Anxiety, mental health and me

Greater awareness and openness is destigmatising talk of mental health and depression. But are mental and emotional problems becoming endemic?

On the fourth day of Christmas, my father said to me: “I think you are heading for a nervous breakdown.”

He would know, having gone through one himself forty years ago, and as soon as he said it, I knew too. I had watched someone else I love suffer a terrifying breakdown just seven months earlier. Now, I could recognise in me the beginnings of what I had seen in her – the breathlessness, the shaking, the rising panic, the gathering hopelessness. I had seen where that could lead. I wasn’t anywhere near as bad yet, but I could see that if I didn’t do something, I very well soon could be. On New Year’s Eve, I paid my first visit to a counselling psychologist.

A couple of weeks later, I wrote a piece here on the merits of New Year’s resolutions. At the time, I hardly realised that I had made a resolution of my own, a difficult and daunting resolution at a huge personal cost. For the first time in my life, I was resolving to put my mental health before my job, my relationship, my life in England – for the moment at least, I was giving up my life as I knew it.

Put your mental health first
I had come home to Ireland ostensibly for a ten-day Christmas holiday, and to escape the anxiety and depression that had been steadily building over the previous months. I was still in the process of trying to build a new life for myself, my partner and her children in the south of England. I was still trying to start out on a new career, having been made redundant. But I had become trapped in a badly-paid, emotionally draining job, and was feeling more and more isolated, unable to see a way to something better, and haemorrhaging self-confidence and self-worth. I considered myself a failure for having been made redundant, and now I felt I was in danger of failing again. I started to have anxiety attacks at home and at work, and they were getting more and more desperate.

Christmas in Ireland was to be my downtime, a time to relax and let go of all that. But when I suddenly panicked in Dublin, on the fourth day of Christmas, my family stepped in. They told me I needed help to cope, and I agreed to see a counsellor before I went back to the UK. After that New Year’s Eve session, I decided to stay in Ireland for three more weeks to follow up. I made great strides for a while, but as soon as I started to face the future again, the panic returned. In the end, it was my girlfriend who told me that I needed to stay where I was making progress. It was as hard as anything I’ve done, but although there are still moments of deep sadness for all I’ve left behind, I have stopped doubting my decision. I have come to realise that when it comes to mental health, it’s not a selfish thing to put yourself first.

When it comes to mental health, it’s not a selfish thing to put yourself first.

Breaking down stigma around mental health
Perhaps I am more tuned into it now, but I have started to notice quite a lot of public discourse on these issues. New Year’s Day – the day after my first session – marked the beginning of First Fortnight, a Dublin-based festival focusing on mental health. Next week sees the launch of Pieta House’s Mind Our Men campaign to reduce the rate of suicide amongst Irish men. The Irish Times health supplement frequently has articles on mental and emotional health. I’ve noticed certain books climb the bestseller bays in bookshops – books with titles like The Emotional Life of Your Brain and The Happiness Project.

In one sense, it is good to see mental health being addressed more openly. Taking care of mental health is not the same as having a mental illness, any more than taking care of your physical health means that you are physically ill. Missing that distinction may well be a cause of the stigma that prevents people from nurturing their mental health, and that may make mental illness more of a possibility. This new openness is key to breaking down that stigma, which in turn is key to protecting mental health.

But this preponderance of mental health discourse may also be suggestive of a greater malaise, a more widespread dissatisfaction with life within our society. Frequently, when I mention my counselling to people, they express an interest in it for themselves or for friends. At least a dozen people I know are affected in some way with emotional problems – some very severely. Among those I know who have struggled – including myself – the problem is broadly similar. We suffer intense anxiety because we judge ourselves harshly based on what we assume society expects of us. We feel guilty for not achieving what we think we should have. We feel we are failures.

Understanding and talking
It is apt – though certainly not a coincidence – that before I left Brighton, I picked up a copy of Alain de Botton‘s Status Anxiety (which I referenced in my post about New Year’s resolutions). I started reading it in conjunction with the counselling, and it made me realise that the way I thought about and judged myself was by no means unique to me. Our society in many ways foments it.

De Botton’s argument in a nutshell is this: status anxiety is the fear of failing to meet society’s ideals for what it is to succeed at life. As individuals, we crave acceptance from the society we live in, to imbue us with a sense of self-worth. But the way our current society has come to measure worth and status is through possessions, economic performance, achievement of ever-escalating ambitions. We have been conditioned to believe we can achieve anything if we strive for it. But such high expectations increase the risk of failure to achieve them, and failure leads us to shame and guilt, and it damages our self-worth.

The most profitable way of addressing anxiety may be to attempt to understand it and to speak of it.
– Alain de Botton

De Botton suggests avenues – philosophy, art, religion, politics, bohemia – by which we can regain that self-worth, recast how we define ourselves to ourselves. Rather than basing our worth on the judgments of others or on society’s fickle status ideals, we need to learn to be happy with who we are regardless of what we earn, own or achieve. To that end, he says: “the most profitable way of addressing [status anxiety] may be to attempt to understand it and to speak of it.”

For me, counselling is helping me to understand why I for so long have felt and thought about my life and my self in this way. And this is me speaking of it.

It is working. By coming to understand how I tick, I am learning to contextualise the anxiety, to recalibrate how I react to it, and to manage and even prevent the panic. If this status anxiety is indeed endemic as de Botton suggests, then I hope this new openness to address mental health issues that I’ve noticed recently is indicative of our society also attempting to understand and speak of it. Maybe we won’t need to Mind Our Men when our men (and women and children) feel like they can mind their own minds.

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7 thoughts on “Anxiety, mental health and me

  1. Really great piece Damien, well written and eloquent. I think you’re on to something with status anxiety, it’s so true of how we live now. But more and more of us are starting to speak out, and like you say, maybe some day we can all mind our own minds. As long as we keep talking there’ll be progress!

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