One can’t turn on the radio these days without hearing of someone struggling with some aspect of life or another. And, inevitably, we do all struggle with life and some people more than others, for one reason or another. But I would feel happier (and perhaps everyone else would too?) if these interviews were balanced up by examples of those who have struggled with a challenge, and worked their way through it, rather than become overwhelmed by their problems. If we expose people to endless negative stories, they are going to have to work very hard indeed to keep themselves feeling resilient and able to cope with life.
I have no doubt played some small part in raising the issues of mental and emotional health into greater focus, having written six books on related subjects. However, I am concerned that the media emphasis on the fragility of everyone’s mental health is actually in danger of becoming detrimental to everyone’s mental health!
Right now, we all face many challenges in terms of inflation and the cost of living, climate change, and the Ukrainian war. We need to be resilient. In one of the radio interviews I was listening to, some students talked about their experiences and I ended up feeling rather sorry for them, because they seemed to have expected that things would be much easier than they were. They sounded outraged that they had been forced to share a flat with strangers, or had to move from one flat to another because they couldn’t afford the rent. It was as if they considered that this shouldn’t be happening to them. And the interviewer seemed to go along with this, ramping up the outrage. I suppose it makes better drama for the listeners. But is it helpful?
For who had told these young people that life should be easy, that they wouldn’t have to adapt to changes in the world economy? Because it struck me that they had not being adequately prepared for the fact that life isn’t fair, it isn’t easy, there will always be changes and some of those changes will be uncomfortable, that other people don’t always do what you would like them to, and that perhaps other people might also have trouble with your own behaviour, so there’s a need to be flexible and adapt to changing circumstances and demands, physical, emotional and financial.
Listening to them reminded me of how we had shared flats and bedrooms with strangers when I was moving between teens and adult years. It was the norm. And they were pretty dire places – no heating, we had snails climbing up the wall in one basement flat while condensation dripped down another, a geezer that exploded any time you wanted hot water for a bath and nearly asphyxiated my friend, landlords who did little to keep a place comfortable and who raised the rent from time to time, so we frequently had to move. We didn’t get asked how we felt about it, so we didn’t think it unusual and just carried on.
There is much quoting of statistics, and the statistics on loneliness are poignant but I can’t ever remember anyone asking me or my friends whether we were lonely, and we certainly were when we were growing up. Most people are, as they develop from teenage years to adulthood, entering the somewhat traumatic world of work, dating and finding a partner. It can all be a very lonely experience, but I think there was very little introspection at that time. There was, though, certainly, shyness, awkwardness, fear of the future, jealousy and all the usual emotions but I only knew one person who needed help with their mental health. Nowadays all those normal features of growing up have some kind of psychological label, as if they are abnormal and require intervention. But are they abnormal? And do they always require intervention?
I am not so sure they always do, and that if you listen to The Expectation Effect, the series by David Robson on iPlayer, you will hear some short salutary tips for how your beliefs and expectations of life shape the outcome of one’s efforts in many different areas of life – health, ageing, willpower, stress and life in general, so that you programme your mind to work through the difficulties rather than feel swamped.
Of course there are times when a diagnosis, and label, is helpful and intervention is absolutely necessary. But I worry that the more these cases are emphasized, the more likely it might be to develop the sort of culture whereby you’re the odd one out if you don’t have some kind of mental health issue or label. Am I alone in being concerned that this discussion could have got out of balance?
Of course, it is a good thing, on the whole, that mental health has become a topic of everyday conversation and not something people have to hide or feel embarrassed about. It’s a good thing that we understand it better, and that in general people are more compassionate, but it is necessary, at the same time, to build resilience and we often do this by experiencing difficult times. It is perfectly normal to feel bad sometimes, to feel sad sometimes, to feel angry, to feel anxious. It’s human and natural and we can thank those emotions for enriching our lives.
I was reminded this morning of the psychiatrist, Professor Anthony Clare’s tips for happiness, one of which was to ‘avoid introspection’. Yet we seem to be doing nothing but suggesting that people spend a vast amount of time thinking about themselves and their emotions. And then, of course, Socrates famously said that “The unexamined life is not worth living”. Well, both are true, in my view, and we, as individuals, have to learn how much to think about ourselves and how much just to get on with living. Clare’s advice is to ‘cultivate a passion and become a part of something bigger than yourself’. Great advice, I believe.
All this led me to look up a Positiveworks blog I wrote back in 2008, when we were facing that economic downturn. So, for what it’s worth, I shall share the seven tips I mentioned then and hope they may help you consider how to feel positive as we face this current potential recession:
- Focus on the positive. The one thing we have control of is our mental and emotional approach so rather than panic, pull in a thought like “I’d rather it wasn’t happening but I can manage it step by step,” which hopefully will help you stay calm.
- Focus on what you can control. Perhaps that’s cash flow, saving money, investing it carefully, letting go of one expenditure in order to be able to afford another.
- Focus on personal values. The thing that keeps us sane is to focus on our personal principles and values, not getting swept up by groupthink or the pull of the crowd as to how you respond.
- Get real. Work with facts and evidence, not supposition or headlines. Statistics are bandied about that sometimes have no basis in fact (listen to More or Less!). Check them out.
- Look for opportunities. In every downturn there is opportunity. I have lived through the 1970s, 1990s (when I set up my business) and 2008 and have watched people discover some innovation that only became possible because of the changing circumstances.
- Be discerning. What is reported on social media is not always true. Check it out. Don’t go to the doom-and-gloom sites. Financial markets are influenced by emotions so it doesn’t help to focus on the ‘everything is going to the dogs’ narrative.
- Get creative and put your energy into the future. It takes the sum of our individual efforts to make change a positive experience. Turn around, look at things in a new light and see what’s possible, and also how you might support others. As Einstein said “you can’t solve a problem with the same thinking you used to create it.”
If you expect everything to go badly, and that you won’t be able to cope, then you are less likely to be able to cope. If you expect things to be difficult but remind yourself of other times when you have coped, then you are more likely to be able to manage these current challenges. So good luck. Oh, and maybe turn off the radio!
Helen, I love this! You make such a good point. We need to be able to have open, honest discussions about mental health and wellbeing, but crucially we all need to be exploring how we best develop resilience. Life is neither easy, nor fair and it often throws curved balls – we need to learn the skills to deal with life to the best of our ability.
Thanks Janice. Yes, it is such a fine balance of raising awareness yet focusing on the ways to manage life rather than on our fragility.
Absolutely agree Helen. I think we confuse feeling up one day and down the next (entirely normal) with supposed mental illness. Also, less exposure to all forms of media with their relentlessly negative narratives will help. Take a look at other parts of the world and see how fortunate we are in this country. Introspection is a first world luxury.