Mental health is back in the public discussion following the tragic death of AFL legend Danny ‘Spud’ Frawley.
It’s a shame that we only start talking about mental health again after something happens.
Growing up in the 1980s, mental health was stigmatised. Nobody talked about issues. Males were told to, ‘Man up’, and to brave through it. I was often advised, ‘Don’t worry’, and asked, ‘What do you have to worry about?’
For some, the cause of mental health issues can be obvious, e.g. a traumatic event, or a difficult upbringing. But, for others, the cause may not be clear. Clinicians can theorise about chemical imbalances, environment, and hereditary markers, but nobody genuinely knows the why behind it sometimes.
It’s not a sign of weakness. Conditions such as anxiety, depression, OCD, etc., have debilitated powerful people and towering intellectuals. These conditions don’t discriminate. They don’t care. And people who think they would overcome such a condition easily, or that it wouldn’t affect them at all, just because they’re too strong, too smart, or too wilful, just don’t know better. You might as well try that logic on a physical malaise, like a broken leg. See if that sort of attitude works there.
Many writers suffer mental health issues. I guess this is for various reasons:
- writers are extremely empathetic. How else do you write from the point of view of an elderly man one moment, a middle-aged woman the next, and a child the next? Most people only understand empathy from their own experiences, and from their own point-of-view. Writers are constantly dipping into the heads of all sorts of people, which expands (and deepens) their empathy.
- writers are often thinking about terrible stuff. We have to. Books about couples living an idyllic life, or the spy who takes a two-week vacation and sits on a Caribbean beach, don’t sell. A book about a love triangle threatening to tear a couple apart, or the spy who saves the world from annihilation, does. The brain’s not that bright also. You can put yourself in a bad or sad or angry mood just by drawing on a relatable memory. How does the brain react to thinking about all this fodder? It produces the same physiological response that it would if you were actually going through these things.
- writing is an isolating experience. As humans, we like to connect. We belong to packs. Most people go to a workplace where they interact with others. That’s not the case with writing. With writing, it’s just you and whatever you’re writing for long stretches. People become a hindrance.
There are other contributors. But these three intertwine, complement, and exacerbate one another. The result? Writers become highly sensitive, incredibly vulnerable, and feel deeply. That’s great for writing. It’s not always so great for everyday life – especially when confronting issues that should be dealt with or dismissed, rather than ruminated upon (and/or catastrophised).
Nowadays, people can talk about mental health issues without fear of being stigmatised. Unfortunately, this has provided some with an excuse for their actions. I’m sure most people can think of a celebrity or two who have cited mental health as a reason for some sort of bad behaviour. This is annoying, because it undermines those who are genuinely suffering, and generates cynicism from people who don’t legitimately understand mental health.
In 2009, I had terrible stomach pains. Months of tests couldn’t identify the problem. My anxiety exploded and I couldn’t stop imaging all the fatal things that could be wrong and were going undiagnosed. I complained to my GP I was worried the pain would get so bad that I’d end up in EMERGENCY, only for them to diagnose I’d had a panic attack. I said I didn’t want to waste their time with something that wasn’t real. My GP told me that a panic attack was real. That’s the sort of attitude you want to encounter. (As an aside, my stomach issues were later diagnosed as being a result of Fructose Intolerance.)
Nobody should invalidate what you’re going through. Mental health problems are real. Just realise that, ultimately, everything is manageable. Mental health issues can make you feel as if the world is shit, as if you’re worthless, as if there’s nowhere to go, but not one of those things is true. There are always alternatives.
Talk to somebody – family, friends, or clinicians. Reach out.
Answers are available.