I’ve been thinking about why it is that people are so often frightened or embarrassed about mental illness: it’s almost as if just the mention of it sends a shiver down everyone’s spine. I believe the fear is fueled by a combination of terror at being similarly affected and of the potential shame/embarrassment at not performing to the high standards set by society.
People can be quick to offer solutions. ‘You’re depressed? You just need a holiday, a change of scene.’ Or a new job, or partner, or to appreciate all you’ve already got. In general we find it easier to talk, and think, about our physical health. Sometimes a ‘breakdown’ can be a ‘breakthrough’: the body’s way of telling us that something isn’t right, that something needs to change. If we all felt more able to be honest about mental health, it wouldn’t be so isolating.
Research has demonstrated that although we may be pulled towards the safe and known, taking risks and trying something new can help us to appreciate life, and ourselves, in a deeper and more lasting way. It seems that sometimes, it’s worth seeking out an experience that is novel, complicated, uncertain, or even upsetting and the happiest people opt for both the new and the tried and tested; benefitting, at various times, from each.
It also appears that if we are feeling depressed or anxious we pay more attention to minute changes in facial expressions. Meanwhile, happy people tend to overlook such second-to-second alterations: a roll of the eyes, a look of annoyance, a sarcastic grin. It seems that the happiest people have a natural emotional protection against the intense gravitational pull of little details. So why not take the risk of allowing yourself to see things differently? Instead of looking for evidence to confirm your worst imaginings, look at the big picture – the pleasure in relationships rather than the pain. Try something new, and let yourself feel good about taking a risk, being brave.
‘Just please don’t judge me…’ Those the words of someone who has suffered, on and off, for all her adult life with depression. It makes me sad to think there’s still such a stigma attached to mental health issues; that we all so often feel we need to hide our distress, our anger, our fear. As meaning-making human beings, judging others is unavoidable, but what we make of those judgements is very much within our control. I believe we all long to not be judged harshly; to be accepted, understood and valued. So perhaps we can use that longing within us to respond with compassion and open-mindedness to others, even when we don’t really understand what they are going through.
I read an interesting article recently about reality tv and its potential to be therapeutic (you can see it in Therapy Today, June issue, 2013). It got me thinking about how TV programmes might be therapeutic: the way in which they can normalise mental health issues (such as depression, OCD, eating disorders etc); increase public understanding and, hopefully, compassion; and suggest that help is available and effective. However, my reservations lie in the formulaic nature of the programmes; particularly the way in which all the individuals appear to get ‘better’ in the alloted time span. In my experience life, and counselling/therapy, isn’t always as predictable and dependable as that! Nevertheless, I support any medium that presents mental health issues in a way that de-stigmatises them and allows for wider discussion and debate, and television is certainly the quickest and most effective way of reaching the largest audience.