Next week is mental health awareness week and I’m already anxious. It’s also the first week back of the term and part of me is bracing for the inevitable leap onto the treadmill at full pace, desperately grabbing for the handrails of coffee and the sturdy support of my colleagues. Being a counsellor in a large secondary school is complex and next week puts the spotlight firmly on our area of work, but it’s one that I think is too directional and follows only certain players on the mental health stage.
I’m anticipating the light to fall on anxiety, depression, suicide, as well as debates around diagnosis, medication and looking for warning signs. There might be some promotion of strategies for coping with stress, mindfulness, and lots of other positive psychology techniques. It’s a life-coaches smorgasbord and while I respect there are a lot of good people doing great things to support people to live happy fulfilled lives there are some things that bother me greatly about the intense focus on western concepts of mental health and the mind as well as the emphasis on individual responsibility for managing your own wellness. The effect of the spotlight is to reduce mental health down to brain chemistry, managing emotional states (where some emotions are deemed not healthy) and a checklist of tasks.
So I want to scatter the light, diffract it if you will through some uncomfortable contexts that in my line of work are all too frequent yet avoided in public conversations. It’s a little like poverty – people prefer to see something about the lack of personal management of money or make it about some failure in individual people. There is the pervasive believe everyone can be well off if they just tried hard enough. Mental health is similar.
Some themes I’ve encountered in my 20 years working in schools that I think need to be considered as much as discussions about depression etc:
Family violence is traumatic – whether it be physical, verbal, psychological, sexual and it happens!
Sexual abuse is traumatic for all people and it happens across cultures and genders
Adults rarely think about how the ways they speak to their children and about them impacts on their well-being – we’ve had generations of values that suggest put-downs, harsh language, smacking and basically denigrating children and young people is good for their character. The other end of the spectrum is also unhelpful both are harmful for developing balance
Few adults say ‘I’m sorry’ to their children and take responsibility for their actions
Bullying happens in families first and in other community settings, not just schools – young queer people of all cultures are often more exposed to this
Trauma impacts on the brain – especially a developing brain, but also adult brains (see my blog on the limbic system). Young people can experience post traumatic stress (PTS) just like adults.
Young people are resilient but they need adults to listen and BELIEVE THEM when they talk about abuse and support for who they are as people
There is an expectation to be happy 24/7 these days – normal responses to grief, loss, stress are being lost to medicalisation – thanks google
The future is uncertain rather than bright for many young people – schools are also very stressful places. NCEA requires them to be on their game for 3 years! Good grief people of my generation came out of hibernation for about 3 weeks for exams. That level of sustained pressure is not good for anyone (including teachers).
Finally we need to critique the separation of mind and body and recognise that this is simply one way of viewing people and might not be the most useful in the 21st Century. Bringing in the range of spectrums of perspectives from other cultures could enable new conversations that move beyond the single white spot that is white western health concepts that leave many in the dark, isolated and invisible.
I haven’t had a lot of sleep the last few nights and it’s having a curious effect on my body and awareness. My senses seem dulled and strangely sensitive and I’m not sure why I am finding my piles of washing amusing. Noises and smells seem to move through me triggering cascading thoughts memories and ideas that seem impossible to guide or shape into anything coherent. I’m out of it but what is it that I am out of?
Had I taken something to get into this state I might be judged as irresponsible or reckless and warned against the dangers of messing with brain chemistry. We sanction the body and its uses in so many ways including what we are allowed to perceive through our physical and non-physical selves. The policing of consciousness, pleasure and desire is not always obvious and although we might know instinctively that there could be more to experience or want to learn more through experience, the fear of being ostracised, ridiculed, judged or excluded by others pulls us into line and so we publically agree ‘drugs are bad’ or if we want to take up a resisting position we must do it within the acceptable discourses available – such as legitimisation via scientific research or medicine.
I don’t know if I would recommend sleep deprivation, it’s pretty hard to sell. Maybe it could be a gateway phenomenon that leads to other natural highs like laughing lots or taking in a concert or potentially the most dangerous of both dance festivals! Oh what might the world come to if we danced all night outside in limestone sink holes to pumping music and glorious night skies.
Better stick to something safe and legal like alcohol.
I’m going to muscle in on the fitness business, because it’s ever-bodies business. Since the inception of this peculiar separation of mind and body a vast industry has created such an array of devices to work out that beds have evolved to be at least 10 inches taller. I remember as a kid seeing spring hand grips at home, wall springs from the 1950’s (which doubled as face slammers and hair pinchers), then came the bull-worker – I still don’t get it. The thirst for the next thing or hit was eagerly taken up by a culture sold on a diet of ‘healthy body healthy mind’. Has the pendulum swung too far? While there is a growing ‘brain gym’ world I’m not convinced this bridges an ever growing gap. But I think I have a novel solution if there is a budding entrepreneur out there willing to take a punt.
For those who still want the full gym experience such as treadmills and stationary bikes: When deciding what level to set, speed, intensity why not chose an interactive thinking conversation or challenging idea. Your personal trainer could be there to ask or if you don’t have one a programme pre-set that allows you to watch clips or movies that push the boundaries of concepts. I’m thinking there might need to be some upgrades such as catch nets for those moments where someone stops running while their imagination and wondering expands and forgets they have a conveyer belt under them.
There could even be specialist thinking and conversation gyms. Posters of philosophers, visionaries and paradigm challenging ideas litter the walls. Racks of art magazines and classical music blaring. Imagine, philosophy ‘spin’, cross science fit, creativity wrestling, and yoga – yeah just normal yoga. Spotters might correct your line of questioning or keep conversations well balanced. I can imagine gym gossip going something like:
‘Have you seen Sam’s line of question?’
‘yeah wonder what s/he’s on?’
‘dunno think I spotted a red pill.’
‘Wow that was some heaving thinking being pushed.’
‘Definitely, but was it natural, reckon there might be some illicit conscious performance enhancing substances involved, I suspect DMT.’
‘Hey what’s your programme?’
‘Well did some heavy chess yesterday, so just going to hit the art’s today.’
‘Ok, well watch out for those DOM’S – delayed onset of mental soreness.’
‘Nah, all good – will just have a long Bach.’
I scowl with frustration in the mirrored lenses of my glasses that are smeared with sweat and sun tan lotion. Damp patches growing as the summer heat refuses to surrender its suffocating mask of humidity. My hair pulled back in a pony tail does little to alleviate this. Crawling under the nearest Pohutukawa the dappled light offering a temporary reprieve but my skin aches for the cool caress of a delicate breeze. The temporary disorientation gives way to annoyance as a picnic blanket occupies the private space I had hoped to accommodate. Carnal urges to kick sand all over the place are pushed aside as I move toward another tantalising dark corner of the beach. Fingers already reaching deep inside my bag to fondle the corners of my book in anticipation. I duck under the low slung branches, thick matted aerial roots like hair brush my cheek. The blazing glare behind me I take a moment to orientate myself in the strobing shadows. There it is, the solid outline of sand untouched by the blowtorch outside. The cool sand pushing between my toes and the loamy smells beckoning I need no more seduction. I throw myself onto my towel and grasp the generous mass of literary flesh that is The Luminaries and devour every word. My quiet ecstasy as the words penetrate layers of my consciousness pulling me into a void filled with imagery and mystery. I am between worlds now and letting go, surrendering to the pleasure and delight of my heart and mind no longer being caged. My lips curled in a half smile and a tear of joy moves to the corner of my eye, lashes holding it until the surface tension gives way.
My neck aches, I reach inside for something to rest my head on. There is another book that might do the trick. Fifty…