Monday, 11 September 2017

World Suicide Prevention Day

Suicide is a hard thing to talk about, for so many reasons. The idea that anyone could possibly feel so worthless, so empty that they no longer wish to exist is nothing short of devastating. And, of course, the consequences of suicide are horrific for everyone involved. 

But, more than this, suicide is a topic many of us shy away from not because it is unpleasant but because, thankfully, we simply do not understand it. We do not understand what it means for the thought of dying to consume, to overpower every other thought. We cannot conceive how it occurs to a person to decide that killing themselves would be best for everyone, including their families. And it is nigh on impossible for anyone of rational mind to truly sympathise with how it feels to be quite so desperate to disappear. 

This does not, however, mean that we should not talk about suicide. Nor does it mean that it is impossible to help someone if we have not been in that position ourselves. 

Sadly, I am far more experienced than I would like in communicating with and supporting people for whom hope seems non-existent and have come up with ten considerations to help anyone deal with the same situation:

Image sourced from here.

  1. Make no assumptions
    There are a million different reasons why a person might be driven to suicide. They might well have had something terrible happen to them, seeking an urgent escape from intense emotion. Equally, some people do not see the point in existence: without anything bad ever having happened, they simply do not wish to be alive. Never make assumptions or, even, predictions as to why a person feels as they do because this runs the risk of missing crucial information that could help them. Simply listen.

  2. Stay calmWhen a person confides a wish to die, or, even, attempts to do so, it is only natural to react with crazed distress, upset or surprise. Some people might even find themselves displaying anger towards the suicidal person. Instinctive though these responses are, it is important to always try to refrain from displaying anything other than complete calm. It is likely that someone on the brink of ending their life is already very distressed and confused by their thoughts and emotions. In order to help the person to regain perspective, it is important to refrain from contributing to their distress and help them to feel that the situation does not have to be devastating.
  3. Don't guilt-trip
    People do not, generally, kill themselves out of spite. It is not an act of self-fulfillment, seeking to destroy the lives of other; it is an act of self-hatred, wherein the person truly believes that those they care about would be better without them. This is not to say that they do not think others would be upset by their parting but, rather, that their thought processes lead them to a confident conclusion that they should not exist. They will already feel guilty. They will already acknowledge the pain it might cause. They will already hate themselves quite enough. Guilt-tripping and fear-jerking will never work.
  4. Do remind that people care
    This is not to say, however, that people do not need reminding that they are cared about by many. It is possible for a mind to feel lonely even when it is surrounded by others. Sometimes, a little guidance is necessary to help a person acknowledge that, no matter how little they care about themselves, there are others who truly care about them.
  5. Don't apply logic to feeling Mental illness is not logical. Feelings and physical responses do not always correspond to thoughts or environmental stimulus and, as such, it is impossible to logic with such intense emotion. Correcting a person's thoughts as though it is so easy to feel better is patronising and ineffective. Equally, trivialising the extent of a person's feelings, saying 'I felt really sad once', only serves to further isolate them. You are not that person and cannot, therefore, ever understand how they feel. Please don't pretend to.
  6. Do challenge irrational thoughts
    On the other hand, some people become so tired of challenging their thoughts that they simply cease to do so. It is important to help people to identify the flaws in their thoughts about themselves and their existence, proving to them that they might not be that bad a person after all.
  7. Tell the person that they are safe
    Very often, if a person has told you that they are having suicidal thoughts, it is because they want help. In these cases, telling them that they are safe and that you will help them to be okay reassures them that they have done the right thing in telling you and helps to remove them, temporarily, of the weighty responsibility of caring for themselves.
  8. Do not assume that the person would be honest in saying they are not safe
    Sometimes, people want to die. Actually want to die. This is not to say that they cannot be happy. Nor is it to say that there has never and will never be a time that they wish to live. But, in that moment, their only purpose is to end their lives and they would not risk telling you that this is the case for fear that you would stop them. So many times I have known friends sent home from hospital because they said they had no intention of killing themselves, overjoyed at how easy it had been to escape to a new opportunity to try. Do not assume that they would be honest with you, no matter what you think you know. A life rests on it.
  9. Focus on the immediate
    A person who wishes to die has seen a world without them in it. They have removed themselves of a future and, as such, are likely to find difficulty visualising a future that they never expected to happen. As such, when at their most vulnerable, all the person needs help to focus on is the immediate. What are they going to do right this very second? What are they feeling right now? What can they hear? What can they see? What is happening now? All they need to survive is now.
  10.  Remind the person that they are not alone
    No matter the circumstances, no matter what else is happening in the person's life, in this moment, you are there with them and there for them. Do not let them forget this. Sometimes, one person, one set of ears and one pair of open arms is all that is needed to bring someone back out from their suffering just long enough to save their life. 

Friday, 1 September 2017

6 Weeks of Summer - Finding Meaning

If there is one thing more likely than any other to influence poor mental health, it is a lack of meaning. Without purpose, activities, be they day-to-day or out of the ordinary, seem pointless and depression can quickly come knocking.

Those with regular, meaningful things to do have a reason to get up each morning and far less time to sit questioning their existence. As such, finding meaning seems to be a logical place to end my search for mental wellbeing.

But exactly what is 'meaning' and just how does one find it?

Image sourced from here.

For some, meaning is obvious. A nurse must care for their patients, a teacher for their students. A parent's existence is somewhat defined by their role in caring for every one of their child's needs. Meaning is something we find in our roles, our titles and our relationships. But what happens when this is not enough?

There is a general assumption that helping others, 'changing the world', as it were, has the power to not only provide purpose, but completely transform a person's outlook.

This year, I have volunteered for a children's charity, volunteered in a soup kitchen and food bank and worked supporting adults with learning disabilities. I have tried, as far as I can, to give what little time, money and skill I have to doing something purposeful, something worthwhile. And, in the process, I have learnt a few things...

Firstly, this world is a horribly cruel place. Acknowledging this in such a front-line, confrontational way makes the morbid truth inescapable, which leads, naturally, to the obvious question of how spending time in such circumstances could possibly improve a person's mental health.

Which brings me to the second thing I learnt: this world is a remarkably beautiful place. A place where humans do incredible things, take enormous steps to help one another and, in the most awful of circumstances, shine the brightest lights of positivity possible. Volunteering in circumstances where help is needed does, above all else, introduce hope.

And, in all the time spent doing something worthwhile, time spent thinking about other things is, at least in part, reduced. Instead, a feeling that, for any length of time, you have done something worth while creeps in through the darkness, reminding you that it is possible to feel okay.

Over the past six weeks, I have not sought to cure every mental illness with revolutionary alternatives to medicine. Instead, I have trialled some simple things that could have a positive effect on the mental wellbeing of anyone and everyone. For me, one thing has become certain: sometimes, the most obvious things are obvious for a reason...they work.

Wherever your summer ends, I hope you are happy, healthy and ready for something new this Autumn.

Friday, 25 August 2017

6 Weeks of Summer - Social Connection

Loneliness is bad for our health. Of this fact, health professionals and researchers from a range of perspectives are certain. Isolation promotes depression and depression leads to other health problems.

It therefore follows that social connection - spending time talking and interacting with others - is an important part of strengthening and protecting one's mental health. 

Sadly, this notion can lead to something of a paradox, as many mental health issues cause fear of social situations. Anxiety disorders, for example, can lead to extreme panic attacks when surrounded by others, whilst depression can remove someone of their desire to interact. Equally, some people might strive to conceal aspects of their illness, such as self-inflicted wounds, and, in the process, decide that it is easier to simply withdraw from the public eye.

Considering the many obstacles that those with ill-mental health might face in their efforts to see friends or family, just how realistic is social connection as a means to improve one's psychological well-being? In other words, does it work enough to be worth a try?

Image sourced from here.

Five weeks ago, I broke up from work (partially) for the summer. Having always been what can only be described as an anti-social git, turning down invites to events because, quite frankly, I'd rather sit in my pyjamas, I decided that it was time to see just how much socialising could achieve. 

Goal set, I allowed myself to put aside the essays every once in a while, leave the pyjamas unworn for just a few more hours and accept the invitations of friends and family. I went for a play-date with one friend's new puppy, had a double-date style catch-up with a second and went out on a Cardiff adventure with a third. I even broke my rule of never going out for drinks, accepting that - despite the fact that the only liquid ever to cross these lips is H20 - I might just enjoy myself. 

And, in the end, I did. Really did. Things that had been grating on my mind for a while took a calm and quiet break and laughter filled my usual silence. I was reminded of the fact that other things are going on in the world and was given opportunities to articulate exactly what I've 'been up to', which was surprisingly more than I had thought. 

More importantly, I went to bed those nights with a different set of memories to fall asleep to and, when I returned to my normal routine the following day, it was not nearly as monotonous as on previous occasions. 

I have always enjoyed being on my own. I do not mind silence or 'dull' days. And my inclination to go out rarely peaks above 'or we could not'. Despite this, it is not hard to see how social connection can have a positive impact on one's mental health.

For those who find the prospect of socialising to be a grotesque, never to be repeated nightmare, it is worth considering that, the more we spend time alone, the more we are left with our own thoughts. When those thoughts are sad or troublesome, the isolation simply consolidates their strength, upping the volume of those niggling voices. 

Making new social connections is not easy, especially when mental illness sticks a large foot in the way. But I have no doubt that loneliness and isolation serve only to make our mental health far, far worse. As such, making time to spend with others is, most definitely, a good idea. 

Wednesday, 23 August 2017

The True Crisis

Mental health crises are scary. Mental health crises are unpredictable. Mental health crises can be catastrophic.

And yet, no matter how many times I am faced with worst-case scenarios and revelations of previously unseen mental traumas, I find myself remaining completely and inexplicably calm. No sense of horror, no feeling of great shock or disturbance, just a general sense that this is nothing other than a completely ordinary day. 

Remaining calm has its uses: crying and panicking in the face of someone who is, themselves, in a state of mental panic will never achieve anything more than extended upset. Certainly, when someone is in a position of heightened anxiety or depression, a calm and caring tone is exactly what is needed to support them to clamber out of their dark hole. But that does not make it any less alarming to find that one appears to be completely immune to the horrors of mental illness- the absence of feelings seems a little too cold to be normal. 

Image sourced from here.

And normal is the issue: the only reason I can see as to why I might be able to remain so calm, so unsurprised in the face of adversity is because it is, to me, really, very normal. That is a truly terrifying realisation. In order for mental illness to be normal, it must be common and, in order for it to be common, an alarming number of people must be suffering in some way. 

Behind my calm face and normal heart rate is, therefore, the rather sad realisation that mental illness is now more normal, more expected than mental health. People of all ages, backgrounds and abilities are being sucked into the most horrific of black holes and, for those of us left on solid ground, flinging out the rescue rope has become as typical an affair as brushing one's teeth. This has got to be wrong.

Of course, the study of such affairs need not be so cynical: it is entirely possible that mental illness has always been this common, making the only difference the frequency with which people seek help - and seek to help - to cope with their thoughts and feelings. I suspect that, as is often the case, an element of this is true, meaning that, as a whole, society's ability to remain calm when faced with mental crises is a good thing. 

Despite this, I can't help but feel a little alarmed by the realisation that the things people think about or do to themselves no longer shocks me. Perhaps I am overreacting or, perhaps, we, as a society, have a far greater problem than we could ever have thought. Either way, the idea that mental illness is in anyway normal remains nothing short of unsettling.  

Monday, 21 August 2017

More for Less

In the past week, I have been sunning myself in the very lovely seaside town of Weymouth. By day, I have wandered past what I believe to be the most beautiful sea in the country and, by night, I have slept beneath the stars with only a tent to separate me from the surrounding fields and wildlife. 

Nothing, to my mind, could come any closer to perfection.

Having spent far too many hours a day, for far too many months, simply sat in a small, dark room, typing essay after essay, I finally had the opportunity to simply relax and enjoy life for all that it is. I had some lovely quality time with my family, got to stand and just absorb the most wonderful of views, all courtesy of nature, and chill to my heart's content.

Crucially, for the past week I have been screen free. That is, I have not once looked at a phone, a computer, a tablet, a television screen or anything else of the sort. No cameras, no social media and definitely no work. Just me, myself and I. 

It was only when we came home that I realised just how strong an impact technology seems to have on the lives of everyone, including me: a self-professed techno-phobe. Almost immediately, the TV was stuck on and I suddenly found myself caring about the lives of Donald Trump or the characters in the soaps. The laptop screen burst into life and I spent an entire hour ploughing through boring email after email about, really, nothing. And, worst of all, I found myself logging on to the wondrous world of Facebook, simultaneously returning to the world of caring not just about what many hundreds of people were doing with their lives, but with how my life compares to theirs and, even, what they think of me.

The return was really rather devastating. 

There is no disputing the fact that technology and communication have their uses. Certainly, my ability to find opportunities to write and share my ideas is almost solely reliant on the existence of media. And there is something quite endearing about being able to see those we might have otherwise forgotten about living happily. But, between all of the screens and the many sights that they show, it seems that all we are really exposing ourselves to is noise, an infernal din of alarming volumes. 

Interesting though some of these things might have been, in my week without them, not once did the absence of any such device cross my mind. In fact, I think it quite possible that, had I remained in that tent forever, I would not have ever mourned the loss of any one of those gadgets. Though I had so much less in terms of social connection or knowledge of the world unfolding, I was, in fact, happier.

Part of this, I believe, comes from the fact that, actually, the more we connect, we are, in reality, less connected. The time we spend learning via a screen about what others had for tea is time that we could otherwise have spent with physical people, making eye contact and engaging in actual conversation. Furthermore, for all the time that we spend plonked in front of the television, eyes glued to a screen, we fail to watch the world happen by itself. We catch cleverly shot, well-edited snapshots of worlds afar without ever paying attention to the world directly in front of us. 

All of this is made even worse by the fact that the majority of what we see in the media and online world is, sadly, miserable. Removing oneself from the horrors of politics, war and terror - or, even, the break-ups and disputes of social media acquaintances - will naturally result in the world on our shoulders being a far lighter carry. And, of course, our health is far better promoted by long walks and fresh air than it will ever be by bright screens and the sedentary life.

All in all, the tech-free, natural world left me feeling healthier and happier than I have in a long time. In filling my life with far less, I actually got far more out of it.

So the question is this: just where does the balance lie between technology for good and technology for bad? At what point do we reject the screens and just start living? Maybe we all need to cut our technology use down, just a tad. Or, perhaps, the way to be truly happy is to rid ourselves of it all. For good.