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Posts Tagged ‘depression’

This is not a post about how you should be fixing all your own problems by yourself, by just cheering up and adopting a positive mental attitude.

There are a lot of things we can do to physically influence our mental state, without introducing any external factors like drugs or alcohol. In fact, we’re unavoidably doing it all the time.

We tend to assume that being happy makes us smile, being tired makes us slump into a pathetic heap, and so on. That’s how we imagine bodies work. In fact, the way we feel and the way we express ourselves to the world is not at all a one-way street.

For instance, if you adopt a superhero stance, or a “power pose”, it will make you feel more powerful. And adopting a withdrawn, nervous, low-power posture will make you feel more anxious and reduce your confidence. You might adopt such a position because of anxiety and low confidence, but if you do, your posture will likely reinforce it. Even if you feel great and only stand like that in order to pretend, you will still start to feel anxious and less confident, because of the way your brain takes on feedback.

Also, smiling makes you happy. Botox can both treat depression and cause depression, because it suppresses the ability to both smile and frown. Also, exercise is useful in treating depression.

In all these cases, your brain notices how your body is behaving, and uses that to decide how it must be feeling. It’s really not meant to work that way around. But it does.

For years now, I’ve been reading the kinds of blogs and listening to the kinds of podcasts that often talk about fascinating, important, and deeply counter-intuitive features of human psychology, so this kind of thing gets brought up a lot. And, having been saturated in it for so long, I now regularly try to incorporate it into my life.

If I’m not having the best day at work, sometimes I’ll hide in the toilet and spend a few moments grinning ridiculously and leaping around a bit, in the kind of way that could only possibly be explained by my being in a fantastically good mood. And honestly, if I let myself go along with it, this is pretty good at making me feel better. Acting like I’m really happy seems to remind me that I don’t have to be mopey by default just because I’m not actively thrilled to be in the office and I’ve got resting bitchface. My brain sees me looking goofy and bouncing around, and goes “Oh yeah! Things are pretty good apparently!” Even just remembering to stand up straighter can improve my outlook.

Science has learned some wonderfully bizarre and amazing things in this area of psychology, and there are many ways for us to take control of our own state of mind and have a significant impact on our feelings, motivations, and emotions.

That’s all good and important and if I were a more consistent writer I could fill a dozen blog posts about all this stuff.

But none of that’s the point.

The point is: it is incredibly difficult to talk about this in a way that’s actually empowering.

What I’d love to discuss is some uncontroversial scientific data, and my own recent experiences with some very light brain-hacking. What I want to do is talk about how everyone can find this data useful in their own lives, in the same way that I have.

What I’m in real danger of actually doing is patronising everyone and inadvertently blaming them for all their problems.

Because everything I’m talking about is a hair’s breadth away from terrible popular advice that everyone’s heard a million times before. People with depression or mental health issues are constantly told to just pull themselves together and get over it, by people who don’t understand what they’re experiencing. Men never seem to shut the fuck up from telling women to smile. And the supply of folk who think fat people maybe just haven’t encountered the advice “try eating less” before, and consider it their moral duty to deliver this important message to them for the first time, is apparently endless.

The thing about this advice is that it’s always about the giver, not the beneficiary. If you shout an instruction to smile at an irritated stranger, that’s not going to make them want to smile. It’s far more likely to irritate them further, and it’s hard to imagine someone not understanding that without being wilfully oblivious to other people’s actual emotions.

Ditto with “just cheer up”. Nobody says that because they think it’s going to help. They say it to try to browbeat another person into complying with their wish for a more artificially cheerful environment. They say it when somebody else is bothering them by not being in a sufficiently upbeat mood.

This is true even if the woman walking down the street being harassed from a building site really is only in a mildly bad mood for no good reason, and really could make herself feel better by changing her stance and facial expression and choosing to shake it off. Unfortunately, you’re not introducing her to a useful and empowering psychological tool in a safe environment, where she might be able to take it on board and use it to improve her life. You’re just being a selfish dick.

So how do you talk informatively about the potential for positive psychology to improve people’s lives, without just being part of that same unhelpful crowd? There are just tripwires everywhere. Already it might seem like I’m nagging at people who hide in the toilet at work to cry and feel shit about themselves, like they should do what I do instead, and just choose to put on a brave face and force themselves to feel better. That’s absolutely not my aim. I really don’t want to make anyone in that position feel worse than they already are, but it’s so hard to get a constructive point across without putting my foot in it like that.

Self-defeating emotional behaviours are innately extremely good at defending themselves from treatment. There’s so much science can tell us about how to improve ourselves as much as we claim we want to, but the problem makes us want to solve it by doing things that actually make it worse. The often insurmountable difficulty of applying solutions that work, despite their easy availability, is one of the great frustrations of the modern age.

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Peter Hitchens thinks antidepressants make you kill people.

Or at least he wants to “urge another line of investigation” into the recent gun massacre in Cumbria, to see whether there exists a link.

Which is pretty deplorable. There’s a great deal of stigma around common mental health issues already. There were 31 million prescriptions written in 2006 for antidepressants, to upwards of 1.5 million people. That’s just in the UK.

And you can see why he’s worried, because from among the hundreds of thousands of sufferers being prescribed medication in this country, the number of them who have gone on dangerous rampages ending in a tragic loss of life is…

Um.

Well, there was…

Yeah.

Hitchens names seven notable cases in the US, where even more millions of people are taking prescription drugs, and apparently 1 in 4 adults “will have a major depressive episode sometime in their life”.

In the UK, though, he doesn’t have a single example. Derrick Bird, the recent Cumbria shooter, might have been on antidepressants. There’s been absolutely nothing to suggest it, and no concrete reason to speculate, but really we just don’t know. And isn’t it interesting how the authorities don’t seem to be in any particular hurry to investigate?

In any case, clearly the solution to the UK’s out-of-control problem – in which the rate at which depression sufferers become serial killers might be proved to be greater than 0% – is to stop worrying about gun control so much and re-instate the death penalty, and be more like the US.

Where every single one of Hitchens’s examples was from.

Of course, part of the problem is the way those original cases were reported. As Hitchens points out:

Look carefully at the reports of many of the big US shootings… and you will find that the shooter is described as having been ‘depressed’ and ‘on medication’.

Which is a shame, because it might give the impression to people who read these reports that these facts are in some way relevant.

The implication is that these people being on prescription medication should have alerted their dangerous nature to the authorities, before they had a chance to commit such terrible crimes.

It’s possible that all the notorious killers he mentions also often enjoyed donuts. Maybe if that had been mentioned in the reports, Hitchens would be seeing another pattern entirely and calling for police to storm Gregg’s and arrest everyone immediately.

Anton Vowl wrote about this quicker and more scathingly than I.

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Janet Street-Porter is an astonishing human being who has achieved something truly unprecedented and marvellous.

Because of her, all the most recent comments currently visible below her latest Daily Mail article are sensible, compassionate, and heartening.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen that happen before on a Mail article, about anything.

In all other regards, however, she seems to be a contemptible failure of an effort at a human being.

She recently took up far too much room on the internet to tell us all that depression is a “new trendy illness” – in all fairness probably the headline-writer’s phrase, rather than hers, but it sums up her approach well. All these people suffering from stress and depression are apparently just trying to be fashionable, and just need some good old “self-empowerment”.

There’s a cursory mention of the fact that it’s recognised as a legitimate condition by medical professionals, i.e. people whose opinions actually fucking matter. But most of this tirade is just about how life is tough, we’re all going through things that are jolly hard, but most people “don’t get depressed about it, don’t take special medication and don’t whinge about ‘black holes'”.

Well la-di-da for you and your high horse, but sometimes we mere mortals get ill. And sometimes trained medical professionals will tell us that taking some of the “special medication” that you regard with such contempt will do us good and assist with our well-being, since that’s what the stuff’s fucking made for. Not everything can be sorted out by just bucking up and getting on with things, and that doesn’t make us weak.

This kind of haughty bullshit makes me want to push her down the stairs, then smugly point out that some of us don’t feel the need to whinge about “broken legs”. (In the context of the recent #twitterjoketrial, I should point out that this is an obvious joke, and should not be taken as a sincere threat. I do, however, plan to stab Richard Littlejohn in the face with a pair of scissors.)

“There’s virtually no stigma at all attached to saying you’re suffering from stress these days,” Janet continues, in the middle of an article telling sufferers of stress and depression to just get over it and pull themselves together.

Mental illness of all kinds comes with a serious stigma. Just today, in an unrelated context, mental health charity Rethink linked me to this article, which uses phrases like “stabby schizophrenics running about the place” with absolutely no concern for anyone’s feelings, and no visible interest in the evidence behind community-based mental health treatment.

And then Janet gets even more obnoxious, and I get even more sweary:

The idea of feeling sorry for a bloke with low self-esteem is, frankly, risible. Let’s just call it karmic revenge for all those years men have been in charge of everything.

Oh, fuck you.

There was plenty of room for a valid point in the context she brought up. Author Tim Lott apparently claims that, because men are no longer the sole or primary breadwinners in many households, their egos and feelings of self-worth are being damaged by how much their partners are earning.

This has some potentially very interesting implications about men’s perceptions of gender roles, and someone cleverer than me could probably write something fascinating about that. (Maybe Dr Petra already has.)

But no. Simply the “idea of feeling sorry for a bloke with low self-esteem” – the very notion that someone with a penis might have psychological problems, or feel insecure and upset about something and want to turn to others to help – makes Janet Street-Porter laugh.

I’m running out of words for quite how unkind, unsympathetic, and hateful this is. The implication that every eight-year-old boy getting bullied in the playground deserves what he gets because men have tended to oppress women in the past is beneath contempt.

This kind of careless, heartless attitude is only serving to exacerbate a general culture in which people don’t feel that they can ask for help. People with serious problems, who are suffering needlessly, and who could find necessary and important help if they knew how to ask for it, from doctors and from the community in general, are being told that the way they feel isn’t interesting, their misery isn’t important, and that they don’t deserve to have anyone care that what they’re going through.

Well, Janet Street-Porter might not care about other humans in pain, but a lot of people do, and that’s a far more important message which deserves wider distribution.

Time To Change, a mental health advocacy programme in the UK, have posted an open letter to the Daily Mail about this, and the reply on the me plus bipolar blog is well worth reading too.

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