I thought I Understood Mental Health, Until January.

The whole thing is so ironic, I can’t help but laugh about it now. The professed key to me gaining back control of my life sent me down a vicious spiral, which if not reversed, could have ended it. To unravel that riddle for you: in early December I was put on new anti-convulsant medication for my epilepsy, the high dosage of which sent me into a deep depression and left me suicidal. I feel rather ridiculous and over-dramatic even typing that – my nickname is Perky for goodness sake…

I am not here to relay to you my every thought and feeling during this time – it is the weekend after all – but this dramatic shift in my behaviour and mentality taught me some valuable lessons. I, like so many of us, have had my fair share of second hand experience with depression and suicide. I have seen loved ones suffer and/or lose their battle. I have endured my own periods of sadness as a form of inevitable collateral damage. But I, like so many relatives and friends, am not a depressive. At least, not usually. If there has been any silver lining to my most recent debacle, it’s that I now get it. I thought I did before, but I didn’t.

Firstly, it is only with hindsight that I can write this. At the time I was too tired to take to the keyboard; that’s presuming I had anything to say. I was also far too immersed in a thick fog of nothingness to have anything to say. So consumed by my paranoid delusions and sense of nothing that I could’t comprehend for a long while that there was anything worthy of discussion. Nothing was wrong, other than with me, of course. Everything was wrong with me.

Many of you who know me will also probably be reading this thinking “really? I never noticed anything was up!” (or maybe you did, but I’m guessing you didn’t jump to this extreme). But it was. I also learnt this year then that it’s really quite easy to pretend nothing’s wrong. To show up just enough to make people think that you’re just “really busy at the moment”, when really you’re avoiding 8/10 plans only to find yourself in bed for the fourth day in a row, feeling lonely. As I’ve seen with people close to me who are on that downward spiral, this method works until the day it doesn’t. People then tend to wonder, I used to wonder, where the burn-out came from. What changed? Why, suddenly, can’t they get their sh*t together and stick to a plan? Selfish, lazy, self-indulgent. That’s what comes to mind all too easily. Turns out, they’d had a whole load of sh*t to get together every time they got out of bed for quite a bit longer than any of us realised. And if we’re honest, we didn’t really want to be made aware of the situation while they could still pretend everything was OK.

Upon reflection therefore, the most important insight I gained was rather oxymoronic: that the behaviour displayed during a time of mental illness is 100% out of the sufferer’s control (no, they can’t just ‘snap out of it’), but also: it’s not permanent, and in some cases it’s even avoidable. Things can be done to prevent affliction, and help those who do suffer conquer their battle. The problem is, the grand narrative still dictates that it is the sufferer’s fault, and little seems to be being done to help manage this quite probably manageable problem (easier said than done, I’m aware).

I’m no doctor but I’m also not oblivious to the fact that mental illness, just like obesity for example, is clearly on the rise. And just like obesity, mental-health problems may be (partly at least) a symptom of modern life. I am not talking about a complacency society in our times of relatively high standards of living. I am talking about: the added pressures that come with social media, and the 24/7 connection provided by technology; our obsession with material goods as an indicator of success; the chemicals that we pump into our bodies with the food we eat, and/or indeed the medication we take. The list goes on.

If you look at the status-quo, however, it appears we have no clue what we’re doing. While we’re definitely talking about our ‘feelings’ more, and that cannot be underestimated, we’re certainly not making any discernible effort to modernise the infrastructure of our society to match its changes. For instance, food stores (supermarkets, take-aways, restaurants) have pledged no commitment to make the customer aware of the hormones and chemicals that many of their products contain; nor are they under any pressure to do so. Furthermore, advertising companies know exactly how to make us want more, and are relentless in their campaign to move the goal-posts of success and fulfilment. And Instead of preserving the carefree innocence of childhood – an increasingly precious phase of life – primary schools spend their time preparing for exams, starting with KS1 tests, which children sit aged 7. To put that into perspective, in Germany children have only just started school at 7. These are examples of the many facets of modern life that are largely out of the individual’s control, yet have a colossal impact on our well-being. Logically then, altering sectors such as: food production, advertising, pharmaceuticals and education to act consciously, in a way that is supportive of our mental well-being, is a necessary tool of prevention. Sadly it appears that money-making and league tables still matter more.

Of course not all mental illness is preventable, and for those who suffer it is rarely due to their lifestyle choices. However, astonishingly, while mental health problems account for around 23% of disease in the UK, it only takes up 11% of the NHS budget.*  If we all agree that the situation is much like being hit by a car or having cancer, which the NHS deals with so effectively and admirably, surely the treatment of those who fall mentally ill should be covered proportionately by the budget.

Am I wrong? If not, then where is the evidence of any such alterations? So much for the commitment by politicians to concentrate on solving Britain’s mental health crisis, the policy which shaped many of the campaigns in the 2015 general election.

My experience seems so alien now, so distant and long ago that I am able to discuss it openly, even joke about it. But I’m excruciatingly aware that for many others those thoughts and feelings are a daily battle – and that’s no laughing matter. While I don’t begin to suggest that everyone should chemically induce their own mental instability, I do make a plea for a shift in attitude. A more active approach. One that is enlightened to the genuine suffering of those with a mental illness and one that provokes change. Just like obesity and other pervading social problems, such change must be top-down if it’s to prove effective. Hence as well as educating and looking after ourselves, we must put adequate pressure on the government and big companies to invoke the necessary changes to their methods of employment.

This is a problem far bigger and more systemic than someone’s inability to ‘pull themselves together’, and it sadly cannot be solved simply by ‘talking about it’. I’ll put my hands up and say that, until this year, I myself didn’t fully understand that.

*Figures as of 2015; sourced: https://www.kingsfund.org.uk/projects/verdict/has-government-put-mental-health-equal-footing-physical-health

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I thought I Understood Mental Health, Until January.

Why We All Deserve Two Months Of Advent Festivities

Last night I went to my first carol concert of the year. And I can tell you now, I left feeling the most genuinely joyful that I have in 2016 so far.

It’s safe to say that when my fellow caroller and I arrived at Saint Stevens we were both pretty, ok thoroughly, depressed. Deadlines, cold to the bone from student-flat heating (or lack of…), tired, bored of  the semester, missing family, missing home, missing dogs, missing summer, missing warmth, missing freedom. The list that fed our wallowing self-pity was never ending. Yet when we left the church, we couldn’t stop laughing, we couldn’t care less about our imminent deadlines, and we no longer needed central heating to keep ourselves warm.

On my walk home, such a turn-around of emotion got me thinking: why are we so much more stressed this year than last? We aren’t in an honours’ year, and we’re no longer living in the prison of student halls. Then I remembered: 2016 has been a true car-crash. As if I could forget… Our petty stresses were a reflection of the more general events of attrition that has led to the global population’s general sense-of-humour failure.

Every day we are reminded of the utter insanity that this year has consisted of. Let’s remind ourselves of a few examples, just for fun:

Today BBC breaking informed me that Thomas Mair is indeed guilty of -what I proudly previously thought of as being absurdly un-British- the killing Jo Cox MP. This cruel act occurred just a week before the unprecedentedly revolutionary *cough* outrageous *cough* Brexit vote. On top of these, for the whole year we’ve had running commentary of a head-to-head, evil-meets-evil, lose-lose situation, presidential election campaign. Such narcissistic displays of power play has sapped our limited positivity despite it not even being our own elections. We are now totally, and utterly, exhausted as a body-politic.

Syria meanwhile has been shaking things up more than ever, both through their ongoing, terrible suffering on the front lines, and through the refugee crisis. Not only are we exhausted but we are now knotted in an attempted mixture of genuine empathetic grief and charity.

Then we have the multitude of European terror attacks. France has been the focus of several attacks: Paris and Nice to name the biggest. This brings all the terror so much closer to home; we are now not only exhausted and trying desperately to be empathetic, but (often conflictingly so) we are also truly fearful of our own safety.

There have been fatal earthquakes in places such as Italy, and another massive hurricane in Haiti. And on top of all these political and natural disasters we have lost so many of our national treasures, our idols. We’ve genuinely grieved the loss of many of those figures who usually we rely on to comfort and entertain us when everything goes a bit tits-up, gets a bit serious and stressful (see above 3 paragraphs…). No more inspiration from Prince, no more dry wit from Wogan, the last of the Ronnies gone. We can’t even get angry at Alan Rickman for almost cheating on Emma Thompson anymore, without forgiving him and begging him to come back to us to say “Potter” one more time.

And as it’s the era of a social media orientated, globalised world our reactions are forever scrutinised. We care too much, but if we don’t express our care whole heartedly in public we are ignorant to our surroundings. We are cruel if we don’t “pray for Paris”, but when we do we are accused to not caring about civilians in Libya or Israel or Palestine. We are so tense and stressed and “concerned” that every move we make at this point seems to make everything worse.

Normally I am a true advocate for not starting the Christmas fun until December 1st. It just makes sense right? Starting in October like that one crazy aunt, or in August like the money-grabbing retailers, is simply madness that must be protested against. Why? In case we get *bored* of Christmas before actual Christmas, or as positive action against consumerism. But this year, I say screw convention, I have had enough of protesting. There is no way that singing jingle bells whilst dancing around a Christmas market in my ridiculous chunky knit is going to get boring this year.

We’ve been through enough. My pre-carol woes were a microcosm for social anxieties concerning the global economy, global diplomacy and quite frankly, at this rate, the fate of the human race. Yet forgetting all of my problems, the petty and the slightly more serious, did more good for me than being “concerned”, or “involved” or “trying to make a difference”. I may have spent most of today in bed, watching iPlayer and eating, but I’m happy and I’m calm and I’m ready to face my to-do list whilst retaining some sanity. Turning on radio 4 this morning I laughed at the sound of Trump’s voice, rather than shiver with disgust and fear. Wouldn’t 2016 look so much better if we could laugh at the absurdity of it all and celebrate the fact that it’s going to belong to the history books oh so soon? Wouldn’t we all make better, more rational decisions if May and Corbyn wore santa outfits, and their cabinets dressed as elves for a while? Ok, maybe that’s one fantasy to many, but the idea is still valid, no?

Christmas is about uniting. It’s about celebrating. We may no longer all give it the religious focus that it once had. And yes, most of us have a pretty grim 25th with dry turkey and wet relatives. But the festive season is there to lift the spirits. It’s the one time of the year where we can really, truly, take some time to sit back and appreciate the good, have a belly giggle, and have fun without worrying about having summer bods or tickets to the best festivals. All we need is family and some Christmas lights. How refreshingly simple.

So screw the December 1st rule. We’ve tried caring and being serious, it’s quite frankly not working. This year we need a double dose of “festive”, two layers of Christmas jumpers and two rounds of We Wish You A Merry Christmas. Now excuse me while I go to my local German Market and freeze my bum off on a merry-go-round, with some mulled wine in-tow.

Why We All Deserve Two Months Of Advent Festivities

I’M A BARBIE GIRL, IN THE REAL WORLD

Mattel has announced a new range of ‘realistic’ Barbies. Customers will now be able to choose from three body types, seven skin tones, and twenty-four hair shades. While the collection may have limited direct social implications, and is undoubtedly a ploy to regain lost traction in the toy market, the latest additions do sport the badge of realism and diversity. This has to be seen as a step in the right direction.

 

As an icon and the most realistic doll out there, the plastic figure has a heavy responsibility, serving as a role model to millions of young children across the globe. So far she has failed in her duties. Adults criticise and blame her for embedding all sorts of insecurities, while their children play innocently. All the while they are unknowingly yet another generation to be conditioned to think that being anything other than a white, blonde, blue-eyed, tall ‘woman’ with a pinched waist, thigh gap and perfect boobs, is no good.

 

It’s in Barbie’s very nature to evolve: she was after all modeled on a German hooker doll, ‘Lilli’. The creator, Ruth Handler has been known to say that “every little girl needed a doll through which to project herself into her dream of her future”. Funnily enough, mothers haven’t tended to be so keen on their children dreaming of their future involving being paid for sex.

 

But so far, by way of social awareness, the company’s modifications of Barbie lie merely in her clothing: astronaut Barbie in the 60s, disco Barbie in the 80s. Never before have they dared such radical progression as to allow her to eat. Never before have they accepted that children of different races might like to play with a toy that lets them dream about their own personal future.

 

What Mattel has done is not revolutionary. Barbie isn’t the first in a line of brands, like Dove, to respond to growing resistance to society’s obsession with the visual utopia that is presented to women. Consumer demand has called for a reality check. Producers have been, albeit slowly, responding. It’s simple economics, not groundbreaking morality.

 

But the change is still significant. Even if it is the smallest of steps towards social equality. Even if it is to keep up with competitors. Even if people only buy the already existing, outdated Barbie. It’s important because toys are important cultural symbols: they reflect what we as a society deem appropriate for our children to identify with. Dolls help to shape our children’s – aka society’s future’s – view of beauty. For the individual, ‘realistic’ Barbie will hopefully go some way to show children that their own looks are iconic. Broadly speaking, children playing with dolls that are of a different colour, or body shape, or are ginger, instills acceptance, even a love of diversity.

 

Beauty ideals are not a fixed, but they are pretty entrenched in our culture. Dove may make already insecure adult women feel better about their ‘flaws’, but to really change our perception of what is beautiful, to really create a society which unanimously celebrates diversity, we must look to the impressionable souls of the future generation.

 

The designers of Barbie’s endeavours most probably boil down entirely to a need to respond to increasing competition. But so what? Their response to consumer demand is a mark of how our culture of prejudice is waning; so much that an item that has been an icon for 57 years requires dramatic revamping to avoid fading out of the market. For that reason I could not be happier with this new line of Barbies.

 

 

 

I’M A BARBIE GIRL, IN THE REAL WORLD