13th June 2018 |Phil FLANAGAN

A Mental Health crisis or a symptom of a far greater crisis?

Sad and lonely black girl feeling depressed

A recent survey carried out by the Royal College of Occupational Therapists to coincide with Mental Health Awareness week concluded that six out of ten MPs questioned feared stigma over disclosing their own battles with mental health and the resulting public backlash. The report went on to show that 80% of Parliamentarians had either suffered mental ill health themselves or supported a family member through difficulties. So why would such eminent people be scared of being associated with issues that the world at large is trying so hard to embrace with open arms? Could it be that the term “Mental Health” is not only confusing but also misleading and potentially harmful? With such a profound lack of descriptive language in the area of “Human Wellbeing” much is left to vague interpretation.

Traditionally, when one referred to mental health it was a term used in the context of mental illness to describe particular, defined psychological conditions that rendered a person unable to continue life with mental clarity and thus making cognition difficult and leading in some circumstances to a form of psychotic breakdown. Today though, when you look up the term Mental Health the definition does not only include recognised mental conditions but also makes reference to emotional health and social wellbeing. These extremely important areas need to be given equal billing and not listed as sub groups or aspects of mental health. This clumsy clumping together creates more confusion than it does clarity to areas of life that already have highly blurred lines of demarcation and definition. This could explain why numerous professionals I have talked to comment that there is no way they would want any reference to mental health mentioned anywhere on their file.

Many are now saying that society is in the grips of a mental-health crisis, documenting days lost at work and the resulting enormous cost to commerce. While it may look like we are in a mental health crisis we are in fact in the midst of a crisis of feeling. This crisis lacks understanding and acceptance for the complete expression of our emotional spectrum. It is bringing more and more people to their knees, expressing symptoms that previously were only seen as a result of mental illness. It could be argued that this crisis of feeling has always been running, like a low-grade virus that never quite takes you to your bed but just has you feeling a bit under the weather. As a result of several key factors in recent times this condition has gone from bad to worse to critical.

Feelings and emotions are not only categorised as good and bad. They can also be categorised based on false assumptions about gender. If a woman is seen sitting in a bar crying, some might conclude that she probably had one too many or it was that time of month and not think any more of it. If it were a man sitting crying it might draw more attention and awkwardness. Whereas when a guy gets angry and even raises his voice it’s more often than not labelled as just a hard day at work but a woman angry to the same extent could be labelled “psycho” and given a wide birth.

Having spent more than thirty years helping people navigate themselves through issues in life, be they physical, emotional, mental, spiritual, life purpose, or personal and professional relationships, I can say with my hand firmly on my heart that what we are calling “mental health” is for the most part the wrong label, an incorrect classification. I would agree that unaided and without help and support many experiences in life can develop and mutate into what would be labelled a mental health problem but most did not in any way, shape or form start out that way.

In order to gain understanding, as we look further into this complex situation, it is important that differentiation is made between our thinking and feeling world. It’s also important to point out that we all individually interact with our thoughts and feelings in a unique way. Yet for the most part, thoughts are logical, they make sense and you could almost say they are mathematical in nature. Whereas our feelings can be random, spontaneous, artistic, often making little sense and may not follow any pattern that can be mapped out through logic. The biggest mistake and one of the fundamental flaws is trying to understand feelings with logic. The answer will almost never make sense, “Why do you feel?” is always the wrong question. Feelings just need to be felt and expressed in a safe and healthy way. They don’t need to be understood, judged or categorised, just felt and voiced.

If our feeling world had a motto it would be: “Feel and express your feeling in a safe and healthy way UNTIL your feelings no longer needed to be felt or expressed.”

Only our feelings know what they need. How would you react if someone else were to tell you when, what and how much to eat, sleep, use the bathroom or in fact any other function of our human experience?  Yet it seems quite acceptable throughout society to police another’s feeling world. Such policing eventually imprints on us, a system of checks and balances that has us automatically dividing our feelings into categories of good and bad, right and wrong. Society has learned to morally outlaw some of our feelings, yet it cannot make the feeling disappear. It just forces them to hide away under a blanket of shame or guilt.

Like the story of the man walking the hills with a stone in his boot. After a short time of walking he feels a pain, but thinks it must be just his new boots that need walking in and continues, walking through the pain. Alongside the fact that it’s raining, he’s running late and his buddies keep telling him to stop complaining and being such a wimp. What would eventually happen if he never stopped to remove his boots? Sleeping in his boots and continuing day after day, the stone unreleased would create a blister which untreated would burst and bleed. Ignoring it further it would become infected and eventually gangrene would set in. In advanced stages he would go into shock where his symptoms would become life threatening and maybe then his friends would take his complaining seriously and medical intervention would be sought. In this comparison it is the gangrene or shock that is the “mental health”, the stone an ignored feeling.

A monumental problem has been created out of a simple need to address a situation. The lack of awareness of the existence of the stone in his boot has become a life-threatening situation. As he is finally rushed into the operating room I’m sure that none of the medical team could comprehend that what they are faced with is the result of a stone. A stone that in itself is totally insignificant, to the point that no one would probably even notice it falling to the floor as they scramble to take off his boots. I am in no way saying that mental health is not a serious issue, an issue that needs much more support. But what I am saying is that more understanding is needed to comprehend the connection between symptoms that present and the underlying cause.

Like many areas of life, this mislabelled topic of “mental health” needs to be turned on its head and a paradigm shift of monumental proportion needs to be activated to bring our awareness to a level where this confusion can be resolved. This paradigm shift could be aided with the introduction of a very simple yet profound concept, which is: “YOU CANNOT HELP WHAT YOU FEEL”, a concept that is for most outside their experience. Whether the judgment is self inflicted or directed by another, the best that most of us can hope for is to suppress the feeling and keep it hidden, but that won’t make it disappear. Like the stone in the walker’s boot, a hidden feeling can create untold damage.

Alongside this very simple yet profound idea it might be important to confront the very well established concept regarding the labelling of emotion into good and bad. For many years now I have offered a prize for anyone who could tell me “Who was the first person to conclude that anger was bad?” I’m still waiting for someone to step forward and collect the prize. In all areas of life the classification of emotion seems to be clearly defined. Be they parents, teachers preachers, doctors, or just those who think they know better, almost everyone will have an unwritten reference to good and bad emotions cross-referenced with healthy and unhealthy ones. This polarisation leaves us all handicapped to ever be able to live a truly healthy and contented life.

I believe that is it not our feeling that is at fault but the framework and context that the feelings are trapped and imprisoned within. I’m sure, if you were to make lists of good and bad feelings and ask a group of your contemporaries to do the same you would find similar results. The judgment around emotion that most of us have been unconsciously sold is totally wrong and it is from that judgment that the crisis of feeling has been born.