What I Learned About Mental Illness at the Bendigo Writers Festival 2018

The Bendigo Writers Festival 2018 featured many international guests. I attended the session of British writer Matt Haig at the Capital Theatre. His subject was the title of his new book, Notes on a Nervous Planet, which explores how to stay sane in our fast-moving, anxiety-inducing world. Haig spoke of his own experience of mental illness.

Haig had a nervous breakdown in his mid-20s. Three more years of depression followed. He faced a daily battle to walk to the corner shop without collapsing to the ground. Yet he rejected any suggestion that he needed help.

Haig wrote about his struggle with depression in his book Reasons to Stay Alive, published in 2015. Following the success of the book, he was thrust into the role of Mental Health Ambassador. He felt a fraud being portrayed as an expert in mental illness when he was susceptible to periods of depression.

Lesson one: Recognise your level of expertise. Don’t offer vulnerable people something you’re not qualified to give.

Haig was getting lots of emails every day from people asking for advice and saying how much his book had helped them, while he was trying to deal with his own anxieties. He didn’t feel competent to address their concerns. He says,

“You are dealing with people’s lives, so you have to be so careful.”

Haig thinks the stigma surrounding mental illness is fading as people become more comfortable talking about mental health. But this is still somewhat selective. He says,

“Most people would now say they’re OK about depression and anxiety. But certain mental health conditions have as much stigma as ever, for instance, eating disorders and self-harming.”

Haig argues that we need to change our perception of mental illness. He believes this can be achieved by erasing the line between mind and body. He says it would be a game-changer if we could place mental illness on an equal footing with stigma-free physical issues such as asthma and arthritis. He says,

“You can’t draw a line between a body and a mind any more than you can draw a line between oceans.”

Lesson two: Our minds and bodies interact with each other. We need to understand how this relationship works.

Haig says,

“We need to be able to view mental health with the same clear-headedness we show when talking about physical health.”

We don’t feel guilt and shame when we develop flu symptoms or cramp when getting out of bed. But guilt and shame are two emotions often experienced by people with a mental illness.

Haig says,

‘There is no more shame in mental illness than having tonsillitis.’

Haig believes it is necessary to remove the ‘false dichotomy’ between mental and physical illness. He says,

“Many of the symptoms of anxiety and depression are physical. People with depression experience fatigue and aching limbs. And people who are prone to panic attacks experience a racing heart.”

Haig is concerned we place too greater importance on physical health at the expense of our mental health. This imbalance is reflected in our preoccupation with appearances. How we look takes precedence over what is going on in our minds. Our thinking is dictated to by how we want to be seen.

Lesson three: Mental health is just as important as physical health.

Haig is troubled by the effect of social media on our mental health. He says,

“While we acknowledge things like alcohol or drugs can be bad for our mental health, we don’t really understand how more day-to-day stuff affects us.”

He says he developed a bad habit of charging his mobile phone by his bed. While it might not seem such a big deal he decided to charge his phone in the kitchen. He says it made a huge difference. He now has his breakfast before he checks his emails and Facebook and Twitter.

Haig recognises the danger social media poses. He identifies certain aspects of social media that may be detrimental to a person’s mental health.

1. Social media is isolating.

Social media is considered a force for good. The potential for anonymity allows people to open up about problems when they might not feel able to do so in ‘real life.’ For individuals who experience social anxiety, it offers a way of connecting with like-minded people.

Even though opportunities for social connection have never been greater we are also experiencing a loneliness epidemic. Social media is not a ‘safe place.’ This is because social media use invites comparison which often leads to feelings of inadequacy, anxiety and self-loathing. Rather than feeling welcomed and accepted users become the object of criticism and abuse.

We are relational beings, designed to connect with one another. We are physically, emotionally, and spiritually dependent on each other. There is no substitute for a look of understanding, a word of encouragement, or a loving embrace.

2. Social media is distracting.

Social media can provide a happy distraction. It allows us to connect with our friends and to pursue our interests. But natural curiosity has a way of driving us to want to know what everyone else is doing. Sometimes it might even feel like ‘stalking.’ If anyone does contact or mention you it becomes an imperative to drop everything and respond. For many people the number of accounts and feeds becomes overwhelming. Distractions not only lower our productivity, they also increase our stress.

As a writer, Haig finds social media a great way to tell stories and to test new ideas. But he finds time can slip away. He says,

“You can feel really guilty and unproductive and bad about yourself if you’ve spent three hours on Twitter pointlessly. You certainly don’t feel better about yourself.”

Haig believes social media use is robbing us of ‘the sacred spaces of time.’ It is in the uninterrupted spaces that we discover ourselves. Perhaps this is why we a drawn to social media. We don’t have to deal with who we are. Social media allows us to project ourselves in whatever way we choose. The tragedy is we never discover our ‘true self.’

3. Social media is addictive.

Haig says,

‘Social media addiction is still not a recognised thing. I’m sure one day it will be.’

When we think of the word ‘addiction’ we think of compulsiveness. It conveys the idea of doing something even when you don’t want to do it. It is a physical and psychological need to act in a certain way, to the point where it could be harmful to you. We have surrendered the right to say ‘No!’ at least in the immediate.

Many people check and interact on social sites constantly throughout the day. And they have no idea how much actual time they spend on social media.

Haig says,

“Platforms like Twitter and Instagram try to get us as emotionally and psychologically invested in them as possible.”

He adds,

“Twitter is a useful format for sharing issues but it has become an ‘outrage machine.’ Passively scroll down your feed and it just seems like a fireball of anger.”

Haig worries about the psychological fallout of such exposure. He says,

“Platforms like Twitter create divisions, exploit our insecurities and risk our health.”

Lesson four: Social media use can be addictive
4. Social media is manipulative

It might come as a surprise to some but most of the social network companies, as well as the social content creators, are working hard every day to make their networks so addictive that you can’t resist them. According to recent statistics, young people spend up to 9 hours a day on social platforms.

Social media manipulates its uses by

– preying on their insecurities
– exploiting their lack of self-control
– altering the way they view themselves

Haig says,

“As our social spaces increasingly become digital spaces, we need to look seriously and urgently at how these new, business-owned societies are affecting our minds. We must try to see how the rising mental health crisis may be related to the way people are living and interacting.”
Lesson five: Our physical health and our mental health are shaped by society.

Author: Bruce Rickard

Reflections on Suicide and Staying Alive: My son's suicide changed everything. I felt an obligation to understand why anyone would want to end their life. My regular blog posts explore the causes and prevalence of suicide and what is needed to sustain a healthy mind and a hope-filled future.

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