Saturday, January 30, 2010

Under Pressure. Of Both Kinds.

Scrolling through You Tube a couple of nights ago, I was pleasantly surprised to find all 18 episodes of a 90’s TV show that I haven’t seen since, well…,the 90’s. Game-On is centred around three 20 somethings, each with their own hang-ups, sharing a flat in Battersea, London. The interaction of three very different, yet somehow similar, characters is both funny and thought provoking. Though it’s essentially a comedy, it portrays the time between the end of education and ‘settling down’ as confusing, misleading and sometimes downright frightening. This reminded me of a recent interview I heard somewhere where the interviewee commented on the early mid life period (approx. age 20-40) as being the toughest in his life.

I’m turning 24 next week so, having a vested interest in the subject, i started thinking some more. Definitely, there is a certain sense that I have to make some big decisions in the next few years. Sometimes I wonder how much of this ‘sense’ is me. There seem to be so many questions to answer. 'What do you want to do in life?' 'Where do you see yourself in ten years?' What's your plan?' . It’s time for action. A time to make myself secure. I’ve finished my prep, it’s time to enter the race. My career. Expectation. Pressure. Some of us will settle for the comfort of security; doing jobs which serve merely to pay the bills. Others will resist, and focus on finding the job that meets their criteria for satisfaction, whether it be lots of money or a simple sense of job enjoyment. Whatever the job one chooses, it stands to reason that it will come to have a massive impact on their lives. It will dictate their place of living, their type of dwelling and what type of people they will dwell with. It will separate their time of work from their time of leisure. It will also regulate their financial situation and consequently what car they will drive, what holidays they will take and what they can afford to spend on others. This modus operandi usually aspires to the ultimate goal of securing a mortgage, which can be cynically termed as lifelong debt. So the pressure isn’t going away. On the contrary, it’s almost as if we’re under pressure to ‘qualify’ for yet more pressure.

Recently, we have been reminded that the whole world of employment, occupation and career can be as fickle as a series of dodgy choices by society's financiers. The whole idea of the modern way of life has been shaken to its core by a collapse of what we thought was a solid and hard earned prosperity. Fear is rampant as we desperately turn to our politicians to right the wrongs of the day. They look back at us with a sense of apologetic helplessness as if to say 'Didn't you know that it was all built on chance?'. Many have been left jobless and destitute. Without the regular arrival of a pay cheque, they have been left feeling vulnerable and lost. The sudden shift from 'You Can Do Anything You Want!' to 'It's Not About What You Want!' has left the so-called 'BOOM' generation in a state of uncertainty and disillusion. The Celtic Tiger era is now painted as some sort of bliss (evidently ignorant) where life was good and our worries were scarce. Yet suicide demographics indicate that the year 2000 saw the highest level of suicides in records that stretch back to 1950, with those aged between 15 and 44 worst affected.

Of course, in our recent prosperity, there were other more universal concerns that we, like all others, had to burden. These concerns haven't gone away. Instead, they now run parallel to the worries of living in a time where opportunity seems absent. They can be described as what we usually term as 'personal issues'. Our defects. Our worries about ourselves and where we fit into all of this. Our belief in ourselves, or lack there of. Our weaknesses. The things we keep to ourselves for fear of others judgement. At this turning point away from dependence to independence, we may start to ask questions of ourselves, 'Am i up to this?', 'Can i really make it?' Nagging complexes can unearth out of their deeply buried dormancy and rush to the forefront of our minds. Not only does they affect our professional lives and our confidence to live them, they can also have a drastic effect on how we interact with other people. If we choose to leave these problems unaddressed, they grow stronger and we start to believe them even more. They might even isolate us, depending on the degree of our 'issues'. It's more probable that most of us will figure out some way of coping with them. But that doesn't mean that they won't continue to influence our modes of behaviour in a detrimental way. They could be the difference in holding back when we really need to move forward. They could keep us sitting down when we really could stand up. They could be the breakdown of friendships, or of a romantic relationship. They could create defence mechanisms that make us seem aggressive when we really want to be benevolent. Eventually, they could be the baggage we pass on to our offspring; the ones that we will influence more than we could ever imagine. Along the way, we may find ourselves holding our heads between our hands; frustrated that we are misunderstood and unable to be who we feel we really are.

Is it really such a surprise that young people, or anyone for that matter, can feel left behind in life? Is it so wrong if we feel a little weak from time to time? If we feel like our head isn't in the right place? And is it so wrong if we tell each other? Is it that unfathomable that some find it all too much to bare? Aren't the pressures of career and financial security enough? Any reasonable person would think so. However, a recent article in the Irish Times revealed that lots of us still just don't want to know. The most startling statistic is that 40% of those surveyed think that undergoing mental health treatment means that we have failed in some way.. It also reported that one third of those questioned regard people with psychological problems as being below average intelligence. The same amount said that they wouldn't want to be friends with someone who had a mental health problem... What is going on? Why are we so stubborn in hanging on to such vicious thinking? Are we so well-rounded? So stable? So perfectly comfortable with our own existence that we reject people who are not? I doubt it..

Sources of information used in this entry can be found in the following locations

Irish Times article on recent survey done on attitude toward mental health (October 2009)-

World Health Organisation suicide study; Irish statistics (2008)-

For more information on mental health issues in Ireland, visit these locations-

Oh and if you want to watch Game-on, go here

Sunday, January 3, 2010

How's the head? Seriously.

'How are you today?', 'Fine thanks, and yourself?', 'Grand now, not a bother'

These pleasantries, that we exchange everyday, are generally used as conversation starters. They are part of our social script. When we ask these questions, we usually expect a positive response. Sometimes we get a negative one, and when we do, it can catch us unawares.Oftentimes, we don't expect our friends and sometimes even our families to be 100% honest about how they feel, because in truth, we aren't always honest about how we feel ourselves. In 2007, the HSE published a report on awareness and attitudes toward mental health in Ireland. It concluded that there was a stigma attached to the issue of mental health amongst the population, and that for things to improve, mental health would have to become more of an 'everyday issue'. So here i go, without any real education on the subject, i am going to offer my two cents. That makes it more everyday, right?

It would be naive to think that the previously dominant position of the Catholic Church in Irish society was to no detriment on the way we see ourselves and our place in the world, both as individual people and as a nation. Let's take the basic symbol of the Catholic religion-the crucifixion. Have you ever considered the sub-conscious message in worshiping a man bleeding to an excruciatingly painful death on an ancient device of execution? We are introduced to this at such a young age. It's inscripted on our minds to the point that by adulthood, it doesn't strike us as odd. What message does it send? Does it make us feel unworthy of trying to better ourselves as emotional beings? Could it be that it makes us feel guilty for feeling down?

'Jesus suffered for us. So our suffering is a small price to pay for our eternal salvation. So just put up with it. Don't be moaning about your problems. Keep them to yourself.'

I'm aware religious people do a lot of positive things for our communities, but is it crazy to suggest that an inherent part of their faith may be at the very least, kind of weird. Could there be a connection with the strength of Catholicism in this country with the previously archaic attitude to mental health?

Of course there was, and still is, another force at play in mental health in Ireland-booze. Let's not beat around the bush. We love our drink. Imagine Ireland without alcohol...Difficult? Our introduction to drink usually comes in our mid-teens. Some of us aren't interested. I can clearly remember catching sight of many of my teenage friends secretly pouring some of their drink onto the grass and feigning drunkenness. Maybe they were doing it out of fear of getting caught. Or maybe they just didn't like the taste. Whatever it was, it seemed important for them to keep up appearances. Anyway, somewhere afterward we learn to like drink, not necessarily the taste, but the feeling it incurs. It's the social lubricant that opens us up, gives us the courage to talk to potential mates and generally makes us think less about things. It also offers hangovers, which can eventually become a familiar state of fear, anxiety and loneliness. Of course we don't need to be hungover to feel the negative effects of alcohol. Anyone who has ever been drunk will know that it also acts as an amplifier. It's fair to say that anyone who encounters troublesome issues in their heads whilst drinking can easily be diverted onto a bleak train of thought that leaves even the seemingly happiest of us in a state of raw disillusion. The power of this disillusion is reflected in the fact that a 2002 study found that alcohol had been found in the blood of 80% of suicide victims in a given area. Others get angry. Why?
'Ah he's a sound lad, he just gets a bit aggressive when he's drunk.'
Too often, we fail to ask 'About what?' Instead, we usually avoid the awkwardness of confronting the perpetrator in sober time, because we know it's all because of some emotional defect that's too much of a touchy subject to get into.

People suffering from emotional and psychological problems such as depression often refer to how alone they feel. This can only increase the feeling of hopelessness and despair that can eventually catalyze suicidal thoughts. If we fuse this with the previously mentioned 'accepted suffering' brought on by religion, it's easy to see how messy things can get. It's an old cliche, but it remains universally true that bottling up problems is extremely nonconstructive. However, the stigma attached to mental health in Ireland often eclipses such common sense. The HSE report mentioned earlier also reported that 62% of people would not want others knowing if they had a mental health problem. In liberal America, having a therapist is almost a status symbol. How many Hollywood films have we seen where characters routinely refer to their 'shrink', or where the therapeutic session is glamourised in dramatic episodes of hypnotherapy? Of course, this isn't without it's negative consequences. Yet it highlights how different attitudes can be to mental health in other parts of the world.

So after all that, it's safe to say that the Irish probably have to battle a little harder than others in coming to terms with emotional and psychological problems. Some who read this piece will see it as a harsh commentary on our national personality. Don't get me wrong. There are lots of positive characteristics of the Irish people that make us unique as a people. However, overcoming things like a particularly hard economic recession will count for little if we don't look after our mental health first. Both as persons and and as a people.