Over 150 Authors and Artists from five continents, wrote on mental illness. Candice Louisa Daquin, a psychotherapist and writer and editor, tells us why this is important for healing
When Indie Blu(e) put feelers out about creating an anthology based on mental illness, the passionate reception galvanized our belief it was a necessary subject. However, a few expressed concerns that an anthology about mental illness, would be ‘depressing’ and they wondered ‘who would want to read about mental illness?’ It is this perspective, acting like a fog, that separates those inflicted with mental illness from those who are not.
Such responses exacerbate feelings of isolation, unworthiness, and loneliness that many with mental illness already have. Through The Looking Glass, a metaphor from Alice in Wonderland, evokes this common feeling of separation, as poetry and prose has long had a tradition of doing. For many, this lack of understanding may be the tipping point leading to a premature death. If there is one reason to embrace mental illness in an anthology of art and poetry, it is to speak for, speak with and represent those who would be otherwise denied. To continue a tradition of poets and artists elucidating on the subject of suffering mentally:
“I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,
And Mourners to and fro
Kept treading – treading – till it seemed
That Sense was breaking through”
(I felt a Funeral in my Brain, Emily Dickinson)
If you Google ‘what causes depression?’ among the top ten searches will be ‘free yourself of depression’ and ‘depression is a choice’. As long as we blame the sufferer, the malady will become more entrenched. Mental illness is the only malady, aside from lung cancer caused by smoking, that we actively blame the sufferer for inflicting on himself. We bandy around terms like ‘chemical imbalance’ and ‘deficit of proteins in the brain caused by trauma’ but nobody really knows what ‘causes’ depression because like most disease, depression is epigenetic, hereditary and mal-chance and so many things we do not understand.
Depression can be a learned behavior, it can be transmitted through a virus, be the result of a series of debilitating personal events, or because you have stomach problems, and the serotonin and other chemicals are not manufactured in sufficient quantity. Depression can be the result of faulty mood regulation by the brain, genetic vulnerability, dementia, old-age, youth, hormones, drugs, eating disorders and sexual abuse. Or, depression can be caused by absolutely nothing! Usually it’s more than one thing, deeply complex and difficult to replicate in a laboratory setting.
As long as we as a society utilize words like ‘snap out of it’ and ‘be strong like …’ we will entirely miss the point. Not one person living chooses to be depressed, it is not a simple matter of one chemical being too low and another too high that can be ‘fixed’ with a pill or an adjusted attitude to life. We must distinguish between sadness, melancholy, situational sorrow, grieving, bouts of misery, feeling sorry for oneself, and medically defined depression.
The latter is a mental illness, it doesn’t mean you’re delusional or mad or unreliable, in fact depression strikes all but typically the more intelligent are more prone to it. One could argue, depression is a disease of insight and awareness of our ‘unbearable lightness of being.’ For some it manifests in childhood, others not until they’re elderly. All forms of depression are legitimate, and should not be shamed, rebuked, repulsed, diminished or ignored.
Whilst there is sense in saying we should not obsess over the subject, to the exclusion of efforts to brighten one’s life, by whatever means possible, we should equally not ignore those who are desperately struggling and usually without a single person to help them.
If your neighbor had cancer, you would not shame him for his ‘weaknesses tell him he was making a ‘bad choice’ and ask him to ‘get over it’ so why should you ever think it’s acceptable to do that for depression? Just as we are re-writing language for Trans Generations to be inclusive and supportive of insight and change, we should reconsider how we talk about depression. As long as we perceive depression to be a ‘bad attitude’ or ‘personality deficit’ or believe if Oprah could ‘get over it’ so could you, we condemn those who have obviously tried hard to do just that. They might feel it is their fault if they have not ‘succeeded’.
Encouraging someone to do things that help them when they are depressed, believing for some there is an end to their depression, those are all positive actions. We should take our depressed friends out for walks, to remind them there is joy in the world even when they are not able to see it, through no fault of their own. But we should also be careful that our well-intentioned prescriptivism does not become dogmatic and suggest the individual isn’t doing all they can. If they’re not (doing all they can), it may be that’s all they can do for now. Equally if you really believe someone isn’t doing enough, you can suggest things you feel might help without seeming accusatory.
From inception, we at Indie Blu(e) sought to offer a platform for those who might otherwise find no platform. Artists have historically endured mental illness in higher numbers than average. Reasons abound but there is no final analysis, it is thought whatever spurs creativity, may equally make certain illnesses more likely, just as left-handed-people are often more creative, perhaps it is about what parts of the brain are utilized and how.
No one group of people, based on gender, ethnicity, culture, doesn’t suffer from mental illness. Varied cultures have sought to shame others.
Likewise, mental illness has long been thought to affect women more than men and is tied inexorably with ‘hysteria’ (hyster/womb, the once-thought seat of mental illness in women). However, in The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression, Andrew Solomon has said: “If one discounts depression triggered by anxiety about offspring, the rate of depression for men and women appears to equalize”, especially, with women seeking mental health counseling in higher numbers because of cultural approbation toward men owning any perceived vulnerability. This is further proven by the higher rate of completed suicide and ‘accidents’ among men, pointing to a social cause rather than one gender suffering more than the other.
With the stigma of mental illness well entrenched in most societies, and not likely to be eliminated, despite best efforts, the only course of action must be in continued awareness. The more we are aware and exposed to diversity, the more accepting we ultimately become, or so sociologists tell us. If there is any truth to this idea of ‘acceptance by exposure’ then being a vehicle of awareness is how to eventually overcome prejudice and bigotry. Solomon tells us: “The insistence on normality, the belief in an inner logic in the face of unmistakable abnormality, is endemic to depression.” These kinds of ‘certitudes’ can be the triggers that push someone suffering from moderate mental illness, to a breakdown. It is the lack of support, empathy or compassion that acts as a sharp rebuke to those who need the very opposite.
For those suffering from the myriad of mental illnesses that exist; stigma and shame are daily companions. While logically we know people never ‘choose’ mental illnesses, a societal prejudice can be deeply engrained, making it a greater challenge than ever not to blame oneself. How often have we heard the sayings: “If I could beat it, then I think anyone can and they’re not trying hard enough if they still suffer,” or something to that effect? How often do pronouncements like: “They don’t seem to be able to get themselves together,” or similar, indite people who are sick, when we would rarely use those same pronouncements on those with physical ailments?
In ‘The Will To Power’, Friedrich Nietzsche tells us: “(the mentally ill) represent the same ills. Health and sickness are not essentially different, as the ancient physicians and some practitioners even today suppose. I fact, there are only differences in degree between these two kinds of existence: the exaggeration, the disproportion, the nonharmony of the normal phenomena constitute the pathological state.”
Our penchant for judging, putting ourselves above others, ridiculing and labeling, seems boundless, and causes those who are already struggling to stay afloat, further grief. Why we feel the need to do these things, is too long a consideration for this foreword, but suffice to say, the more we put others down, the better we seem to feel about ourselves, if history is anything to go by. In many ways then, prejudice against the mentally ill, is not dissimilar to racism, homophobia or sexism. It shares that delight in rebuking someone else for who they are, and a relish in implying the accuser is of superior stock. When we look at it like that, it seems quite pathetic, and obvious, but when it’s subtly employed in modes of speech, everyday considerations and overall responses, it can be insidious and incredibly damaging. This could be a reaction from people who are unable to process the condition. They attack, as a form of unconscious self-defense.
In Psychology and Freudian Theory, Paul Kline says: “When we speak of defenses, we actually mean whole ways of perceiving reality such that important attitudes, for example prejudices and sexual views, are affected.”
When I trained as a psychotherapist, I wanted to ensure children and adults who were depressed had someone to go talk to, rather than fall into despair. Sadly, I found in the profession, such a high rate of ‘burn out’ that I could understand why therapists seemed so disinterested, uninvested and fatigued. If you see 12 clients a day, each for an hour and then have to write long notes and take phone calls, you simply cannot give enough of yourself to be competent. Psychotherapists have a duty through their profession to ‘nonmaleficence (do not harm) and beneficence (promote good) but psychotherapists are only human and possess human flaws, including their own prejudices and biases. When you combine those with an unrealistic workload, you may find psychotherapy doesn’t work as well in practice as it should, which is a pity, considering how necessary it remains.
Even in countries where insurance companies do not dictate how we label people, in order to be reimbursed, there are too many sick people for too few therapists and the patients really suffer a lack of quality care. One could argue this is an improvement from the days of mass mental institutions or even, the ‘care in the community’ model, that fell flat on its face and led to mass homelessness. One could also argue, what other way realistically exists? But we seem to find the money for other things, just not mental health, so the real issue is priorities. Mental health, despite its terrible fallout, has never been a priority and it doesn’t matter how many mentally ill mass shooters there are, it never seems to significantly alter policy or be considered important enough to truly invest in. Easier to dose with pills that are supposed to be short-term and have long-term side-effects.
Instead, stereotypes abound, and few people outwardly admit to being mentally ill for fear of condemnation or it is affecting their job or right to keep their children. Draconian as that might seem, without sufficient protections in place, mentally ill people have fewer rights than anyone else. This ‘going underground’ response means those in need, are even less likely to receive it and the sheer cost means those with serious mental disorders, are often unable to earn enough to pay for treatment. Whilst this echoes modern medicine and the health industry at large, mental illness has more in common with chronic illness, the kind that are invisible, or misunderstood, like Chronic Lyme and Fibromyalgia. The same brutal disregard for the suffering of these individuals is shared by those with chronic mental illnesses, they are an inconvenience at best, in societies that prize profit above all else.
In Owning Your Own Shadow: Understanding the dark side of the psyche, Robert A. Johnson contends: “The balance of light and dark is ultimately possible – and bearable. All nature lives in polarity – light and dark, creation and destruction, up and down, male and female. It is not surprising that we find the same basic laws functioning in our psychological structure.”
When reading submissions, we realized, even among mental health professionals, there is so much disagreement, and implied judgement. When someone talks of ‘those who can fight their way out of it’ they imply, those who cannot, are weaker. I’m sure that is not what is meant but language is so crucial when considering impression. Just as with racism, how we speak, indicates our biases and level of empathy. If we want to be non-judging, we should start with reworking how we speak about mental illness and consider how many times those suffering have been humiliated and judged by our lack of care in how we refer to their problem.
This is no less true in poetry, and some of those poems not selected for the anthology, whilst good and raw, had components within them that could have been misconstrued. This means even those who suffer mental illness may inadvertently judge themselves and others, through learned behaviors and language. One of the most judging people I spoke to about this anthology was an acquaintance with Bipolar 1 disease. Ironic yes, but not entirely surprising when you consider how we often emulate what has been done to us, so if we were judged our entire lives, we do it in turn.
Others would argue, what’s the harm in holding an opinion? When dealing with vulnerable populations who are trying to be treated equally and not labeled or dismissed, we must consider the importance of how we express ourselves. Of course, we’re all entitled to hold an opinion, but hate and prejudice are different, and judging is a form of prejudice that can act like a slow cancer. We should ask ourselves instead, why we feel the need to judge others when they are not like us, rather than consider how they are like us, or what we can do to help them? Why is claiming to be stronger than someone else, such a ‘thing’ in our society? Why do we relish putting others down?
When we learn to stop doing that, we may reach Psychologist Abraham Maslow’s highest level in his Hierarchy Of Needs, that of self-actualization, where we no longer live based on basic needs (physiological, safety, self-esteem) and begin to consider what we can do for others. If we don’t wish to do this, at least we could do no harm. When considering harm, we should bear in mind, words do not seem as apparently harmful as actions, but putting someone who is already struggling down, could be the last straw. Would any of us want to push someone over the edge just because we can?
Indie Blu(e) has published anthologies in response to the #metoo movement, LGBTQ equality and other socially minded subjects and with 2021 emerging from a year of hell, we saw how those with chronic mental and physical illnesses suffered silently without recourse. The umbrella of ‘art’ is one means by which, we have as humans have always expressed ourselves best. Art has led to societal change, acceptance, tolerance, elucidation. Art can heal, art has power.
It is our hope mental illness will one day be seen for what it is, an unavoidable malady that people try their entire lives to overcome. We have seen some of the best creative expression come from those suffering from mental illness and without mentally ill people, our world would be bland indeed. Mentally ill people are not typically mass shooters; they are creative, expressive, intelligent, and incredibly strong. A collection of work celebrating the talent of those who suffer from mental illness, seemed to be a necessary way to begin to shift old prejudices and shine light through the looking glass.
Candice Louisa Daquin is a Psychotherapist, LPC/NBCC. She is a Senior Editor at Indie Blu(e) Publishing & Co-Editor of their anthology exploring madness, Through The Looking Glass.
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