Thursday, 14 August 2014

Seizing the day

The very sad death of Robin Williams has led to a lot of media comment on the stigma surrounding mental health and suicide. There has been a lot of  thoughtful coverage but also many twitter comments and opinion pieces which still show how people can react with hostility and condemnation to an illness which they do not really understand, perhaps partly because they find the subject matter baffling or threatening. Unfortunately, religion has often helped perpetuate the idea that suicide is sinful, a viewpoint which fails to see that the sufferer may be so ill that they may believe their loved ones are better off without them.
I am interested in the issue of our mental health, partly because I have had contact with a fair number of students with depression and other mental illnesses in the course of my job, and partly because my early life was characterised by some level of mental health problems. I was diagnosed with a mental health issue which affected me quite seriously from my early to mid teens  and I experienced an episode of post natal depression following the birth of my second child. I have however been enormously fortunate in that I have been free from any mental health problems from my late twenties onward, something which I attribute to having come to terms with some personal issues, in particular  the fact that I was sexually abused, a life circumstance which can lead to a range of effects in later life.
 Mental health problems such as depression are not necessarily rooted in external circumstances and it is possible that, as with other illnesses, depression can arise that seemingly has no cause. Anyone who is suffering from a serious mental health problem should not hesitate to seek professional help, so I do not want to offer the following in a way that suggests that self help alone is always the right way forward. At the same time, we all need to be aware of our mental and emotional well being just as we would any aspect of our health, and these are things that I have found helpful.

1. Accept yourself.

You can't be whole unless you are prepared to believe that basically you are OK, that you are deserving of being valued and respected by others and that you can forgive yourself. This process  can be more difficult for anyone who has faced abuse, neglect or bullying in childhood, however many of us can find it difficult to suppress our inner critic and to realise that our shortcomings and failings are really just a part of being human. One of the most positive aspects of a faith can be that understanding of the intrinsic value of every person and the knowledge of being forgiven and cherished. Sadly faith can sometimes work in the opposite way and encourage a critical attitude towards the sinfulness of self and/ or others. Of course we should try to be good and Godly- virtue really is its own reward - but avoid a joyless and hand wringing type of faith.

2. Be yourself

I don't bother to do things that I don't enjoy anymore unless I have to for a good reason. I enjoy walking the dog, doing the garden,  spending time with quite a small circle of family and friends. I try to take time to savour the things I enjoy and to practise mindfulness. I'm not interested in buying a lot of things or going out a lot. I prefer thinking and reading to watching a lot of TV and I only drink alcohol in moderation. It might be really boring but it suits me! A really important part of being yourself is not letting yourself be pressurised by other people's expectations. Know what your values are and do what feels right for you. I think this is something which gets a lot easier as you get older and is one of the few major advantages of your advancing years!

3. Exercise and eat well

This might contradict point 2 for some people, but luckily I mostly enjoy exercise and also really enjoy good food. If they could bottle the benefits of exercise, it would be a wonder drug in terms of physical health. Exercise also contributes to your emotional health by releasing feel good endorphins and is great for lifting the mood if you are feeling down and just giving general mental balance. It is much easier to exercise if you find something you enjoy doing. I also think that when you exercise, you tend to eat better as you have a sense of the need to provide your body with proper nutrients. OK, I can get a bit obsessive about this one, and I don't always want to go to the gym but I know I feel better when I do.

4. Accept that life isn't always fair

Accepting that life is not always fair, that there may have been difficulties in your past and there certainly will be difficulties in your future, is essential to achieving emotional balance. If you can let go of bitterness or resentment or anger that this or that happened to you, or that your boss could treat you better or you are not as smart or beautiful or rich as  some other people, you'll be doing yourself a massive favour. Of course some life events are horrendous, you are bound to feel grief or distress at loss or terrible adversity. There is nothing wrong with grieving, or being angry at times and it is right to fight against injustice. As far as possible, however, aim for balance, recognise that life owes you nothing out of the ordinary, ask yourself if things really are so terrible and try to put things in perspective  as this builds resilience and emotional robustness. Life isn't always fair but it is there to be lived as fully as you can in whatever circumstances you find yourself.


  1. Obviously I was saddened by the death of Williams. He was a great talent. Yet I was also angered – suicide is an act of tremendous violence which roughly tears the fabric of life. I have lost a close relative to suicide (my nephew hung himself) and a close friend (she took an overdose).

    Both suicides deeply saddened me – indeed I’ve never really gotten over my nephew’s death. Yet they also anger(ed) me – and this is not uncommon following such a death: grief mingled with a white-hot anger at the violence done to familial ties and bonds of friendship.

    This will sound contentious, but it is my belief that all mental illness involves a skewed sense of ‘self’ – whether that be self-importance, typified by paranoia (itself a species of vanity) or grandiose ideations or the conceit of victimhood or the arrogance of narcissism; or a sense of worthlessness and unimportance. Both extremes suggest an unhealthy understanding of the ‘self’ and its relationship with the wider world.

    Yet this distorted image of the ‘self’ is itself a symptom of mental illness, rather than its cause – ‘You’ve got a skewed sense of self-importance...’ is not going to really help us understand mental illness, though it can help us comprehend its effects.

    As a social worker I have chosen not to work in mental health. I am fine with organic conditions such as dementia or brain injuries; and I have substantial experience of helping people deal with mental health issues that are in reality often a natural aspect of living with life limiting illness when I worked in palliative care. However I have never found working with other forms of mental illness (schizophrenia, bipolar affected disorder, depression etc.) easy to deal with.

    This is for several reasons. The control of such ‘deviance’ via the state and medicine in particular being a key issue for me. The power of doctors, social workers and the police to remove someone’s liberty has never sat easily with my own understanding of social freedom. Yes, I understand people have to be protected from themselves and to protect wider society – and I have initiated the Sectioning of people as part of my job (indeed I hold the qualification necessary to remove a person’s liberty). Yet I think this has been too widely used on occasion. I also believe the pathologising of people with mental illness helps neither the sufferer nor wider society. A diagnosis of schizophrenia in your late teens can often lead to a life time of prejudice and social exclusion.

    I am firmly of the belief the British welfare state helped to kill my nephew. Once he was entitled to higher rate DLA and IB – gaining a flat with full housing and council tax benefit, there was no incentive to ‘get well’ (cf. Jn 5:6!) (in effect an equivalent annual income of £25K) – nor did society afford a means of re-entering the workforce. There is also an element of: ‘Where does your mental illness end and just being a manipulative shit begin?’ I’ve worked with many people with a diagnosed mental illness who use it as an excuse to get their own way or make the lives of others difficult.

    So, it is not an easy subject – moreover, like you, I believe we have to accept that many of us will or have suffer(ed) from mental illness at one time or other. When I left the monastery where I was a novice, I was suffering from clinical depression (and believe me, many religious communities have a disproportionate number of inmates with mental health problems they veil in piety!). Like you I believe exercise, diet, meaningful relationships etc. are a good means of maintaining good mental health – swimming (and here I mean 5 miles a week) helped me out of my depression. But other forms of mental illness cannot be so easily shaken off.

    Whatever the tragedy of Williams’s death, it does place the topic of mental illness within the public arena and that is surely a small good thing to come out of such a sad event.

  2. I've not so far lost anyone to suicide but I can imagine that I might feel anger. I've also worked with young people with depression and, yes, it can make you feel very frustrated and as though some of them are "using" it as an excuse to opt out of life and making an effort- although this is really my "knee jerk" reaction and I try to see them as individuals who (in general) are so ill that they struggle to take control over their emotions or mind set and who may need to be supported rather than condemned. I think, as you say, that some forms of mental illness, including severe depression cannot be "shaken off" but that we can do a lot to help ourselves to good mental and emotional health as long as we are in a state where we can reasonably do that. So it is a difficult topic and each individual is different so it is hard to generalise.
    I think my emotional and mental health is reasonably robust nowadays, the only thing close to a symptom that I have is some difficulties sleeping which aren't necessarily always linked to periods of stress so they may not even be related to my emotional health. I don't like to be complacent though and so I do all I can to ensure I stay stable emotionally and mentally.