Don’t mention the war

“Don’t mention the war.”

In the sixth episode of the brilliant BBC sitcom Fawlty Towers, John Cleese (as Basil Fawlty) famously warned Polly to steer clear of war-talk when serving two German couples in the hotel’s dining room.

“I mentioned it once, but I think I got away with it,” a concussed and head-bandaged Fawlty assured her.

Of course, in the years since the episode first aired in 1975, “Don’t mention the war” has become a popular phrase to use in the UK when we want to avoid discussing some awkward issue or other.

And, to some extent, that was the underlying thought behind the research I asked for help with last weekend.

I wanted to know how comfortable – or not – people would be telling others that they suffered from some kind of emotional well-being setback.

I was also interested in learning whether there’s a measurable difference between talking about such matters to friends, and to other people in general.

Maybe you’ll agree with me that it seems likely we’d tell people we trust about sensitive issues more readily, than individuals we don’t know so well.

But it’s always important to explore whether such “common-sense” suppositions actually hold water.

As ever, our readers blew me away with their generosity in completing the questionnaire.

Over 270 people kindly took part, so a huge thanks if you were one of these (the survey was anonymous, of course.)

The questions asked if people would be comfortable talking to (a) friends, and (b) people in general, about experiencing these possible conditions: anxiety, demoralisation, depression, losing one’s fighting spirit, morale being low, having a mental health problem, and experiencing low resilience.

I also included having sleeping problems as a kind of yardstick, suspecting there would probably be less perceived stigma around insomnia than there would be around depression.

The full results are shown here:

Allow me to walk us through some of the main highlights.

At the extreme “Don’t mention the war” end of the spectrum, people are clearly wary about talking about being depressed or having a mental health problem.

In fact, only around half of the respondents said they’d even tell their friends about this, and over two-thirds wouldn’t feel comfortable talking to *anyone* about such conditions.

To place these statistics in context, almost 90% of people would be happy to let friends know if they were experiencing sleep problems, and nearly as many would also be comfortable sharing such information with just about anyone.

When you think about it, this is fascinating, since sleep disorders often accompany mental health problems. Indeed, one of the items in an often-used clinical depression test (the PHQ-9) asks how often you’ve been bothered either by trouble falling asleep or sleeping too much over the previous two weeks.

It’s clearly easier for most to talk about sleep problems than it is to open up about feeling depressed.

While I don’t think it was too surprising to learn that talking about sleeplessness is fairly easy, it was more unexpected to witness the relative comfort that people seem to have in talking about anxiety.

62% would tell friends if they were anxious, compared to 55% who would admit to feeling depressed.

It seems there’s less perceived stigma about anxiety than there is about depression, and I guess this does make a degree of sense.

Perhaps it’s because we may believe our anxiety is caused by something outside ourselves (over which we have no control) whereas it could be more common to think that depression seems to come more from within ourselves?

(By the way, although I always felt my own depression generally started within me, as time has gone by, I now believe it was more often than not “situational.” I generally felt low during times in which I was living in relatively difficult and challenging circumstances.)

Be that as it may, one of my motives for running this research was to better understand some of the stigma around psychological well-being.

As some Moodnudgers know, I’m working on a tool (an app, specifically) that could be used by individuals in the workplace who’d like to maintain their well-being.

When you do something like this, I think it helps if you can explain what your “product” is designed to beat.

If you’re selling an aspirin, you say it beats headaches.

If you’re selling a mower, you say it beats having long grass.


Because of the stigma around mental health, however, I really do think people might be wary of engaging with something that appears to be designed to prevent depression.

Maybe it makes more sense to talk about using it to avoid tiredness, fatigue, and burnout in the workplace, therefore?

Something designed, instead, to boost energy?

Thank you. You’ve really given me a lot of food for thought. In return, the very least I can do is leave you with a link to two minutes of pure comedy gold from Fawlty Towers:

Incidentally, just in case this feels a bit culturally insensitive of me, when Fawlty Towers was shown in Germany, not only was the whole series widely enjoyed, this episode – “The Germans” – was one of the most popular.

6 thoughts on “Don’t mention the war

  1. Laughter is the best medicine Jon….I feel a liddle healed this afternoon, thank you! Been laughing out loud at ‘Don’t mention the War!’

    Also pleased so many Moodnudgers were kind enough to respond.
    Karen x

  2. Thanks for posting the results. I participated in the survey, being one of the respondents who bumped up the overall average in every category.

    As a mental health patient, I made a commitment awhile back to engage in dialogue about my problems with anyone who was interested in learning about them (ADHD, anxiety/depression, C-PTSD). And for those who lost a friend or family member to suicide, I’m open to telling them about my own unsuccessful attempt in my twenties to help them understand what it’s like in an effort to reduce any feelings of guilt or shame they might be harboring.

    I firmly believe this is how we’re going to advance mental health issues in our society, by putting a name and a face on these conditions to help reduce their stigma. And as someone who’s suffered with these problems most of my life, I know that coming out of the shadows and adding to the discourse will benefit everyone, and hopefully inspire more mental health patients to do the same.

    1. Sorry for taking such a long time to reflect on this, Judi. I think it’s both hugely brave and generous of you to share your experiences with others. I completely agree that demonstrating openness is an enormously helpful way to reduce stigma. Thank you for coming out of the shadows so willingly.

  3. @Karen – I agree, laughter really is a powerful medicine that should be bottled. If only we could…? Certainly, a good prescription of watching some of the great sit-coms will suffice for the time being!

    Thank you Jon, it also brought a smile to my face. With no malice or cultural insensitivity meant from me either, on the contrary, perhaps we should look to the Germans for ways to help people communicate their troubles…they may have vays of making us talk more?!

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