Saturday, May 23, 2015

Staying Alive

Mental health is a quagmire when it comes to knowing how to respond. If someone has a physical illness, I think we are normally quite good at showing sympathy. When it comes to 'stuff of the mind', I have always struggled.  This is a big problem since lots of people we care about suffer from problems of the non-'my pants are on fire' variety. We don't have buckets of water to throw on them. We don't know what to do.

A starting point seems to be empathy, but even that is hard. Depression is a big one. I have written about the challenge of 'silencing your perspective' in order to try understand others. The first place we go to is our own experience. But, I don't think I have ever been depressed. I am lucky enough to have a natural bias towards being glass half full. I think the closest I have come was as an 11-12 year old boy. But I was sad, not depressed. I wasn't very good at banter and so was very easy to get a response out of when teased. I also had a justice complex, so if anyone was being teased I would often end up sticking my nose in. I taught at a prep school between school and university, and saw that age from the other side. Kids can be mean. But they are learning. And interestingly, while you feel like you are alone at the time, it seems most people go through a tough stage at school. I don't think that stage was depression for me. I never thought it wasn't going to end. It was just a stage that sucked. That I needed to get through.

Matt Haig is a writer who has suffered from, and is trying to raise the level of understanding of depression. I came across him when Stephen Fry, who also openly suffers from depression, recommended his book 'The Humans'. It is a very funny novel which looks at what it is like to be alive from an alien perspective. This Alien was sent to earth to destroy any evidence of a dramatic scientific breakthrough. The superior life form didn't believe Humans were sufficiently emotionally intelligent to cope with the power this breakthrough would unleash. His up and down process of getting to know us is wonderful.

Following on from 'The Humans', Haig has written about his own personal experience with depression in 'Reasons to Stay Alive'. I don't think that we have to actually experience something to be able to empathise. I don't think we are unique snowflakes destined to go through life only understanding our own experiences. I think we can recognise glimpses of our experience in others. We can learn from others. We can have the emotional experience through our response to music, art, drama, dance or words. Haig has the ability to make the experience of depression tangible, but also the words to demystify it.

If one of the biggest challenges is our feeling that Mental Health issues aren't normal, these books help start a conversation that can change that. Tough times are normal. And they do pass.

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