Mental Health Awareness Week is approaching here in NZ. And it seems, on the whole, that we are becoming more attuned to the increase of anxiety and depression so many of us are now experiencing, either first-hand or as a friend or family member. In fact, as I write this, I can immediately think of at least two people who recently found the struggle too much to bear: Anthony Bourdain and Greg Boyed. And I am both sad and grateful to them. In death they have brought more attention to this issue. They make us pause and consider our own lives and what we might do differently to support those in such severe distress that taking their own life seems the only way out from under.
The stats certainly do shed light on the staggering reality of our mental health issue - (and I say “our” because it’s not just a matter of telling those struggling to deal with it, but a question of how we all come together to meet this issue.) In NZ, there is an alarming increase in the number of suicides, with 660 people killing themselves in 2016/17. And this number is on a steady yearly rise. To put these stats into perspective - the Ministry of Health reports that, amongst Maori men, only heart attacks and lung cancer caused more death than suicide. For non-Maori men, suicide is only superseded by heart attack as the leading cause of death.
Seriously, there are more men taking their own lives because of psychological distress than dying from stroke, car accidents and diabetes. And although women may not suicide as often as men, they are more likely to experience, and therefore be living with, anxiety and depression than their male counterparts. The Mental Health Foundation reports that, “These disorders [not a word I would choose] are in fact the leading cause of health loss amongst women in NZ.”
But the real question here is, what do we, as a community, do about all this? How do we actually meet those people that we share our living rooms and offices with? Those people feeling desperately overwhelmed that we share a classroom with? Our own children, friends and partners?
Many people, for no fault of their own, (maybe even the majority of people) simply do not know how to help and really be there for those feeling overwhelmed in life. If we’re honest, we might realise we don’t necessarily know how to be there for our own selves, how to meet our own thoughts and emotions. So if this is you, you are not alone. Maybe it makes us uncomfortable and we just want all this to go away, or for that friend to get over it. Or maybe we just don’t know what to say, so we offer solutions like “You have so much to be grateful for.” Or, “Go outside and get some fresh air. That will make you feel better.” Not having experienced such states of distress, we may not have an understanding that approaches the life experience of those who do. And as human beings, we generally want what seems bad, negative, or uncomfortable to go away. This is human nature in action. But we can learn to respond in a more compassionately powerful way.
I regularly see people in iRest meditation sessions that are dealing with acute or chronic stress. This is what I know for sure from both my mindfulness-based work with anxiety and depression, and my personal experience living with them: trying to push away the uncomfortable only serves to make it grow into a stronger presence in your life, just like adding fuel to the proverbial fire. And that fuel is emotionally expensive for all involved. It’s exhausting to pretend nothing is wrong, or to live in a state of war with ourselves.
Trying to hide from, refuse, bury, or paint a positive picture over what you are experiencing is psychologically and emotionally costly. Anxiety and depression (and the beliefs behind them) need to be seen, heard and connected to, just like the people in our lives who deal with them do.
So here are some real-life ways to become the safe landing place for the people in your life who may be in pain, and the emotions and beliefs that you yourself might be feeling outdone by:
Mental health is everyone’s responsibility - not just the ones who are suffering. The way we speak to ourselves and others, the way we fully meet (or fail to meet) what, in this present moment, is making itself known, is the difference between thriving and suffering. Can we stop aspiring to just being happy every moment of our lives and realise that happiness is only really possible because of the pain that exists in contrast to it? Life is not always black or white: there is an awful lot of grey in the mix too. And that’s not just normal, welcoming all of it is how we live in harmony with life itself. There is pure perfection in all our imperfections as well.
It's Mental Health Awareness Week in NZ (Oct 9-15), and all this talk about it politically and on social media makes we wonder, what exactly is mental health? We may think we know what isn’t healthy on the one hand- chronic anxiety and suicidal tendencies for instance. But is anyone the picture of perfect mental health? Do you fit the bill when you're happy 100% of the time? Or when you seem to have it all sorted out and are humming along in life? What exactly does the picture of "good" mental health look like?
I meet a lot of people in my meditation work who, on the outside, might very well seem "the picture of perfection". But what I've learned, both as a meditation teacher and in my personal life dealing with depression, is that everyone is going through something. Just because they make you laugh, are the life of the party, or seem successful in all the right ways does not mean they are exempt from suffering.
Does mental health mean having no problems, living happily ever after, or finally mastering the art of positive thinking? Society and media may want us to believe that. I would say otherwise. The reality is that some stresses, anxieties and depressive thoughts may be with as as travelling companions throughout our lives. Although we all have habitual ways of relating to life that don't necessarily serve us - keep us mired in the mud of negative thinking or caught in spirals of thought and behaviour that limit us in some way - we can learn to see through them, to defuse from them without having to get rid of or control them.
It can be a comfort for us to think we’re at the helm controlling life, even our thoughts, but the reality is we are not. When’s the last time you planned a thought? Isn’t it more accurate to say that thinking is just happening? Try it for yourself if you’d like - spend some time watching your thoughts and see how they just arise without the asking, the planning. And isn’t it the case that we don’t get to choose our biology, our upbringing, whether we were bullied in the past or will get cancer in the future?
Life dishes out what it will whether we want this to be the case or not. In fact, the need to control life is often the dialogue running in the background of someone who has lost their ground. Worry and panic arise when we fail, or think we might not be able to divert circumstance to our favour.
But there is a flip side: we can all re-negotiate our contract with life by acknowledging how we will live with what is given. We can make a vow with ourselves to stay open to what arises. And respond compassionately when we do not. This is where meditation can help.
Many of my students and clients have heard me say that iRest has changed my life. It has, profoundly. This doesn’t mean I live blissed out because I meditate. This is a false perception that only feeds into the idea that some people always have it figured out - living in paradise baby! (And by the way, there must be something wrong with you because you don’t.) “Yeah nah”, as the Kiwis say. Quite the opposite.
My life is actually exactly the same. All those negative thoughts, stresses and depressive episodes still make their way over to visit. But now I know I don’t have to make them go away or bury them in positivity. I don’t have to be happy all the time. There is a powerful freedom in knowing you’re perfect in your imperfection. The mind, this mind, tends toward depression. OK. These things are all still the case, but I don’t have to fuse with them. They are here, yes, but not what I am, who I am. And for me, this is what mental health looks like.