Looking After Our Anxious Selves
What can you think of that outweighs poverty as a source of misery? Well, your list is your business of course, but the top of mine starts with anxiety and depression. The psychological and social costs are astronomical and they are reflected, to some extent, by the annual spend of hundreds of billions of dollars targeted at medications and therapies.
Despite these costs, illnesses like anxiety and depression remain a source of stigma and therefore isolation. Some media outlets are addressing the issue in a more sympathetic fashion, yet the tendency towards sensationalizing mental illness still very much exists. And it can be paradoxical. I’ve witnessed patients gossiping over the news that some celebrity has been struck down. The tone is not always sympathetic despite the fact they suffer the same conditions. A them- and-us mentality fans the flames, as does the lack of kindness we might show to one another.
People with mental health issues often tend to live in the shadows. Unlike some patients they are less likely to be assertive in making demands for better services and better personal treatment. These issues often fall on the shoulders of charity or volunteer groups who act as the mouthpiece for mental health, but in a world of loud voices they often struggle to be heard.
Plant and Stephenson (2008) provide a lively description that typifies the experience of many people with mental health issues. Imagine, they say, going to see your doctor because of a severe pain in your abdomen. They listen, prescribe you pills, and you leave. But the pills don’t work, so you return and they increase the dose. Yet again, there is no relief, so next time they change the medication. On goes the process as your misery continues, yet not once has a test been carried out in order to determine the cause of your abdominal distress. As the authors say, if this happened to cancer patients there would be outrage, yet for deep emotional pain it is deemed acceptable.
But drugs can’t actually take care of us properly. It suits the major pharmaceutical companies that we believe our distress is due in no small measure to chemical imbalances that they may be able to correct. If we succumb to this message we do ourselves a disservice. Pills, after all, are just one link in a chain of events. We assume that having been prescribed a pill we have been properly and thoroughly diagnosed, yet the experience of many people is one of suck-it-and see. Trial and error with potent psychoactive drugs seems to be something we tolerate, but in part it reveals the lack of any true science or understanding underpinning the nature of psychological distress. Perhaps it also says something about our relative indifference or comprehension as to the suffering of others?
We perhaps rely just a little too much on the established structures and systems, yet what else do we have? Maybe we need to be just a bit more strident with our demands for more sophisticated services? Here’s a thought. Pitch in with some of the organizations trying to do just this. If you can’t give time, give money to support their cause, which is after all, about you and me.
Plant, J & Stephenson, J (2008). Beating Stress, Anxiety & Depression. Piatkus