Thursday, 16 June 2016

Internal constraints can be just as hard to conquer as external ones

Alice discusses the reasons we need to have more understanding of the internal barriers that people face

-Alice McMahon

There are many barriers that can make it harder for people to achieve their dreams. Sometimes the barriers are visible: a lack of money, for example, or a physical disability or illness, or even being the wrong gender or the wrong race. Sometimes it’s not having the right grades - or being born in a country where opportunities are limited. All these constraints are to some extent outside of ourselves, external and quantifiable, and so, in general, we’re more likely to meet with a measure of understanding.

But what about when the constraints are internal? What about when we have everything in front of us, laid out on a plate and we walk away, unable to take a chance because of our own fears and inner demons? Well, then - that’s different. Something must be wrong with you. You’re the one who’s responsible- you’re the one at fault. 

This kind of language betrays a lack of understanding of the internal barriers which keep many of us from achieving our true potential. These barriers can be just as potent as external barriers and sometimes even harder to fight.

To take one example, I remember the terror and dread of piano exams when I was at school. When I was alone, I could play the pieces perfectly well. But as many people find out when they’re being watched, playing in front of an audience was a whole different matter - my heart would start pumping and my hands would shake so hard that I couldn’t place them on the keys. Just do it! People would say. It’s all in your head, forget about the examiner, of course you can do it, they would insist. But - at least at that point in my life - I simply couldn’t. It didn’t matter how many motivational talks my teacher made to me, or how hard or how many times I tried - I just couldn’t wish my nerves away. At that point, I could no more play than as if my hands had been broken and wrapped in bandages. And I felt like a failure for it. 

Many other people suffer similar internal barriers, mild or severe. It might be social anxiety or depression. It might be fear of interviews or fear of flying. It might be fear of failure. It might be fear of letting family or friends down. It’s time to start accepting that these barriers are real - we might not be able to see them, but for those who suffer from them they can feel just as intractable as a steel fence. This is not to say we should passively accept these barriers or think they can never change. Just as broken bones can heal, over the years I managed to overcome my performance anxiety. But people who suffer from internal psychological barriers have the dual burden of being told they can just ‘get over it’. You wouldn’t tell someone to ‘get over’ a broken leg, would you? 

The next time a friend says to you that they ‘just can’t’ do something - whether it’s going on a date or having the courage to go to an audition, don’t minimise it or tell them off for being silly. Don’t blame them. Reassure them, give them a hug - tell them that whatever they choose to do, you’ll still be there for them. Ask what you can do to support them or if they think anything would help them to feel better. Don’t tell, listen - and you might even learn something yourself. 

- Alice is a recent graduate of Oxford University

Tuesday, 7 June 2016

Distinguishing the self from depression: how the imagination can help restrictive mentality

Gareth writes about how he used his imagination to free himself of the mental restrictions that come with depression.
- Gareth

When I was growing up, I had an imaginary friend called Felix. He was a woodpecker, and would fly alongside the car on long journeys. I think he represented a part of me that wanted to be roaming free and zooming around rather than being cooped up in a hot car; I put an aspect of myself into this imaginary character. Recently I watched this video by Niall Breslin (He’s a big inspiration to me, which all kicked off from that video) where he does a similar thing with his anxiety, anthropomorphising it into ‘Jeffery’. I’m always keen to try new things to help with my depression, so I thought I’d give it a go too!

That’s how Marley, my depression monster, came to be. He’s named Marley after Scrooge’s partner in A Christmas Carol, or rather the muppet version; in the Marley Brothers’ song they are bound and tormented by heavy, restrictive chains, and that’s how I see my depression. Not as chains, really, but as a heavy duvet. It’s easy to sink into, and feels like a comfort at times, but really it weighs down all your thoughts and movements making everything a struggle. That’s how it is for me, so Marley the Duvet Monster was born.

I have found it really helpful to have the concept of Marley in my mind. On days where I’m trying to persuade myself to get out of bed (which is one of Marley’s main goals, as firstly, In bed I’m trapped with my thoughts and feelings, they spiral out of control and secondly, he’s a duvet). I find it much easier to say ‘that’s what Marley wants, don’t give in to him’ than saying ‘you want this because you’re feeling low today, try not to though yeah?’ Sometimes I’ll be functional but not completely ok, and I find it easier to think ‘Marley’s here but just sitting waiting in the corner, I’ll be fine if he stays there’ than ‘I thought I was feeling ok today but I can feel the depression creeping in’. In both cases, having the depression be represented by a third party, even an imaginary one, rather than just some part of myself makes fighting back feel easier. 

I’m always reminded of Spider Jerusalem in Transmetropolitan saying ‘I liked you better when you had a face I could hit’ to a friend of his who is now a cloud of nanobots, but for me it’s the other way round; giving the depression some kind of avatar, one that I can hit (metaphorically) rather than a shapeless cloud makes it easier to act against. In the video, Bressie’s Jeffrey has a phobia of water, so he threw him in the sea by signing up for swimming races, which is how I often try to see things too. Marley wants me to hide away in my room and not see my friends, so I’m going down to the beach with them because Marley will hate it. Marley thinks I’m not good enough for my PhD so I’m going to knock out the best thesis you’ve ever seen so he feels stupid for doubting me.

More than anything, differentiating between myself and Marley helps divide thoughts, feelings and actions up into the two camps of ‘what Marley wants’ and ‘what Gareth wants’. Depression is filled with shades of grey so organising that a little into more of a ‘black and white’ type picture helps me be myself and the stronger person I am.

For more information on finding support for issues like depression and anxiety, click here.
Visit Students Against Depression to learn more about student depression and where you can get support.

Monday, 6 June 2016

Talking to People About Their Mental Health

Laura talks about some of her experiences when talking to friends about her mental health, and how we can all learn from them to help others.

- Laura 

I’ve always had a policy of being entirely frank and open about my mental illness with my flatmates and my friends. I think it makes it easier for them to understand when I’m having a not-so-great day, and I don’t believe mental health should be something that people hide and are ashamed of. However, through being quite open and honest about my good days, bad days and the treatment that I’m going through, I’ve encountered a couple of things that aren’t very helpful for people with mental health issues.

1.   Giving Their (Non-Medical) Advice For Treatment:
I appreciate that you’re interested enough in me to ask about how my treatment is going, and whether things are working out for me, as it’s really nice and I do find it helpful to talk through things, but please don’t tell me whether or not I should be taking medication. With all due respect, the etiquette with conspiracy theories tends to be don’t mention them unless you’re asked, and I am confident that between my doctor and myself we can figure out any problems. Additionally, asking me about my worries about medication is probably not an excellent strategy for someone with an anxiety disorder.

2.   Suggesting That Lifestyle Changes, Such As Going To The Gym Or Eating Better, Will Fix It:
Again, I appreciate your concern and interest, but doing more exercise and eating better will not make my medically diagnosed illness go away. They’re definitely useful strategies for helping with some of the symptoms of my illness, but they’re not cures or fix-alls. A lot of people like to couple my first point along with this point, which I think is ridiculous. Someone with tonsillitis might have their recovery aided by eating more fresh fruit and vegetables, but getting your five-a-day isn’t going to make it go away, and mental illness should be no different.

3.   Telling Me That I Should Appreciate What I Have, Because Other People Have It Worse:
This one is pretty obvious, but I still hear it from time to time. Just because I have a chemical imbalance in my brain that makes me feel ‘depressed’, doesn’t mean that I don’t appreciate what I have. On the contrary, I’m painfully aware that I am more privileged than most people in the world: I am educated, live in the global north and a democratic society; and often knowing that there are literally billions of people who are worse off makes me feel worse. I know there are people worse off than me, but it doesn’t mean that sometimes I don’t feel bad too.

I could go on, but I think you get the picture. Most of these things are said out of a desire to make me feel better and help me, and I don’t write this with any real anger directed towards the people I know that do this. It’s just that the more we talk to people about how to talk about mental health issues, then the more that the stigma around them is reduced. And that can’t be a bad thing.

For more advice on how to help someone experiencing a mental illness click here to find out more about our "Look After Your Mate" campaign.