Updated: Mar 29
If yoga, exercise, nature and art really were the answer to mental illness, we’d all be physically and emotionally super-healthy by now, wouldn’t we?! The fact is though that we’re in the midst of a mental health crisis slap-bang in the middle of a physical health crisis.
Given the focus on Mental Health over the last couple of years, it feels pertinent to write about the differences between Mental illness, and Mental Health (wellness) and its maintenance.
We’ve been swamped with ‘Mental Health advice’ over the last couple of years by lots of ‘motivational’ and ‘inspirational’ people who have suggested that feeling better is simply a case of choosing to feel better.
Those people who told us that they went to bed last night feeling terrible but made the conscious decision to wake up today and BE better…. The people who consistently posted only about the distance they’d run, how many loaves of home-baked (with love) banana bread they’d distributed to the poor and feckless, or how yoga changed their lives and their dress size…
I’m not saying that these people hadn’t found the right balance for their own mental wellness – good for them! – but:
mental wellness is not simply the opposite of mental illness.
Mental illness cannot be cured solely with yoga, exercise, nature and art; these are things for people who need to maintain their usual state of mental wellness. The key words here being
MAINTAIN and WELLNESS.
Mental illness must be tackled with the right support, advice, guidance, therapy and perhaps medication – it’s an illness, like tonsillitis or appendicitis; neither of which can be cured by going for a walk. Having a bad day or feeling a bit down is not the same thing at all and usually can be cured by going for a walk.
For someone whose usual mental state is wellness, ‘a bad day’ might genuinely consist of a bit of crying, some things not going right and the goldfish dying. They’ll spend a bit of time reflecting and reasoning, doing some self-care (that’s the cue for your yoga, exercise, nature and art), and resolve to spend more time focussing on themselves; ultimately able to go to bed that night feeling relatively good about their bad day.
Importantly, they’re able to look forward to tomorrow being a better day with some degree of certainty because the imbalance of their brain chemicals is temporary. Yoga, exercise, nature and art have all sparked the release of happy chemicals – provided them with their Daily DOSE of Dopamine, Oxytocin, Serotonin and Endorphins, helping to redress the imbalance relatively quickly and easily.
For someone whose usual state is illness, the chemical imbalance is not temporary, and a bad day might genuinely mean fighting by yourself, with yourself, for your own life.
A GOOD day for someone with mental illness might mean that they managed to wash their face and get dressed today; it might mean they’ve cried less today than yesterday (but they still can’t remember the last time they went a whole day without crying); it might be that they remember to eat or drink something or that they’ve managed to mostly suppress the feeling that the world would be a better place without them…
If your usual state isn’t mental wellness because you suffer from mental illness, the only thing these people and their (perhaps well-intentioned) toxic positivity do is provide yet more opportunities for negative-thinking and unrealistic comparison.
If you’re surrounded by positivity gurus telling you that mental wellness is a state of mind and that if you didn’t write a best-selling novel, learn a new language, change your diet, complete seventeen ‘couch to 5k’ runs, start a multi-million-pound business, volunteer at, or donate to a food bank, or adopt a Mongolian goat then you wasted your Lockdown opportunities, you won’t be able to help but compare yourself.
Your depleted sense of self-worth and conviction of your own lack of value can only be reinforced when you have no thought process available to you apart from, “If they can do it so easily and I can’t, I must be REALLY broken.”
Where are all those people now though?! During the Lockdowns our newsfeeds were packed full of people proclaiming that they’d struggled and survived because of their Positive Mental Attitude, but now? They’ve all gone, haven’t they? Of course they have – their usual state was wellness not illness so their Lockdown Habits were about maintenance. They had to swap their trip to the gym for a bike ride; their posh meal out for a home-cooked recipe; their fancy holiday abroad for a Staycation and some home improvements…
Now there’s no Lockdown though, they’ve gone immediately back to their previous lifestyles, not giving a second thought to the ‘Mental Health issues’ Lockdown caused them.
For me, this is another demonstration of how important our language is.
When people who are usually mentally well begin talking about suffering from ‘mental health issues’ we need to be very clear, I think, about whether or not these people ARE indeed suffering from a mental illness, or whether actually, they’re simply struggling to maintain their level of usual wellness.
There’s a WORLD of difference and we run the risk of undermining the desperation and hopelessness of those who genuinely DO suffer from mental illness by misrepresenting those who are not genuinely suffering.
I’m not suggesting that feeling bad doesn’t feel bad, but if you’ve enough motivation to get up and do ‘something positive’ to overcome those negative feelings, it’s a fair bet that you’re not suffering from Mental Illness, you actually need to concentrate on maintaining your wellness.
People who suffer from mental illness wouldn’t wish their feelings on anybody else; they’d do anything not to feel as they do themselves, never mind ever feeling responsible for making someone else feel like it too!
They’ve been told innumerable times by people around them that they’re “miserable”, or that they ‘just’ need to…
When they can’t ‘just’ because they don’t feel worthy and deserving enough of help to justify asking for it, they get told that, “if they’re not prepared to help themselves…”, or that they’re “wallowing”
People stop asking because the person is ‘hard work’ or ‘soooooo negative’ (and we all know misery loves company), so that person become even less willing (and able) to speak out.
They withdraw because they don’t want to ‘infect’ others with their misery and the fact that nobody reaches IN to see how they are, just reinforces their view that they’re unimportant and irrelevant.
And this, is the devastating spiral of Mental Illness:
Reach out for help
Can’t access GP or Mental Health services
Speak to other people about how we feel
Get told that it’s not that bad or you ‘just need to…’
Discover that none of these things you ‘just’ need to do are possible because of your mental illness
Get told we’re not helping ourselves and start to lose people we thought we could rely on.
Decline some more…
Reach out again
Can’t access GP or Mental Health services – get given information about Crisis Intervention and self-referral for IAPT services
Discover that none of these things are possible because of the system:
Not sick enough
Haven’t tried to commit suicide / self-harmed
Can’t access therapy until you’ve tried self-help strategies
Can’t use self-help strategies because of mental illness
Contact Crisis Team who advise that you have a bath and a cuppa…
Reach out again
Get made to feel like a hypochondriac and told if you’re able to advocate for yourself so fiercely, you can’t be that unwell…
Offered medication and same info about self-referral to IAPT services
Contact IAPT services
Long waiting lists
Inappropriate therapy offered (because services offer what they offer, not because they’re deliberately being obtuse!)
Inappropriate therapy unsuccessful because it was inappropriate
Deemed ‘unengaging’ or ‘uncooperative’
Refused further services due to previous disengagement
Not being believed further impacts ones Mental Health and round and round we go….
People with mental illness don’t begrudge anyone who doesn’t suffer as they do but telling a person with mental illness that they can be ‘cured’ by going for a run or doing a drawing is unlikely to be a useful strategy, no matter how well intentioned.
Instead of suggesting things they could do to ‘cheer themselves up’ or telling them that ‘all’ they need to do is ‘reach out to someone’, offer to help them.
It’s really hard to ask for help if you don’t believe you are worth helping.
For most people who suffer from ‘garden variety’ mental illness – ‘unremarkable’ depression or non-complex trauma, for example – the depleted sense of self-worth and belief is the hardest thing to overcome.
Conversely though, The System, is entirely self-provoked – as adults, we have to choose to engage with the service we’re offered and that’s tough if we already believe that we’re ‘overreacting’ or ‘being dramatic’ because The System has already made us feel like that by being so darned inaccessible – it doesn’t take long for us to realise that if we continue to beat our heads against the wall, all we’re going to do is give OURSELVES an even bigger headache than we already have!
Maybe we ARE better off baking some bread or doing some yoga…
We need to stop conflating the issues. As long as the term ‘Mental Health’ is bandied around to cover every situation from a broken fingernail to a completely destroyed spirit, we’ll never fully appreciate the darkness and hopelessness that comes with mental illness.
As humans, we judge people by our own standards so our own experience of something makes up our entire understanding of that thing. When we’re talking about Domestic Abuse, for example, I always tell survivors that people who are genuinely good people – those who couldn’t begin to imagine treating another human so very badly – can’t even start to imagine how duplicitous and evil some people can be towards others – especially others whom they apparently care about; it’s just not their experience.
The same can be said for Mental Health. Those who’ve never suffered significantly can’t accurately empathise with the overwhelming nature of one’s own thoughts – they’re just thoughts, after all! It takes an awful lot of confidence and resilience to convince oneself of something positive – the bad stuff is always easier to believe…
When we couple this with a system that takes the view that if you’ve not tried to kill yourself, you’re not that poorly and if you HAVE tried to kill yourself, the crisis team will try to convince you that a cuppa and a bubble bath is the answer when you’re in total emotional meltdown – we can start to see how people decline so quickly and devastatingly.
There should be a quick mention in this blog about respectful and useful practitioners too. I’m hearing of so many people who have been brave enough to reach out and ask for help, been stuck on a waiting list for MONTHS waiting for an appointment, spent the night before the appointment up sick with worry about facing their demons, only for the phone call not to come or the appointment to be cancelled last minute.
For the record: THIS IS NOT OK.
It’s true that sometimes shit happens and we’re unable to keep to our commitments, but it only takes a second to send a message or email to let someone who’s already struggling with their sense of self-worth know that they haven’t been ignored or forgotten.
Don’t insist that an already broken spirit must ‘reach out’ into what is widely acknowledged as a broken system because the inevitable rejection and failure will reinforce the belief that they’re not worth helping.
Take a little time, REACH IN and try to understand a tiny bit the inescapable cycle of despair and hopelessness that is mental illness.
Kindness is reaching in and lending someone your strength when they have none of their own left to reach out with and we’ve all had a gutful of flimsy #bekind BS…
Mental Health is not simply the opposite of Mental Illness – It’s important to remember that there’s a world of difference between maintaining mental wellness and suffering from Mental Illness.
Wellbeing activities (yoga, exercise, nature and art) aren’t enough on their own to conquer mental illness. They’re MAINTENANCE tools - and you’d not ‘maintain’ a broken boiler or car, would you?! You’d fix it first…
There’s always someone to talk to if you’re feeling low.
Check our resources page for information about lots of supportive services who may be able to help you feel better.
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