Tag Archives: Empathy

Mental Health Awareness Week: Why is awareness so important?

I’m not sure if you’re aware, but this week is Mental Health Awareness Week. For those who spend much time around me, this must sound rather exhausting. Barely a week goes by where I don’t moan about my symptoms, complain about stigma, or behave in a generally ‘mental’ way. Rather than another week of raising awareness, I suspect many of my friends would prefer a Mental Health Ignorance Week. Where I’d be induced into a state of quiet normalness, and the rest of the world could continue… Well… pretty much as normal.

"Ignorance is bliss"
“Ignorance is bliss” (This is one of my favourite pictures on the internet – I don’t know the original source)

And – if I’m fair – I’d have sympathy. For a start, I know how boring I can get when I feel motivated to speak. It’s like a terrible episode of Question Time, where the most annoying guest is given free reign to speak for what seems like the entire programme. So actually, it’s like any ordinary episode of Question Time.

Secondly, the modern calendar of awareness-raising is now rather dizzying. Never mind mental health, this week is also both M.E. Awareness Week and Coeliac Awareness Week. Last week was Sun Awareness Week and next week is Dementia Awareness Week. There’s an awful lot to be aware of. And not everyone is happy.

Writing last year in libertarian magazine Spiked, Frank Furedi (Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the University of Kent) took objection and complained,

I don’t want to have my awareness raised, thank you

This sentiment was repeated earlier this year by Spiked editor Brendan O’Neill,

Please stop trying to raise my awareness

Though both make different arguments, their views are similarly venomous. To Furedi, ‘awareness raisers’ are intellectual snobs, motivated principally by a desire to feel morally superior. O’Neill views them as scaremongering killjoys, more interested in raising awareness of suffering than doing anything about it.

Raising awareness
It should always be clear why ‘raising awareness’ is a good and helpful thing. (Image from Why Your Parent’s Don’t Love You, a comic by @StevePAdams)

The instinctive response is to turn their libertarian argument around. If they don’t like awareness, they don’t have to listen. But that would be immature. Better to dismiss them as a pair of grumpy farts. *Blows raspberry*

Except, criticism is always worth a moment’s pause. Primarily because it can tell you a lot about the people doing the criticising. Furedi and O’Neill, for example, are clearly not a pair you’d want to invite to a charity fundraiser. Or a party. Or probably any social event whatsoever.

At the other extreme, criticism can also provide an opportunity to learn and improve. Take ‘chuggers‘. Those gap year fundraisers who hang around on shopping streets, shovelling guilt at anyone who mistakenly makes eye contact. Charities need money. And they do amazing things with that money. But I still find it sad that something as wonderful as donating money to charity is made to feel more like switching your gas supplier. It took a lot of honest criticism before things could change.

Yet I still find it hard to understand how something as harmless as ‘raising awareness’ can cause such anger. It’s not like running into someone’s home, dressed in a full Regimental Black Dog Outfit and throwing spaghetti (or de-stigmatising spaghetti as I like to call it) all over their furniture. Fun as that may sound. Besides, like I said above, if people don’t like it, they don’t have to listen, right? Except that sounds worryingly like the very opposite of raising awareness.

So what, if anything, can we learn from the frustrations of people like Furedi and O’Neill? Well, for one I think we need to be careful with our tone. Awareness shouldn’t be about judgement, so don’t judge someone for not being ready or able to listen. The world is full of suffering, none of which should go unknown. But I’m not sure it’s possible – never mind healthy – for any one person to be aware of it all. I used to be an avid follower of the news. Radio in the morning, TV in the evening, and a newspaper under my arm. I didn’t read it. I just thought it made me look sophisticated. But then there was a change in government. And now I find the news too upsetting. Every week brings another story about the vilification or punishment of Society’s most vulnerable. Which isn’t good for my cortisol levels. So these days, I’ve replaced reading the News with looking at pictures of kittens in cups.

Ahh... The 'Ignorance is Bliss' channel - otherwise known as YouTube. (Image from )
Ahh… The ‘Ignorance is Bliss’ channel – otherwise known as YouTube. (Image from Wisdom Quarterly)

Ignorance is blissUnfortunately, it’s also a luxury. And not one available to anyone with a chronic illness. I’d love to be less aware of my black dog. Not to constantly struggle with my meagre energy levels. Or with a brain that likes to pretend it’s permanently ‘out for lunch’. But alas, it’s a luxury I may never have.

Buy why must everyone be aware? Well, they don’t necessarily… but for many, awareness can be a miracle. For fellow suffers, who find relief in knowing they’re not alone. For those who’s ignorance isn’t bliss. Who live in suffering without realising there’s an alternative. I was a miserable teenager. The kind that stereotypes are made from. The kind with major depression. If I had known, if someone had made me aware, maybe I could have received the kind of early-intervention that averts a lifetime of relapsing disability. If that isn’t reason enough to add mental health education to the curriculum, I don’t know what is

But the biggest impact of awareness, ironically, is among the blissfully ignorant. Awareness isn’t and should never be about about making people feel miserable, guilty, or (most importantly, and most ironically) ignorant. It’s about information, education, and clarification. About raising understanding of the true impact of mental health problems, so people are less likely to assume or criticise or judge.  Because that’s when the real enemy shows it’s teeth. Not mental illness itself, but stigma. The villain-in-chief.

So this week, next week, every week, don’t be afraid to keep raising awareness. Preferably not in the moaning and complaining way (I’ve already done enough of that for a lifetime). Nor in the preachy way. Furedi and O’Neill may be grumpy farts, but I doubt their views are unique. If like them, you “don’t want to know”, that’s fine. Just be aware that you’re not aware. And try to remember that when you’re next tempted to judge someone.

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Adult ADHD: What it feels like to have ‘Naughty Adult Syndrome’

A few weeks ago, I was diagnosed with adult ADHD. It was a strange experience. I went into a room, had a chat with a bearded old man, and came out with a psychiatric disorder. So it was exactly what you’d expect from a trip to the shrink. Minus the leather couch.

A slightly less normal trip to the shrink
A (hopefully) less typical trip to the shrink… (Image from PsychCentral.com)

Publicly, I’ve responded with my usual take on British reserve. In other words, I’ve been excitedly telling everyone. Including more than a few strangers.

‘Nice to meet you – I’ve just been diagnosed with ‘naughty adult syndrome’ – what did you say your name was again?’

If that sounds glib, it’s deliberate. By openly poking fun, I’m trying to protect myself against a potentially hurtful response. If I make the joke first, and they respond in kind, I can convince myself it’s all part of the banter. It’s probably the same reason that I can often be heard calling myself ‘crazy’, ‘mental’, or ‘loopy!’

In private the diagnosis has triggered a lot more in the way of thought and self-reflection. For most of my life, I’ve struggled with frustration, distress, and embarrassment at some of my more antisocial habits. The fact that I shake like a dodgy washing machine whenever I’m expected to sit still. The fact I often interrupt people – mid flow – to blurt out an unrelated thought. I love ducks! And the fact I can’t queue. I mean, seriously. On more than one occasion, I’ve been known to barge past my colleagues because I just can’t keep watching them pour their tea so tortuously slowly. In Britain, this makes me the moral equivalent of an axe murderer.

Domestic Ducks
Some ducks (Image by Jonny Jet)

There are, of course, more serious challenges. At home, I have this unhelpful habit of wandering off without a passing thought to turning off things like ovens, hobs, and irons. In social situations, I’m renowned for my outrageously inappropriate remarks. They’re not deliberate, I just don’t seem to recognise social conventions in the same way as other people. In the workplace, I’m currently less effective than a chocolate teapot (at least you can eat a chocolate teapot!). As if it wasn’t hard enough holding down a job with depression, anxiety, and fatigue, I now find my brain wandering off every time I… Erm…? Oh, yes, ducks!

Realising that many of my problems are part of a recognised condition, and having a label to explain those frustrations, is both a relief and a revelation. I now know, for example, why a single cup of coffee can have me bouncing around like a famous anthropomorphised tiger. But if I thought I could use my new label as an excuse, I’d seriously underestimated the degree of scepticism and stigma.

ADHD Multitasking
‘I have this unhelpful habit of wandering off without a passing thought to turning off things like ovens, hobs, and irons’ (Image from adhd-app.com)

The first time I suggested my ADHD might be contributing to my low productivity, the response was telling:

‘ADHD? We all have problems concentrating. Have you tried making a list?’

It didn’t take me long to realise that I’d heard this sort of ‘advice’ more than a few times before:

‘Major depression? We all get sad. Have you tried baking?’

‘Chronic fatigue? We all get tired. Have you tried yoga?’

‘Anxiety disorder? We all get stressed. Have you tried camomile tea?’

Perhaps if I started each day by whisking a few eggs, doing a couple of stretches, and sipping some camomile tea then I’d be cured. But I doubt it. More likely, it’d just be enormous waste of eggs.

It still surprises me how often, and how eagerly, people like to volunteer their ‘solutions’ to my problems. Especially those with no experience of ADHD, depression, or indeed any mental health problem of any kind. In this vein, I’ve been thinking that I might start offering free piloting lessons. I’ve never actually flown a plane, but I’m pretty skilled at running around with my arms outstretched shouting ‘Nyyyrrrrr!’, which surely makes me more qualified than most armchair psychiatrists?

More realistically, I guess I should just learn to ignore most ‘advice’ when it comes in:

‘Thank you for your advice. Your recommendation will now be evaluated by a leading expert in my life and circumstances (ie me) before being considered for implementation. Please note: due to a high volume of unsolicited comments, all suggestions below an undefined quality threshold may be summarily dismissed without explanation’

The problem is this assumes I – myself – am capable of recognising the difference between what’s helpful and what isn’t. Which I’m not. There are a lot of myths about ADHD, many of which I’m only just beginning to unwrap. I suspect it’ll take a long time to understand what my new diagnosis really means for me. So, in the meantime…

‘Nice to meet you – I’ve just been diagnosed with ‘naughty adult syndrome’ – what did you say your name was again?’

Why Facebook makes me sad

‘You can’t judge a book by its cover’

Back in the day, I used to take a mischievous delight in challenging anyone who I ever heard say this.

‘Really? How else do you decide whether to buy a book? And what’s the point of the cover if not to help you make a judgement about whether it’s worth reading?

So, yes, I’m a pedantic pain in the arse.

Thankfully, the advent of ebooks and online reviews means people can now dispense this old wisdom without fear of such irritating interruptions. And there’s a lot of wisdom there to take. Both as a general warning against judging any situation too quickly, and – more importantly in the context of mental health – that appearances can be deceptive.

Games you should play with your pussy
Warning: despite the cover illustration, this book contains no useful advice whatsoever about how to teach your cat to play chess‘ < Thank goodness for online reviews, ay?!

In other words, that friend of yours with the seemingly perfect life? Behind closed doors he spends his hours sat on a three legged stool eating nothing but pink bubble gum whilst talking to his pet caterpillar.

I was recently reminded of this problem, when I found myself uniquely on the other side of the lens.

A colleague was suffering from stress, and experiencing some of the same symptoms I had last year. Sadly, she was in too much of a rush for a proper chat, so as she was leaving I offered a quick warning…

‘Take it easy and don’t let yourself get too stressed. You don’t want to end up like me!’

Her reply?

‘Oh, I wish’

As I walked away, and thought about her tone and body language, the horror began to hit. She wasn’t – as I had automatically assumed – being cheekily sarcastic. This was genuine envy… I thought about running after her:

‘Wait! Things aren’t as they appear! I’m actually severely depressed and in constant inner turmoil! In fact, I’d barely finished sobbing in the toilets when I bumped into you!’

Alas, the moment was gone. But, the lesson was learnt. If even I – the most openly screwed-up person I know – can appear enviable, then you really really can’t trust outside appearances.

Which brings me onto Facebook. That great forum of baby/animal/food photos, ‘inspirational’ quotes’ and – as I recently shouted in a fit of bitterness:

Blatant self-aggrandising propaganda!!!

Five minutes of looking at my Facebook feed, and you’d be hard pressed not to conclude everyone else has millions of friends, are in happy relationships, and are doing the jobs of their dreams. And when they’re not working, they’re ‘checking in’ at trendy restaurants, drinking exotic cocktails, and uploading bizarre pictures of their legs (or hotdogs, I can’t always tell the difference).

These days, it’s almost inconceivable to do something charitable without making sure everyone else knows about it. (Image from The Other Courtney – who, at the end of this fantastic blog post on online bragging, dares her readers to ‘perform random acts of kindness and don’t tell anyone’)

The positive thinking brigade would probably tell me this should make me happy. That I should be happy that my friends are living such amazing lives… While I’m lying in bed, barely able to wash and feed myself.

But… Well… It’s not quite that easy, is it? Because, some of us have this unhelpful habit of benchmarking ourselves against our acquaintances. And by ‘some of us’ I mean ‘almost every decent person I’ve ever met’.

This is especially problematic in cultures like the UK, where people have an unhealthy obsession with ego and status. Keep a stiff upper lip. Don’t wash your dirty linen in public. And whatever you do, don’t give an honest reply if someone asks, ‘How are you?’!

In this context, it seems only natural that so many of us experience schadenfreude; that guilty pleasure when bad things happy to other people. It’s not that we’re fundamentally evil. It’s just that we long to feel that we’re not the only ones with messy and challenging lives.

I, for example, experience very mixed emotions when a friend confesses they’re suffering from mental health problems. Clearly, I’d rather they didn’t. I want my friends to be happy and healthy, whereas I wouldn’t wish depression on anyone. But at the same time… And I feel quite ashamed of admit this… it is a relief to know I’m not the only nut in the house.

For a ‘social utility’ that promises to ‘connect people with friends’ this might be why I (and many others) often feel so sad and lonely after using Facebook. It just doesn’t support the kind of interactions that make me feel accepted for who I am. Don’t get me wrong, it’s nice when I upload a photo, or post a status, that gets a lot of ‘likes’. But the reverse, is sadly doubly true. The times when you most need a hug, and upload a vulnerable or very personal status, are exactly the times when you’ll be ignored.

How we’re treated on Facebook can really influence our mood. (Image shamefully copied from Spo-Reflections. I doubt he got permission from Charles Schulz either…)

Which is why, last month, I left Facebook. I wouldn’t advise the same for everyone – Facebook is, like it or not, a part of modern life. But I would advise you to think about how you use Facebook and, in particular, how you tend to feel after using it. One thing that might help, is this little tip from Oliver Burkeman‘s ‘Help! How to become slightly happier and get a bit more done‘ (which, by the way, everyone should read). Next time you’re on Facebook looking forlornly at someone’s show-off holiday pics (or perhaps even in real life when someone’s boasting about themselves) just imagine a little box pop up that says,

Don't Forget: This person is barely holding things together

Because you can’t judge a Facebook friend by their cover photo.