High and Dry: The Mood Trend Surrounding Conversations About Mental Health

Ever since I took a semester off of school, I started to look around my usual social circle at university and feel an inexplicably strong case of FOMO. For those unfamiliar with being somewhat socially inept, FOMO usually stands for “fear of missing out” but in my case, it stood for “look how directionless and alone you are right now in comparison to your peers”. And yes, I know what an acronym is but if I tried to make a point of perfecting my feelings, I would never end up expressing them. Let’s continue.

Naturally, as any normal socially anxious person would do, I started religiously keeping up with school events that I couldn’t attend, achievements of classmates I really only stayed connected with on Instagram, and regurgitations of inside jokes that I only really half-smiled at to feign knowledgeability. During this self-perpetuated descent into social obscurity, I started to notice a trend through various social media outlets. My long nights of scrolling past click-bait listicles and fascinating, if albeit, purposeless 30-second videos had forced me to notice every time one of my contacts shared something containing one or more of the following buzzwords/phrases: wellness, self-help, mental health, personal growth, positivity, motivation, stress management, awareness, outreach, support, etc. You understand the general idea.

At first, I thought: Wow! This is great. Mental health is such an important topic to discuss in an open forum and it’s refreshing to see people welcoming and sharing conversations regarding mental illness. I was genuinely sincere about my excitement over this apparently universal enthusiasm to talk openly about mental health. But then I started reading dozens, if not, hundreds, of articles, blog posts, journal entries, and PSAs full of anecdotal advice and trivialized “tips and tricks” to managing my so-called mental wellness. And through my obsessive consumption of similar content, I suddenly found myself feeling discouraged and, ultimately, incredibly frustrated with the underlying tone of false hope and forced positivity permeating through the superficial and generic reiterations of what I could do to fix myself.

Let me be clear: I am fed up with the idea of mental wellness. Well, I’ll rephrase to be less polarizing. I am so stupidly, exhaustingly, tired of defending myself and my mental illness against mental wellness.

Truth be told, had I been the average university student going through a difficult period of stress and despair, the very foundation of mental wellness — the general positivity principle and the persistent, to the point of being almost petulant, optimism — would have essentially been the pillar of strength holding me through tough times. I’ve seen the motivational LinkedIn posts about career-changing positive mindsets and the university-sponsored “do you need to talk to someone?” lawn-posters that spring up the weeks before every exam period. I know that most people just need a little bit of prodding to continue onwards when they’re feeling discouraged or burnt out, I’m not a fool. However, as a person who has major depressive disorder, I can’t help but roll my eyes whenever I finish yet another five or ten minute read advising me that the root of all my supposed unhappiness and despair is caused by the lack of me trying to be happy.

This trend of forced positivity is such a prevalent shift of tone that it is beginning to creep into many different social levels as well. Once confined to the workout community or self-proclaimed “hustlers” of various forms of business ventures, aggressively motivational positivity has influenced the way we see productivity and progress in our workplaces, schools, and homes. More emphasis is being placed on attributing success to positivity and therefore, when faced with even the prospect of failure, optimism becomes the shield in which you could use to hide behind. When I look through what my friends are sharing, I find the usual mix of angst, humour, and nonsense. But as more and more of us come into our own and become what some might deem as actual adults, I find a lot of the thought dialogue to be armoured in an impermeable sugar-coating of forced positivity — we grin, we bear it.

Given the list of problems that anyone can face on any given day, the intrinsic value of pursuing happiness holds a lot of power. We invest a lot of our self-identity to activities and moments that bring us joy, while we tend to shield ourselves from pain or grief or anger. The dopamine-driven reward system of our brains dictate it, the history of our survival has depended on it. We strive to be happy. And there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with this. However, there has been a shift in our cultural narrative. Instead of actively pursuing our goals or ideals that would lead us to become otherwise more fulfilled and happy, we have begun to actively seek out happiness as is. This is where the trouble begins.

When we so terribly value happiness as the end-game, what we end up with is an concept so abstract that it becomes an impossible goal. Carefully crafted through hundreds of self-help resources, this oversimplified positive narrative just simply doesn’t work for everyone. And as a result, those who simple can’t grin and bear it through adversity face little societal tolerance. This becomes especially difficult in situations of pain or grief. You first are made to feel bad about regarding the difficulty you face and then you are made to feel subsequently at fault at your inability to move forward and continue pursuing a strictly positive narrative. Thus, the inability to reevaluate and continue onwards becomes something to shame and be ashamed of. It can become the difficulty in empathizing with those with depression or anxiety. Even worse, it can turn into an shift of blame onto those who have difficulties with their mental health. A person with mental illness becomes a broken human being and their illness becomes the consequence of their inability to move onwards with the narrative. This assumption that people with mental illnesses are somehow fundamentally flawed or otherwise subsequently deficient is an antiquated and frankly, very lazy notion. As a person with depression, it is not the absence of happiness that despairs me. It is the ineffectual nature in which my brain values happiness. The problem is not that I don’t know how to be happy, the problem is that I can’t feel it.

There is no exact reason as to why this positive narrative has become the dominant cultural phenomenon over the years. In fact, forced positivity is both a contributor to and a result of some of the very issues that showcase its prevalence in our conversations.

  • Social stigma: Through insufficient representation in media, we see people with mental illness to be incapable, handicapped, or disturbed. To recognize others with mental illness as who they were before with the addition of their illness often leads mistaking them as less than who they were before. How do we see people with mental illness? How should we act around them? What is appropriate?
  • Self stigma: I personally have had difficulties with reconciling myself with my mental illness ever since my diagnosis three years ago. I use humour to compensate for my insecurity as to my mental stability and because of that, it is difficult for me to seriously express how I feel about my condition to others without trying to deliver it through a digestible manner.
  • Education and awareness: Mental illness is difficult to understand from a medical, scientific, and physical perspective. A lot of what we are taught about mental illness comes later in life. I wasn’t taught about mental health and mental illness until I was diagnosed with depression. A lot of people aren’t exposed to the information at all.
  • Cultural dialogue: Despite having a reputation for oversharing, our culture is largely avoidant. People don’t know what to say when you share that you have a mental illness. A physical illness can warrant a condolence or a sympathy. But what do we say to someone with depression? Schizophrenia? Generalized anxiety disorder? Should we feel pity? Shame?

Positivity can change our reactions to situations beyond our control and can help maneuver us past treacherous waters. And when I look at people writing about mental illness, it always ends off on the same high note. It’s the same hopeful optimism that carries the masses to think that maybe mental illness isn’t so bad at all. But you know what? Sometimes it is. It is terrible and awful and it consumes people every day. It’s okay to be hopeful and optimistic towards mental illness. It comforts people who cannot relate. Because mental illness is exactly that, it’s an illness. It cannot carry in empathy like a feeling or a mood. It is the everyday of people who live otherwise normal lives.

I often slap a smile on my face and joke about my mental illness. As seriously and drastically it can affect my health, I no longer think of it as something that defines me. It’s something that is a part of who I am and dare I say, it makes me better. To be scared or ashamed of something you can’t control is okay. To want to face your mental illness, your reality, hell, your life with positivity and optimism is courageous. But you need to know that you don’t need to hide from a negative narrative. It’s okay to not be okay.

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