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Mental health or mental illness?

It can’t have escaped anyone’s notice that mental health has become a big issue this year.  It’s practically impossible to turn on the TV, open a newspaper or even walk down the street without someone banging on about it.  The message put about by, amongst others,  members of the Royal family, sports personalities and rock stars is that mental health, and the problems associated with it, are subjects we should all be far more willing to discuss.

As a long-term sufferer from recurrent, but fortunately not incapacitating, depression I should welcome this focus on mental health.  So why does it leave me feeling slightly uneasy?

Because while so much attention is being given to mental health, the subject of mental illness seems to have been sidelined.  What were once referred to as mental illnesses have been rebranded as mental health problems.  But to the sufferer, a mental illness is so much more than a problem.

Given time, resources and relevant support a problem is something that can be solved.  Perhaps describing mental illnesses as mental health problems is intended to be empowering, telling sufferers that they can take control.  But there is an inherent difficulty here.

Inability to solve a problem is seen as failure, or not trying hard enough.  The stark truth, however, is that mental illness cannot be cured, the problem cannot be solved.  It can be controlled or relieved by medication and/or therapy.  It can remit.  But there is always, at the very least, the threat that it will return.

When I am in the throes of one of my recurring depressions, I do not have a problem.  I am ill.  I cannot solve this.  Does that make me a failure?

A survey of 5,000 UK adults conducted by the National Centre for Social Research found that 1 in 4 had been diagnosed with a mental illness.  Are all these people failing to solve their mental health problem?  Apparently so, as the same survey revealed that 1 in 5 people agreed that ‘one of the main causes of mental illness is a lack of self-discipline and willpower’.

In this, the second decade of the 21st century, there is still, appallingly, a stigma attached to mental illness.  While we may have moved on from talk of “nutters” who are “not right in the head” spending time in the “loony bin”, but the Mental Health Foundation reports that nearly nine out of ten people with a mental illness say that stigma and discrimination have a negative effect on their lives.  Fear of receiving a label which might have negative consequences in later life prevents many people from seeking help for their illness.

In this context, the increased publicity currently being given to mental health can only be welcomed.  But how can we tackle discrimination, shame and fear if we can’t even bring ourselves to refer to its cause by name?   Perhaps the first step in removing the stigma would be to openly and honestly go back to talking about mental illness as enthusiastically as we now talk about mental health.


Where to now?

Coincidentally, Where To Now was the title of the debut album by late 70s/early 80s pop goddess Charlie Dore, forever remembered (by me at least) for her radio hit Pilot of the Airwaves.  As I recall, the title track was about people being told what to think by a Hitler-type political leader to the extent that they were unable to think for themselves.  Still relevant today but not actually what I’m talking about.

I started this blog because I wanted to become a hypnotherapist and the plan was that I would document my journey along that particular road.  Of course I diverted and digressed along the way but I think I have, somewhere along the line, described the steps I took in order to achieve my goal.

But now here I am, a qualified hypnotherapist.  I am no longer “the would-be hypnotherapist”, I am the genuine article.  So, in the words of Charlie Dore, where to now?

In one respect I am still, regardless of my qualification, a would-be hypnotherapist.  I have the certificate, the (voluntary) registration, the insurance, but I don’t yet have paying clients.  I’ve just moved house (not blogging about that, not even if you beg) so the launch of my professional hypnotherapy career has been delayed.  I have been offered premises and am working on a flyer and a website but can’t advertise my services until my domestic situation is rather more stable than it is right now.

So if a hypnotherapist is someone who earns money from the practice of hypnotherapy I can still describe myself as would-be.  Besides, I still own the domain name and the hosting so I’m going to keep blogging here while also working on my website which I’ll direct you to when it’s up and running.  I’ll ultimately run the two in tandem with the website focussing on promoting my hypnotherapy business while this blog will be the home for stories of the highs and lows of life as a hypnotherapist, along with book reviews, random thoughts and the odd political rant.  The website will (probably) also feature a blog but that will be devoted to serious material relating to hypnotherapy.

So where to now?  Wherever the fancy takes me – do you want to come with me?

An apology

It would appear that Mrs Kellett was right, all those years ago.  I am lazy.

This blog has been silent for the whole of September and October, leaving the story of my cancer treament at the point where I left my pre-op appointment.

This blog is sorry.  This blog will try harder in future.

I should point out that Mrs Kellett was wrong about lots of other things.

Like her insistence that every new sentence should start on a new line, an affectation we had to learn to comply with, then quickly unlearn when we moved up into Mr Harthill’s class.

Or her belief that every noun should be adorned with an adjective (or two, three, four if we could manage it).  Strawberries had to be sweet and succulent, apples crisp and rosy red, flesh-eating zombies evil and gruesome.  (I made the last one up – she would never have approved of flesh-eating zombies in one of our compositions).

But the laziness thing – yes, I’ll give her that.


Knee-deep in the North Sea

I’ve tried mindfulness – God knows I’ve tried.  With my tendency towards brooding depression, it should be good for me.  Ruby Wax said so and I have a lot of respect for Ruby Wax since she stopped being annoyingly kooky and started making serious points about mental health.

But I just can’t do it.  And yes, I know, it’s not something you do so much as feel or be.  But I can’t.

It’s not that I haven’t tried.  I bought a book and downloaded an app and counted my breaths.  The trouble is, if I start counting my breaths I then become uncomfortably conscious of the need to breathe so it stops being automatic and I feel like I have to keep remembering to do it until eventually I’ll forget and die.

But today, just for a short time, I think I experienced mindfulness.

It’s been beautiful here today, one of those lovely days that have been all too rare this summer.  Beautiful blue sky punctuated by the occasional fluffy white cloud.  Glorious sunshine, no more than a light breeze, and temperatures in the 70s (otherwise known as Berwick-tropical).

I took the dogs down to a beach that was alive with happy families building sandcastles, playing cricket, having picnics and generally just loving life.  I watched a man towing a dinghy laden with his three squealing, excited children along the shoreline.  A little girl splashed through shallow water.

It was all too tempting.  I kicked off my sandals, rolled up my jeans, and paddled out.  The water, for once, wasn’t ice-cold but pleasantly cool.  I ambled, ran, resisted the urge to dance (and wish now I hadn’t), and kicked droplets of water at the dogs.  Just having my feet wet wasn’t enough; I waded further out, then further still.  The water was licking around my rolled up jeans but I was past caring.  I stood, knee-deep in the North Sea, watching two black Labradors executing a lazy dog-paddle.

For a few precious moments I forgot to think.  Nothing mattered – not the visitors I was expecting that afternoon (no offence A ‘n’ E), not the fact I have work tomorrow, definitely not the fact that I looked faintly ridiculous.

I was experiencing mindfulness, not by counting breaths with all the attendant stress that would cause my, but just by being.

And it felt good.

Thought for today

The first in an occasional series of philosophical musings that are probably seriously annoying but have been prompted by something that’s happened in my life.

When someone offers you an olive branch, take it.  Even if it has black olives and you only like green.  Or if the olives are a bit withered and unhealthy looking.  Or you don’t actually like olives.

If someone rejects your olive branch, just remember that maybe it’s the olives rather than the branch that are the problem.  Or maybe your timing just wasn’t quite right.

If you’ve rejected someone’s olive branch and wish you hadn’t, try offering one of your own.  It might need to be bigger, or have better olives on it.  Or be made of chocolate.  But give it a try.

Give peace a chance.

Spring is here?

It’s been an unseasonably dreich day today (see ‘Under the weather‘).  There are times when it is acceptable for the weather to be dreich – November particularly, December and January to a degree, maybe even October and February.  April – not so much.

By April, Spring has definitely arrived.  Spring should never be dreich.  Spring is about blue skies with fluffy white clouds, green fields populated by happy bouncing lambs (lucky they can’t see the future).  Rain in April should take the form of quick cleansing showers, not hours of depressing grey drizzle.

But dreich is what we were given today.  My natural inclination was to stay at home, preferably in bed, and wait it out.  But regular readers will know that I have two labradors and labradors must be walked, regardless of weather.  The least unpleasant way to achieve this on a dreich day is to drive down to the beach and let them loose to run along the beach, in and out of cold grey water until they start to show signs of exhaustion.  This process can be facilitated by judicious throwing of a ball.  When you’re a labrador chasing a ball never gets old.

Of course, there are things that seem more enjoyable when the weather is dreich.  Sitting in a comfortable armchair with a mug of hot chocolate and a faintly tragic novel (I mean subject matter rather than writing style).  Snuggling up with a recently-walked labrador (or two) watching an old movie.  Listening to Deacon Blue’s Raintown album while adult colouring in a butterfly (you might just have to trust me on this one).  But I can do all those things in November.

Tomorrow, can we have Spring back please?

A short post about dying

We are all going to die. You, me, Amal Clooney, Paddy McGinty’s goat, Uncle Tom Cobley and all.

But don’t panic – I’m not suggesting this is going to happen any time soon. As I keep trying to tell my mother, most people who are alive today will still be alive tomorrow. That’s obviously barring nuclear holocaust, global pandemic or asteroid strike. But one day, sooner for some, later for others we are all going to die.

So why are we so mealy-mouthed about it? Why is it that nowadays people “pass away” or, worse, simply “pass”? Why are we so afraid of using a short, simple word that everyone understands?

Shortly after my cancer diagnosis, I made the mistake of looking at an American support forum for bowel cancer sufferers. I was hoping to find reassuring and uplifting stories of people who’d visited the Cancerland Theme Park and were reporting back that yes, it was a hell of a scary ride, but they got off at the other end fit, well and with a new appreciation of life. Instead, I got depressing stories of chemotherapy side effects, many ending with the cryptic message “Called home” and a date. It took me a few minutes to realise that these were not extra-terrestrials making contact with their home planet but normal human beings who had, in fact, died.

Death is an inevitable consequence of life – it’s part of the deal. But we’ve become so scared or embarrassed to talk about it that we treat it like some kind of guilty little secret. I recently referred the fact that someone had died and was asked not to use “that word”.

My cancer was treated surgically. The likelihood is that I am completely cured. But one day, my life will come to an end. And on that day I will not pass or pass away. I will not be called home. I will die.

We are all going to die.

False memory syndrome

My life is based on a lie.

Okay – not my whole life.  Just the part relating to my post about Caitlin Moran.  I read today that she started writing for The Times 23 years ago when she was 17.  Those of a mathematical bent will be able to calculate from this that she is now 40 years old and therefore unlikely to have appeared on the “yoof culture” TV programmes I remember from the ‘80s.

So I checked.  Sure enough, she launched her television career with the music show Naked City in 1992.  1992 was not in the ‘80s.  Instead of Clare Grogan and Billy Bragg, the show featured the likes of Blur and The Boo Radleys.  Not only does one of my lasting memories of the ‘80s actually belong to the following decade but the details are all wrong.

But here’s the thing.  I have no clear memory of the ‘90s.  I remember the ‘80s as a wonderful time of hating Margaret Thatcher, leaving school, going to University, flirting with indie music.  For a large part of the ‘80s I suspect I was an emo but no-one had bothered to invent them so I didn’t know.  I liked the ‘80s.

By the time the ‘90s came along, Margaret Thatcher was well on her way to being reinvented as some kind of saviour of the human race and hating her was no longer the done thing, even though I still did.  My memories of the ‘90s, such as they are, centre round Britpop, boredom and a general feeling that the world and I were not on the friendliest of terms.  I spent the second half of the ‘90s isolated from the world by my own personal cloud of depression.  I didn’t much care for the ‘90s – maybe that’s why I barely remember they happened.

But how could I have got things so wrong?  It may seem like a simple error of a few years but my memory has actually shifted something into a completely different time period with all its corresponding associations in my life.

It seems I’m not alone.  In January 1986, the day after the Challenger Space Shuttle explosion, Ulric Neisser, a cognitive psychologist, handed out a questionnaire about the event to 106 of his students at Emory University, Atlanta.  He asked them questions such as “Where were you when you heard the news?”, “Who were you with?” and “What were you doing?”.  In the autumn of 1988, two and a half years later, he asked the students the same questions but received very different answers. The average student scored less than three out of seven for the accuracy of their recollections.  A quarter scored zero, despite being confident that they were correct.

So if memories surrounding a tragic news event can become corrupted so quickly, maybe I shouldn’t be too surprised by a small inaccuracy about the first television appearance of a teenager from Wolverhampton.

A bit of hero worship

I don’t intend to make a habit of this kind of thing but I read something recently that was just so brilliant I wanted to share it.

I first became aware of Caitlin Moran when she used to appear on “yoof culture” programmes in the ‘80s, interviewing the likes of Claire Grogan or Billy Bragg.  At the time there seemed to be something about her personality that lifted her out of the ranks of gobby teenagers who got lucky.  Strangely, I can’t find anyone else who remembers her, even my brother who sometimes watched these programmes with me.  Then again, I seem to  have a lot of memories of the era that no-one shares with me, like Frida from Abba’s solo career or that brief period when NME told us Dollar and Buck’s Fizz were cool.  Maybe I spent the ‘80s in a parallel universe.

Time moved on, I stopped watching “yoof” programmes, and Caitlin Moran faded from my memory.  Until I opened a copy of The Times and there she was, older, wiser and very readable.  It would be no exaggeration for me to say that, in my opinion, she is one of the best columnists in Britain today.
I once sent her a fan email.  I have never sent a fan email (or letter) to anyone before.  A few months ago, you may recall, people were publicly stating that they would personally be willing to capsize boats carrying Syrian refugees to Europe.  Not many people, but enough – quite frankly, one is enough.  She wrote a piece about this that so perfectly encapsulated my feelings that I was on the verge of tears.  I had to tell her how much I admired her for writing this, hence the fan email.

Sadly, I received an automated reply telling me she never checks her emails but would usually respond to comments on Twitter.

I don’t tweet.  Besides, the moment had passed.

I haven’t liked everything she’s written.  In particular I’d gladly burn her novel, How To Build A Girl, not because I’m a Fascist who is opposed to freedom of expression, just because it’s rubbish.  But on subjects as diverse as female genital mutilation, the futility of space exploration, and her love of Aslan from The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe, she has thrilled me with her perceptiveness.  And she has achieved this without recourse to convoluted sentences or unintelligible language.

So where am I going with this?

According to a recent report by Oxfam, 62 people own 50% of the worlds wealth.  If that doesn’t shock you, read it again.  50% of all the money in the world is owned by just 62 people – that’s 0.0000084% of the population.  As if that’s not bad enough, the other 50% isn’t shared in any equitable way between the rest of us, so that we can all enjoy luxuries like clean water, enough to eat, shelter from the elements.  No – if you think about it, the remaining 50% of the world’s wealth is divided between the entire world’s population minus 62, including kids in the slums of Calcutta, stick-thin famine victims, you, me and Donald Trump (the world’s 405th richest person in 2015).

In an article in The Times magazine, Caitlin Moran makes the point that, above a certain level, money is meaningless.  If you have – let’s say – 10 billion pounds sitting in a bank account another billion isn’t going to make much difference to your life.  She suggests that people like the 62 are, in fact, just hoarding money, just as some people with mental health issues hoard baby clothes, or junk mail, or takeaway packaging.

I’d love to include a link to her article but The Times protects its content with a paywall.  I’ll content myself with including a quote from the end.  I realise this is breach of copyright but I’m hoping no-one will mind – if anyone from The Times  or even Caitlin Moran herself objects, I’ll take it out but for the time being I offer it here in admiration of its author.

And what you (the 62) are really hoarding is change.  For money is an object whose properties change, depending on where it is placed.  Money in a bank account – making you one of the world’s 62 richest people is, to all intents and purposes, dead.  It can do nothing.

Put the money somewhere else, however, and it becomes magic: it can build a park, transform a town, change a future, save a life.  Save hundreds of lives. Save millions of lives.  It can put books on shelves and lights in homes and food in bellies and clothes on backs – it can divert the courses of rivers.  You could be collecting a million tiny revolutions and joys.  You could be one of 62 people making 50 per cent of the world’s progress.

Instead, you keep all that potential locked in a vault – you are, merely, one of the world’s 62 richest people.

Sometimes I read something and just wish I could have written it.  I even forgive her for the time I wasted on How To Build A Girl.