Most of us have known the effects of mental illness in some way. It might be ourselves or a loved one. We might have had a colleague sign off work. We might have felt the shock of discovering that someone who appeared fine on the outside was actually breaking down internally. It’s everywhere. Behind the masks of togetherness are millions of people struggling to exist and cope on a day-to-day basis. And it’s no secret it’s getting worse. Depression, anxiety and other conditions are becoming widespread and starting at a younger and younger age.
I think for many of us, and me included, it is tempting to think that the problem is purely biological. It is to do with chemicals in the brain that we have no control over, and so we can medicate the problem. And it is a medical problem, and medication has helped countless people and has far too much stigma attached to it. In the past I’ve had medication for anxiety. But I think it’s too simplistic to put mental illness down to just one cause, although this may be the case for some. If it was purely chemical, then why is the problem getting worse? What is it that’s exasperating it? It could be a whole range of different factors from past trauma to poverty, but I want to focus on one profound truth that I heard in a talk recently. It acknowledged all of the chemical and genetic aspects of mental illness, but then it also hypothesised that our needs as humans often aren’t being met in Western culture today.
We are all brought up within the framework of culture. It’s inescapable; habits, belief systems and worldviews, both good and bad, are passed down to us during our upbringing. And like anything, it is almost impossible to objectively understand something that is so ingrained in our identity. I read this the other day; ‘It is difficult to see what we are swimming in. It is hard to imagine there is an alternative to what we consider true and inevitable.’ For me, it wasn’t until I went travelling that I could begin to perceive the way that I naturally live and function, and start the journey of questioning what was good and bad about it.
Sometimes in our lives we’re forced into positions where we can’t easily engage with society. For me, living with a long term illness placed me in a position where I had to observe rather than participate. From the sidelines I watched people struggle under the weight of external pressures to perform and excel. From my place of stillness I observed the speed in which we now live. Each part of the day stuffed to capacity. The small moments we used to have to daydream or allow our brains to set themselves straight are often taken up by technology. Our brains have been rewired to the extent that we literally don’t know what to do with waiting or boredom. The speed scares us, but the silence scares us more. The industrial revolution was the start of a new way of thinking that taught us that everything needs an upwards trajectory of growth; everything we’re involved in needs to be becoming better. We need to see performance and results, not just in the business world, but in charitable and civil spheres as well. In fact, this is expected in our whole lives. We want to keep finding the next thing to make us happy. To keep sustaining ourselves in the pressure and speed we look for excitement, fun and pleasure. We consume life, needing to work harder to earn more more money to buy the things that help us to cope with the hard work. Money, or comfortable living, is often one of the first factors we consider in making life decisions and is often what dictates the speed in which we live. And I’m not saying that I’m in any way removed from this or immune to the effects of the culture we live under. I did learn some lessons through being ill and I try to have good rhythms, but I also sometimes end the day with my brain actually hurting from the amount of activity, organisation and social energy that I’ve had to use up.
Let me just stop here. I’ve very much painted a one sided picture of the complicated dynamic we now live in, which also has so much potential for good. It is never healthy to stay in a place of despair or of blaming external factors for all our struggles. But it is in observing and being aware that we can start to discern what is good in our cultural upbringing, and what is maybe harmful and unhelpful. It is about learning to become more human.
And it isn’t actually all that difficult to start doing. It’s about listening to that small voice inside ourself that tells us what we need. Anxiety, frequent illness and burn-out can all be signs that our needs aren’t being met and that we might need to make some changes. It’s often about building new rhythms into our lives and learning not to live from the ‘shoulds’ and ‘shouldn’ts’. And it’s different for everyone. It’s about giving ourselves time to self-heal and doing the things that give us life. It’s about protecting pockets of the day for stillness, daydreaming or boredom even. Not being scared of the emotions that come up when we have a moment to be still, but letting them exist and making our peace with them. It’s about making life decisions from the perspective of what is healthy and right, about what suits who we are as people, rather than what we feel like we should be doing or what gives us typically successful lives. It’s about building ‘extra’ time in our lives to be able to stop and chat to that neighbour, or invite someone in for a cup of tea. Busyness and technology can stifle our very real need for connection with others. It’s about finding how to build this back in. It’s replacing the need to consume with creativity; doing something for no reason other than to be creative. It’s about saying no to the guilt that we should be doing more or being better. That the world needs us to be living to our complete potential all of the time. My suspicion is that if more of us allowed ourselves to just ‘be’ and live from who we are, that depth, relationships and creativity would flow from this. It might be about having more routine, doing sit down meals, walking slowly and saying no sometimes. It might be about replacing the need for ‘more’ with daily thankfulness.
It’s so vast and will naturally be different for different people. And this is only one aspect of what might contribute to mental illness, or at least a sense of struggle, for some of us. It’s about discerning what your soul is crying out for. Not on a shallow level, where it is easy to grab hold of a quick-fix, but on the deepest most painful level. And for some change might be almost impossible. There are those stuck under a pressure or life circumstance that can’t be easily changed. Not all of us have the luxury of choice. We who have more freedom need to look out for and support these people. Cook meals, give money, give them our time. In slowing our lives down, we are more able to give ourselves to those around us.
This is very much the start of a conversation. There is so much to this, and I am just beginning to try to piece together what this means for my life. All I know is that something doesn’t feel right, and I don’t think I’m the only one who feels this.
Anya is 30, a mum to three little boys and a blogger/writer. Her husband is a Vicar and they live in Leeds, UK. She blogs at https://thelittlepause.wordpress.com.