, negative voices which say a version of: ‘You should be better than this. You should be stronger than this. You will never be good enough.’
Pretty much all modern humans have a version of those voices. That internal scolding comes from the amygdala, the most ancient part of the brain. The Not Good Enough terror goes right back to the dawn of the species, when to be thrown out of the tribe meant certain death. If you are not good enough, you will be judged and found wanting. You will be rejected by your tribe. You will be vulnerable, out on your own, and the sabre-toothed tigers will get you.
That is why the terror of admission can be stronger than the rational, practical desire to get better. Talking about mental health, sharing with a trusted individual or a group, will help. Most people know this. But they can’t do it, because they are so frightened of being judged. And because this primal fear comes from the basic, irrational part of the brain, it’s quite hard to overcome.
So, the first thing that anyone has to do, to encourage people to open up, to be honest, to be real, is to create a profoundly safe, non-judgemental space. (At HorseBack, we are a little wary of the expression ‘safe space’. It’s so overused now that it becomes almost meaningless. However, it is what is required, and we can’t think of a better way to put it.)
For us, at HorseBack, this is where the horses come in. When our veterans arrive, before we even think about encouraging them to talk to the human members of the team, we put them with the horses.
They very quickly work out that a horse does not judge, not in the critical, not good enough way of the internal voices. Horses don’t care what doctor you have seen, what medication you are on, what diagnosis you have. They don’t think you are weak because you had a mental break. They take you exactly as you are, in the moment, in front of them.
The brilliant thing about this is that the veterans feel it, on a visceral level. We could sit them all down and explain, in detailed, rational terms, that they have come to a place of safety, that we don’t judge, that many of the team have been where they are. Because their fears come out of that basic part of the brain, those kind words wouldn’t hit the target. But the kind, accepting presence of a half-ton flight animal, who is willing to make friends with them and connect with them, goes deep.
That initial interaction allows them to step out of the realm of judgment. Then, the higher brain can kick in and understand that the humans are just the same: open, without judgment, on your side. The connection with the horses allows the connection with the human beings. And then everyone steps into the virtuous circle of comradeship.
Our courses are not therapy. We base all our work on equine-assisted learning. We like to give our veterans a mission. But when we started this charity, we saw very quickly that the release from fear and shame was a wonderful by-product of our work. It’s what we start with because nobody can learn if they are stuck in the terrors of the amygdala. The prefrontal cortex goes off line, and the entire body can brace, and the human self is stuck in survival mode. You can’t learn anything in that state.
We start with the connection with the horses because that acts as an opening, a release. People feel suddenly brave enough to talk, about things they once kept hidden. The horses take it, and don’t mind; the human team take it, because we know all this stuff in our bones. We know that sometimes people get broken, and that is not their fault. It is, categorically, not a source of shame, but a part of living in a sometimes difficult world.
The stories are shared, and they lose their power to frighten and wound. Everyone is in this together, and that sense of empathy and unity is what leads to relief, and release, and healing.

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We do not rely on government funding so any donations will greatly assist with the running of our charity.

We do not rely on government funding so any donations will greatly assist with the running of our charity.