It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society…

The headline is a quote from the late Indian philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti. Today is World Mental Health Day; you would imagine that mental health would be important every day, but what do I know…

I hate the way the media covers mental health. They do that thing where they drop their voice and tilt their head to their side like they are talking to a 5-year-old girl who is offering them an imaginary cookie. Or else we get the heartwarming story of the guy who lost everything before finding redemption; there’s a certain formula to these stories.

The greatest lie in our Western Capitalist culture is the individualisation of Mental Health. Anxious? Depressed? Not sleeping well? It’s your own stupid fault; you are not doing enough mindfulness. Overworked or getting bullied by your boss? You need more resilience training.

Now, if one person in a hundred has a mental health problem, it’s their issue, but when a quarter of the population has an issue, we really have to start looking at our culture and society.

For the past few months, I have had a constant level of background anxiety. Dr Google tells me this is ‘generalised anxiety disorder’. It’s nothing specific, more a general feeling of dread. I prefer to call it the fear because it sounds cooler.

I can function fine and appear normal (well, as normal as I ever get), but the fear is always there, lurking in the background. Occasionally the fear grows larger, and I get snappy or angry.

Now I am more than comfortable admitting this because I imagine a lot of you are feeling the same. The world is abso-feckin-lutely terrifying at the moment. We had the pandemic; then just when that was over, we had the Ukraine invasion and the potential for nuclear war any day now. Should we survive that, we have the cost of living crisis and climate catastrophe to look forward to.

If someone was sauntering down the street with a smile on their face and whistling a happy tune, then we would think they are the crazy ones.

Anger is an interesting emotion as it is rooted in trauma and anxiety. If you asked me to do a word association about growing up in inner-city Belfast during the Troubles, anger would be top of my list. I have memories of wizened neighbours with thousand-yard stares and a Woodbine constantly in the corner of their mouths. Now I am older, I realise this was the stress of the Troubles; they were probably also necking valium like they were Smarties. Living on their nerves, as my ma used to say. Although the Troubles are now long gone, there are still a lot of people with trauma and intergenerational trauma. Even those with no direct experience of violence could not help but be affected by living through such crazy times. About ten years ago, I was chatting with a guy who used to be an aid worker. He told me when he went to a place where something terrible had happened, like the Rwandan Genocide, there was a weird background vibe in the air. He said Belfast had that same vibe. I thought he was joking, but he was perfectly serious.

Now being a fella with a good degree of self-awareness, I know what the supposed solutions are. We need to cut down on news and social media. Cut down the caffeine and eat more healthy. Get more sleep and exercise. Get off the internet and read more books. You can do all this, but you are still left with the challenge of trying to stay sane in a crazy world. I have written before about my struggles to consume less news and stay the feck off Twitter and Reddit, but it is extremely hard in practice. Going into the shop this morning, I saw the faces of the victims of the tragic Donegal blast on the front pages of the papers. Turning on my computer, I was greeted with the news of Russia shelling Ukrainian civilians. Even relaxing stations like RTE Gold or BBC 6 Music still have news bulletins – there is no escape from the unrelenting misery. We don’t watch live TV in our house, so when we visit my mum and they are watching the news, my 7-year-old son will run out of the room screaming when a particular terrifying story comes on. I now think he has the right attitude, and I now also go and sit in the parlour until it’s over. People say we need to be informed, and we have a civic duty to be aware of what is going on. But mainlining all the world’s misery into us in real time really can’t be good for us.

The thing that makes me angry is how we lie to people. A single parent living on £60 quid a week in a crappy estate on the outskirts of Belfast pitches up at her GP to say she is feeling down. Rather than be honest with people and tell them yeah, I would be depressed in your situation too, we instead tell them a load of bollocks about low serotonin levels in their heads. We prescribe pills with umpteen side effects and then prescribe more pills to deal with the side effects of the first set of pills. Now to clarify, I am not suggesting we should not be treating mental health problems, but with the sheer quantity of pills prescribed for anxiety, depression, sleeping problems etc, it is hard not to see it as anything other than opium for the masses. In the case of the Oxycotin epidemic in the US it was literally opium for the masses.

A lot of mental health professionals are waking up to the fact that the problem is not with the individual but with society as a whole. The system is utterly broken, but we have no idea how to put it back together again. The stock advice if you have concerns about your mental health is to see your GP. I find this advice darkly hilarious as I am friends with quite a few GPs, and they have some of the worst mental health issues of all of us. Extreme overachievers constantly verging on the edge of burnout might not have many words of wisdom to offer the rest of us.

So what can you do about it? Honestly, I have no idea. The other week I found myself Googling communes in Ireland. Throwing the head up and moving to the middle of Leitrim has a certain appeal. But I would be lonely, so I do like the idea of some kind of commune, but there are not many around. However I realise there is no escaping the fear, it is like the famous Jon Kabat Zinn quote – Wherever You Go, There You Are. No matter where you hide, the fear will get you.

It’s okay not to be ok. Life is hard. Capitalism has sold us a lie. You can’t shop your way out of your problems. The new iPhone 14 Pro Max will not fill that big empty hole in your heart. No amount of botox or turkey teeth will make you feel better if you don’t love yourself.

Community is probably the best solution to our problems. I recently read the book Billy No-Mates: How I Realised Men Have a Friendship Problem by Max Dickins. It was quite a good read and reinforced the message that humans are a social species and we need other people. Inspired to take action, I set up a Whatsapp group called ‘Dads who drink’ and invited some friends to Oktoberfest in Belfast on Saturday night. Six of us went, and a good time was had by all. Sure we got absolutely trolleyed on litre steins of 6% german beer, but the main benefit was people got to escape the daily grind for 4 hours and have a bit of craic together.

Now booze may not be your thing, but you could meet up with friends for lunch or coffee. There are also lots of groups on Meetup or Facebook. Life may be miserable, but we can be miserable together, and that’s a start.

Some further reading:

I’m a psychologist – and I believe we’ve been told devastating lies about mental health article from the Guardian.

Breaking Off My Chemical Romance article from The Nation.

Lost Connections: Why You’re Depressed and How to Find Hope book by Johann Hari is a great read.

The Myth of Normal: Trauma, Illness & Healing in a Toxic Culture a new book by Gabor Mate. If you are short on time, he has been interviewed on umpteen podcasts like Dr Chatterjee.

My Break Glass in an emergency, I need to be cheered up fast is the No Context Brits Twitter account. Check it out; it is hilarious. There is also a 24-hour Fr Ted live stream on Youtube.

If you are feeling down, do something about it. I hope in this post; it is clear that I am talking about the general stresses of modern life that affect us all and the over-medicalisation of human emotions. I do not deny that mental problems can be serious and require professional help and treatment. If you are having issues, see your GP or if you have the cash, get a private therapist. If you are in crisis, you can call Lifeline on 0808 808 8000. Stay well.

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