I feel a rant coming on. It’s…it’s welling up and through my loins and in to my gut. It’s coming up and in to my belly and up, up in to my chest. I’m heaving and my throat is…it’s bulging, and my face is reddening. I feel it! Here it comes! An explosion of keyboard warriorism, a long and drawn-out cathartic release from the maddening shackles of routine life and 9 to 5s and yes pleases and no thank yous and do you want a receipt with that?…Aaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhh zoooooeeeee! Can’t…not…rant.
Aaaaaand scene. So do you want to hear my rant? Here it is: I’m getting frustrated with all the mental illness stigma mental health awareness campaigns on social media and in public.I mean, I know I’m in a foul mood today, but what a crock of horseshit. Puh-lease. But before I projectile vomit my dirty, defiling rant on to your face and neck sir, allow me a couple of quiet disclaimers that shall serve as napkins for you to dab yourself with in a moment.
First, I run my own mental health recovery group for young people. It has over 250 members. In this way, I am on the frontline of what good mental health recovery and awareness involves. I also read a shit-tonne of books on mental health recovery. I’m in the thick of the battle for good mental health, as they (probably) say.
Second, if you haven’t already heard the gossip around the water cooler, or passed the notes in class or, if by chance, this is your first reading of my blog, I’ve got the mental illness bug. I am one of them. It’s not contagious in any literal sense of course, but if I had kids, I’m sure I’d find a way to pass it on (see argument below). It’s called Complex PTSD, it’s what “I have” and it’s spiritually stinky. I’d say I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy, but that’s a lie. I’m a vindictive prick sometimes – sorry in advance.
Third. I’m not saying that awareness around mental illness, and mental illness stigma, and mental health are bad things. Obviously they’re not, and when they’re done right, they help to enlighten people about the plight of the Other. But as I will at-times clumsily convey in this post, I do think that we need to take a harder look at ourselves before we attempt another half-arsed campaign.
Fourth and final napkin-of-sorts, I’ve been in multiple psych wards, as a patient and in the thick of it. So don’t talk to me about How Dare I Challenge a Good Thing. I been there, son, and I have the overpriced t-shirt, the matching pencil case, and the imaginary pink bicycle with tassles from the public hospital gift shop to prove it. OK?
With that out of the way, here goes. Brace yourselves. The majority of mental health awareness campaigns that I have come across, although well intended, are hypocritical and ineffective. They contribute to a “bigger picture problem” that few people are willing to look at. If we’re going to push for awareness around mental illness, start by looking at numero uno. Because the definition of mental illness, and the consequent target audience of such awareness campaigns can surely be broadened when we stop focusing on the “identified patients” and start looking at how we keep them sick in our addictive society, or by looking at how we, too are sick and in need of a hearty dose of recovery.
Addiction to alcohol and drugs found its way in to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, used by psychiatrists and psychologists and other health professionals to diagnose mental illnesses, some time ago now. But take a closer look at society and what it is addicted to – sugar, oil, caffeine, money, sex, relationships, power, even love, and the price we’re willing to pay to attain such things, and you start to wonder why the definition of mental illness is so narrowly defined. Why’s it only applied to the sickest of the sick? To be sure, I don’t know why. But it is. For now, I’ll leave the debate over the politics regarding how we define mental illness in the DSM to the deluded crooks who collude with insurance companies (Tsssss! Feel the burn!).
And for the record, please don’t get me wrong; I’m one of you. I’m certainly not holier than thou. I mean sometimes I’d love to be, but I’m not. I’m one of youse.
I’ve got my share of addictions and they wreak havoc on my life all the same. But don’t tell me you don’t have any, please, because I’ll call your bullshit on it faster than a fat kid on a cupcake. In a general sort of way, I’m naming mine, which is more than I can say for the doctors who treat us, the lawyers who make our rules and the politicians who compulsively break these rules and then grin-fuck us for votes later.
The whole notion of a sick and addicted society raises some serious-ass questions about denial, man. I’m not interested in getting all Greenpeace on people’s hides, but the reality is that we’re abusing the planet, too. This isn’t a new fact. We know now more than ever that our resources are finite, but we go about digging up stuff and manufacturing delicious foods well and truly beyond our means, with little pause for the implications on our future. Why? Because the pay off is way too overpowering to walk away from. And what is that if not addiction? What’s not sick about that?
The unmanageability of it is truly mind-boggling. But alas we continue to spiral in to self-destruction because it’s just what we do. Capitalism’s one helluva monstrous wheel, and it’s been spinning so long and so hard that a) none of us really know how to stop it b) most of us don’t want to stop it, and c) we’re afraid of what the world – and ourselves – will look like if we do stop it. And don’t get me started on the heartbreaking dullness that is beauracracy, and the ways in which it contributes to our collective descent. Give me a large fuck-off book o’ rules and regulations and I’ll gladly bludgeon a bureaucrat with it.*
The system is hopelessly collusive in our collective mental illness, and we’re all up to our ankles in it. Though some people are swimming in it, and others are drinking from its fountain. So why, then, if we’re all in it, is the focus so painfully focused on the individual in these campaigns to eradicate ignorance about mental illness? Aren’t we all a part of the problem? That doesn’t seem fair. I share the belief that the majority of mental illness derives from our collective inability to sit with and regulate our unpleasant feelings (and heck, even some of our pleasant feelings, too).
And we learned to regulate our feelings from families – families that pass their very own brand of diseased thinking and addicted patterns from one generation to the next like some dusty banner that hangs in the hallway of our familial consciousness. I think that in true, individualistic fashion, we’ve managed to convince ourselves that mental illness is an individual problem. Something that an individual possesses, and that an individual can and should get help for. The onus is on you (but not me) kinda thing. But just don’t look at the family system. Or the societal systems, or the cultural systems. And shit, don’t look at the medical systems or legal systems, or economic systems that cultivate these mentally ill individuals. That would be inappropriate, or irrelevant, or it would be to miss the point entirely. No. It’s much easier to point the finger and say “You’re unwell. You need help. You should take these pills. You should go to hospital. You’re sick.”
What bullshit. Forgive me for expressing rather passionately my distaste for the apparent hypocrisy. If you’d wagered that I was furiously punching the keyboard to get my message across as I typed just now, well sir, you’d have won your bet. And for those who find it easier to dismiss my anger as symptomatic of daddy issues, or mummy issues, or family issues, well duh. That’s almost the point of my argument. Create as much awareness as you like around mental illness, but unless you start looking at yourself and the system in which you grew up in, nothing will change. Yes, the individual is indeed sick. But the individual doesn’t get sick unless he’s grown into a sick family. Families, too, can’t raise sick children unless they’ve been forced to swallow false medicines from an addictive society and its sick systems.
The solution. As someone who identifies as a sometimes-realist, an opportunistic problem-solver, and a would-be policymaker, you can’t have a rant unless you have a solution to the problems you’ve announced. And the solution for me is simple. Look at yourself. Start asking yourself the questions you’ve been avoiding most of your life. Learn to sit with what comes up. And for fuck’s sake, start meditating and stop running. That’s all meditation is; it’s not running anymore. I double-dare you, because shit, I’m still learning to sit with myself too.
Ask yourself the hard-hitting questions, the ones you don’t want to ask yourself. And I challenge you to notice how long it takes before you pick up your phone and google some shitty picture of Mariah Carey, or go to the fridge for some cheesecake, or flick on the telly. It’s easier to numb out or ignore the hard questions than it is to sit with the uncertainty of asking, and the apparent unbearableness of not knowing the answers. But ask yourself. Otherwise we’ll continue to be bombarded by these well-intended-but-ill-thought-out mental health awareness campaigns that really only scratch the surface of what we need to be aware of. Heck, I’ll have to be bombarded by these crappy mental health awareness campaigns, and I’m over ’em. So please. Talk to people you trust about these questions. If you don’t have people you can trust, acknowledge this, and then start doing your research. Find your community, your people.
What are the questions? Start with these.
- Do I eat to numb out? Do I notice certain circumstances that prelude my desire to eat foods that, in the quantities I consume them in, can lead to my ill-health? Do I eat them anyway?
- Do I pursue money at an impractical cost to my health? To my family? To my spirituality?
- Do I have something outside of myself that I can rely on, or do I trust only myself? That is, do I have a spirituality that is benevolent, and for me?
- Do I drink too much? Or more than I’d like or can control?
- Do I isolate myself? Do I prefer my own company, with a fear of others, of intimacy, or of failure as the driving force?
- Do I use sex for comfort, when what I need is to acknowledge my powerlessness in a certain situation? Do I pay for sex, at a detriment to my finances? Do I accept sex when what I really want is love?
- Do I experience unmanageability over how I feel about other people? Over lovers?
- Do I give myself over to others – in small ways or large – and does this leave me feeling resentful? Cheated? Fragile? Defeated? Abused?
- Am I narcissistic? Is it all about me? When was the last time I asked somebody else how they were feeling, without expectation of a quid pro quo arrangement?
- Do I have expectations of myself? Of others? Of circumstances? And are they reasonable? Do I project on to others what I myself lacked in some way growing up, or even something that I lack now?
- What can’t I live without, and is this belief really true?
- Can I be honest with myself about how I feel about minority groups? About gays? Blacks? Arabs? Homeless people? Justin Bieber? People from a lower socioeconomic group? What do I really disapprove of in these people?
- Can I be truly honest with the people that I love, or do I hide how I feel for fear of rejection or abandonment? What do I do to quell these fears? Am I manipulative?
- What am I really afraid of? What am I terrified to lose?
- Am I comfortable with how I look in the mirror? Do I accept myself completely, or do I expect perfection?
It’s largely true: the unexamined life is probably not worth living. And ignorance is not bliss – not at the expense of individual sanity and our collective prosperity.
Deep breath in….And out. Thus endeth my at-times incoherent rant. I feel a little lighter now.
*No, I won’t. I’m quite docile, really.