I was sad and dismayed to hear of Anthony Bourdain’s suicide last week, just a few days after Kate Spade took her own life. Two celebrities dying by their own hand in one week is further proof that mental illness does not discriminate and the trappings of fame and success are meaningless in the face of suicidal depression. It is vital that the conversation about mental health continues and we make every effort to banish the stigma because, if untreated, these illnesses are fatal.
When someone is struggling, people often suggest that they ‘think positive’, or focus on a ‘positive mental attitude’. Although they are often offered with good intentions, these hackneyed cliches have the potential to be damaging. Before I was diagnosed with Bipolar, I thought my dark moods and hyper activity were my fault. I assumed that if I could just get a grip of myself, I could take control and everything would be ok. As such I was constantly beating myself up for being depressed or making bad choices when I was manic. I would often refer to self-help books or online videos where ‘inspirational’ writers and speakers would wax lyrical about the power of positive attitude. I would feel briefly hopeful, seeing how many people were living their best life after going to a Tony Robbins lecture. I would inevitably be disappointed when these techniques did not work for me.
When someone is down, it’s natural to try to cheer them up. It is painful to see our loved ones us feeling sad and hopeless, especially if we see the good in them when they are unable to. While this impulse may be rooted in good intentions, trying to change one’s attitude is a complete waste of time and energy if you are dealing with a mental illness. You might as well suggest bicep curls to someone with two broken arms. If it were as simple as adopting a more positive attitude, people with mental illnesses would do just that. No one wants to live with the misery of depression, anxiety and all the other horrible symptoms of mental ill health. There is a whole industry that has sprung up around the notion of positive thought. I would argue that it only serves to make one feel even more of a failure. Try telling a Schizophrenic to simply ignore the negative voices in their head, or suggest to someone suffering with Generalised Anxiety Disorder that if they focus on the positive, they will stride out into the world and achieve their dreams, when they are so worried that they can’t even leave the house.
I am not suggesting that making constructive life changes are not without great value. Choosing to pursue good mental health begins with making practical, daily alterations to your routine. Appropriate treatment, exercise, a nutritious diet, and doing something that brings you joy are all very helpful. However, the cure to depression and anxiety is not in an ‘inspirational’ Ted Talk or a book promising the key to happiness. These may be useful additions to self-care, but there is no point in trying to force a positive attitude when there is an imbalance in brain chemistry. Rather than trying to think positive, I would suggest that it is better to aim to become as well and as stable as possible. Once a more basic equilibrium is established, then look into motivational speakers or self-help books, if that’s your thing, but don’t rely on these people to cure you. And don’t feel like a failure if you are left cold by the assertion that you can think your way out of mental illness. No one would suggest that someone with the flu assume a sunny disposition in order to recover; they are prescribed relevant medication and told to rest. I would suggest the first step to recovery is to treat yourself with kindness and compassion, and try to remember that mental illness is not a personal failure.