A Critique of the Genre of ‘Mental Health Writing’ | Part Two
Community, Commodifying Trauma, Positivity and Narratives
Hostility And Belonging
It is possible to observe another destructive form of ‘you’ in MH writing. Not collective this time, but exclusionary and accusatory; “You don’t understand what depression is like…”, “X things people with X are sick of hearing.” There is some effort in these kinds of writings to distinguish the author as entirely separate from the average non-suffering normal person, while also making mental health a very narrowly defined, binary thing in line with the symptoms they exhibit. This also creates a crude division, whereby mental health becomes some sort of club to identify with or be rejected from.
I have read a lot of writing which presents those who do not suffer, or are less informed of mental health as heartless ignorants who need to be struck from your life. Many do not know about mental health simply either because it does not affect them or because they had limited encounters with it. However, there is some destructive desire to frame these people as malicious when they try to offer (as they see it) practical yet flawed advice (‘just smile’, ‘try to see the positives’, ‘just be happy’.) They want to help but lack the critical comprehension to do so. I find certain writing promotes an aggressive ‘us vs. them’, ‘you vs. the world’ mentality, which encourages the reader to purge the ignorant from their lives.
I know many seek sanctuary in online support networks and communities — where they are ‘understood’, but I also feel that loneliness can be a very physical experience, and am skeptical as to how effectively one can replace the benefits of social interaction with virtual relationships.
I have fostered far too much unhealthy resent towards those who did not ‘understand’ me in the past, which has only served to make me feel more isolated. While sufferers may not get what they want from friends, family and loved ones in terms of constructive advice or understanding; they still facilitate the very conducive functions of belonging, care, acceptance, companionship and distraction. Your support network need not be comprised solely of those who understand mental health.
I am very wary about this section, for I believe relaying personal stories on mental health to be of tremendous value. If we accept that generalised overviews of mental health are flawed, then accounts of individual experience are of vital importance. Experience should be as extensively recorded, and with as much specificity as possible, so as to provide comfort to those who believe themselves to be outliers and to expand our understanding of mental health beyond the confinement of our own psyches. They can offer hope and solace, or serve as cautionary tales and realisations the author wishes they’d come to earlier.
However, there is a culture that I feel surrounds accounts of trauma, and the spheres in which they often exist, which concerns me — a voyeuristic appetite for vicarious misery as spectacle.
Spectacle And Extremity
The success of Frank McCourt’s autobiographies saw ‘tragic lives’ become an actual genre section in bookshops, resulting in a perverse demand for morbid-but-true accounts, with publishers parlaying pain into gripping bestsellers and authors encouraged to reduce horrifying incidents into 3-for-2 sticker fare. I cannot begrudge these authors receiving some small restitution for the misfortune and suffering they endured — the problem is in the wilfully irresponsible and exploitative rendering of them as entertainment, a commodity at the whim of market forces. The clamour for these stories necessitated some unique selling point, each fresh account having to compete with the last in terms of extremity in order to not be lost on the shelves.
How are these accounts consumed? I can image many are certainly able to sympathise with the subjects, but what is presented is — almost deliberately — so inconceivable to the average reader as to serve no purpose beyond shocking them. There is little by way of understanding — of the psyche, of circumstances, of the socio-political — to be gleaned. In fact, I would argue they have an altogether desensitising effect. The gory details take precedent and comparatively less ‘extreme’ traumas are minimised.
The demand for these stories hasn’t disappeared, it is just now facilitated by personal blogs, or in confessional articles commissioned for clicks. The hyper-competitive traffic-or-nothing nature of web publications have caused an acceleration of the extremities the authors of ‘tragic lives’ autobiographies had to reach. Non-established writers will more often than not be judged on the topicality or general SEO-friendly nature of their lives, rather than anything they have to say or how they are able to say it. To stand out as a writer worth commissioning in the vastness of the web — where the otherwise unknowable darkest moments of complete strangers are instantly accessible after tapping in a few keywords — something uniquely harrowing needs to have happened to you. Meanwhile, the ‘tone of voice’ for these accounts has converged to such a degree that the authors and their stories barely last long in the memory. This all feels very dehumanising to me.
I remember reading a passage about the filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu, (a personal favourite, though I cannot for the life of me find the passage now) which described how he captured the daily ‘tiny deaths’ people constantly inflict on one another that go unnoticed. Ozu was obsessed with suffocating societal attitudes (shame in being single/alone, an enforced obsolescence and inhibiting ‘dignity’ with age) and his films are full of small cruelties that are accepted with heartbreaking stoicism, gradually coalesce until they wear a person down.
Even when writing doesn’t detail truly exceptional circumstance, I find it fascinating how often an essay frames itself around the writer’s lowest ebbs. The obsession with extremity in mental health makes for callousness when people are faced with problems in relationships, in the workplace, of financial security, of health, of emotional abuse or just of general contentment and inexplicable sadness. There are vaguely defined thresholds for pain one is expected to tolerate individually and privately — if not outright accept as ‘facts of life’ — with circumstances only deemed ‘deserving’ of sympathy at a point where they become exceptional. This benchmark for ‘exceptional’ seems to be continually being moved.
Relative and ‘Legitimate’ Pain
Of course, those with designs on a career in writing are actually very scarce in number. Countless arenas exist ‘online’, each further subdivided into communities. In these communities, there is no requirement for accounts or personal essays to ‘stand out’ amidst the deluge of traffic generators. However, I have certainly observed this competitiveness at a micro level — measuring instead against Twitter followers, YouTube subscribers, subsections of Tumblr and so on. I have certainly done this myself. Communities’ create their own frameworks for normalcy and extremity, and given almost all sites now operate with some upvote reward mechanic, there is incentive to ‘rise to the top’ of a particular community. This democratised internet amphitheatre is ideal for ‘content’ to thrive, but it seems obviously flawed when applied to mental health, and yet I rarely see a distinction in the way they are presented nor consumed. A person might be able to share their feelings or ‘cry for help’ more openly online, but this ‘cry’ necessarily needs to be suitably desperate in order to be noticed.
My early encounters with these posts elicited those classic insidious thoughts of “What right do I have to be sad, when…?” I delegitimised my own condition against the circumstances’ of others, chastising myself for feeling unhappy when I didn’t deserve to be. This relative evaluation of circumstances exists far before and beyond the internet, but I think there is something in the immediate access to these stories that accelerates it. I wasn’t just comparing myself to people I knew, but now to strangers online who might be in very similar situations, who I was now acutely aware ‘had it worse’ than me. I developed an unhealthy need to have my unhappiness validated, but I did not post myself. Instead, I internalised this competitiveness, constructing parameters by which I was — when compared with this person, or that — in fact, justified in feeling as I did, to myself.
In doing this, I think I fostered some subconscious (or maybe conscious) desire to be unhappy, which detrimentally affected my behaviour accordingly. I allowed myself to become more easily overwhelmed, deprived myself of pleasure or else acted self-destructively; doing things I fully recognised would makes things worse. I’m fairly certain this fatalist mind-set is not one unique to me. I regularly identify some degree of it in others; friends, family, or someone online where it’s possible to witness a deterioration across a series of posts. Acknowledging this is near-impossible, because it requires apportioning a degree of culpability in one’s mental health. When I have felt at fault, or ‘to blame’ for my sadness, I have often then felt a compounding sense of guilt. However, I have also found it healthy not to completely absolve myself of responsibility where I’ve been in some way complicit.
The apparent need to ‘hit rock bottom before things get better’ is an oft-repeated truism across media, and a pernicious one. It hints at some catharsis in achieving abject misery, that there is some pleasure in savouring wallowing. In the absence of tangible successes or contentment in life, I find there is encouragement to take pride in your failures, to be special in what you’re good at: being sad, being the most sad.
Mental Health As Personality Trait
Mental health is all too often presented as interesting in of itself. The ‘tortured genius’ is an idiotic trope that doesn’t seem to go away — someone’s achievement augmented by their condition, either providing some inspirational catalyst for creativity, or giving them credibility and authenticity at having ‘overcome’ their constant struggle. In this way, mental health and suffering becomes perversely aspirational, with people wanting to live the blues so they might be able to sing it.
The ‘manic pixie dream girl’ trope is in a similar vein, although subtly different. Here mental health becomes exquisite, and the sufferer (almost always a woman) rendered interesting only by her mania. This ideal doesn’t just exist in the sketchbooks of yet-to-be-crowdfunded Zach Braff films, I have encountered a great number of people who state they find mental illness (being ‘fucked up’) to be an attractive quality. The appeal may be in a very surface level intrigue, the sufferer as different to normal, boring people; maybe there is some affinity there — the yearning to be with someone who ‘understands’ because they are similarly burdened mentally; or else there is some saviour fantasy, entertaining the idea they might be the one to rescue someone from their condition.
As both of these tropes rely on mental health to be framed as a desirable quality, it seems obvious to point out their insidiousness, yet I find the idea of ‘mental health as interesting’ to be a pervasive one. In my plan, I’d originally written the note ‘I don’t view my mental health as interesting’ as if I never have, but on further reflection, I don’t think that’s entirely true. In fact, I think I was almost excited by the thought of it at same point, as if it was a compelling facet to my personality. The way mental health is presented as spectacle; through grimly fascinating description, harrowingly readable accounts and fantastical cartoons, can make it seem beguiling. To suffer from a condition is then to be a part of this lore (the ‘club’ mentioned earlier) and be set apart from the average person; a silver lining in the way boys are taught to cherish cool scars.
I am conflicted as to exactly what I think here. Principally, I think anything which reduces the sense of shame around mental health should obviously be encouraged, but I do worry that wearing mental-health-as-a-badge-of-honour (something which I am guilty of myself, often to a flippant degree) might not be altogether that helpful. On the one hand, it is certainly abating to be able to talk about mental health openly, and consequently easier to forge friendships and support networks or just feel less alone, but I do sometimes wonder to what extent people attribute their sense of belonging within a community to their mental health. Where mental health is the main common ground, do people ever feel a pressure to sustain a baseline level in order to remain?
Here I refer to a widespread idea that learning to ‘be happy’ is an antidote to feeling medically sad. This is purported across articles, books and other media (videos with TED Talk style motivational speeches),which implore one to ‘love yourself.’ Again, I will caveat this section with the recognition that if positivity culture helps those facing issues of debilitating self-esteem and makes people feel less abnormal, it is obviously of merit. Personally, I find something very alienating in the way it is presented.
It often requires framing mental health in a crudely simplistic way. In order to overcome one’s unhappiness, you must become happy. In my experience, issues of mental health are not this binary; emotions are more complex than Sims-like fun-meters in need of replenishing. It flies dangerously close to the ‘have you just tried not being sad?’ flawed logic which is rightly denounced.
Positivity culture seems at its most helpful when restoring confidence, but this requires buying into it. In times of protracted unhappiness, I have found it particularly unhelpful. The instruction to ‘love yourself’ and the compliments and comforters that so often accompany it — ‘you are so great/talented/special/beautiful/doing so well’ etc. — feel rote, forced and false. If the issue is of self-perception, I feel you must earnestly have to believe these reassurances to be essentially true of the self, otherwise they are empty, regardless of whether others seem to validate you on them.
There is also the unspoken implicit; ‘you are doing so well… so why are you so depressed?’ Here, I am reminded of the supposed need to ‘hit rock bottom’ — this time as perceived by others — in order for them to be convinced of the distress. Furthermore, the source of distress is not necessarily purely one of self-loathing. Deeper issues (trauma, anxiety, stress and so on) often cannot be reversed at a surface level by being ‘more positive’, they need to be addressed by other means.
I believe there is a certain degree in which — through these comforters — positivity culture relies on the reader to see themselves as infallible, with vaguely antagonistic guidance to ignore anything to the contrary. Swinging from the extreme of; “I am shit and deserve this”, to “I am great and beyond reproach” seems a precariously flimsy coping mechanism, creating unrealistic expectations of the self in order to live up to this ‘positive’ image. I remember finding failures more acutely crushing as a result — damning proof that the reassurances were false and everything I’d believed otherwise to be true. I believe this infallibility also denies the sufferer valuable self-critique. Destructive behaviour is harder to recognise when you are encouraged to ignore it.
Positivity culture serves a mollifying, and — likely in many cases — empowering purpose, but it should not come at the expense of practical advice.
Mental health is often presented as an arc, a linear experience which can be finished, completed (‘the road to recovery’, ‘light at the end of the tunnel’). The author reaches some lowest ebb, constituting a dramatic point-of-no-return, and proceeds to turn their life around, until they are ‘cured’. Having overcome their condition, the author is able is now able to speak from ‘the other side’. These accounts are so obviously useful in providing hope and inspiration to those in dire need of it, though I can’t help but feel there is a level of disingenuousness to some of them. The requirement for these accounts to inspire (you rarely see any with discouraging conclusions being published, probably with good reason) necessitates they provide some sense of closure that often rings false, or feels hastily tacked on. I do not believe mental health always works so conveniently.
I have encountered several writers now who have (as the demand for a narrative dictates) presented themselves as ‘cured,’ in spite of the reality. In doing this, they stand as unobtainable yardsticks to an unaware reader, who must compare their ongoing conflicts with someone who has ‘come out the other side’.
Emily Reynolds once told me about a book she once read on bipolar. After finding it nuanced and insightful throughout, it suddenly concluded to the (paraphrased) effect of “I met my husband and now I barely ever have manic episodes anymore.” Even if we take this conclusion was true, I’m not sure as to how helpful it is as ‘inspiration’. Rather than focussing on the wider circumstances that lead to their improvement, these accounts regularly hang their hat on some single personal triumph (meeting the love of their life, gaining a promotion, moving to a dream job, reconnecting with old friends — “…and now I’m happier than ever!”) which relies on some beyond-your-control extenuating circumstance presenting itself.
“It gets better.” This well-intentioned phrase constituting a near promise is obviously true in many cases. However, I find the way it’s used often removes a degree of autonomy from the sufferer, leaving recovery (or at least, improvement) up to the whim of time. I remember comparing myself to the authors of inspirational accounts unfavourably, and with some envy and resent. When the recovery I’d always expected to happen failed to manifest itself after several years, I recall feeling very desperate. (‘How come things aren’t getting better for me?’) I don’t think I am alone in feeling slightly crushed at false reassurance.
I think a greater emphasis needs to be placed on managing expectations. Mental health is something you may have to continually deal with (rather than ‘overcome’), and so finding coping strategies which work for you in achieving some sense of stability is crucial. The recognition that I’m able to exert a degree of control over my condition has been more empowering than the vague hope (but yet to materialise) of spontaneous and miraculous recovery.
To an extent, I have been guilty of using narratives in these essays. I have talked about what I feel are positive changes in my mindset that I’m now able to reflect on. Truthfully, I am presently feeling discernibly better than I have done (partly because I now feel more ‘in control’) and haven’t felt at my most desolate or had a psychotic episode for quite a few years now. However, I am still prone to regular bouts of malaise, despair and dissatisfaction. I have not ‘overcome’ my condition, but I feel far more able to cope with it. I have also been deliberately vague and ambiguous around various aspects of my condition, partly because the thought of surrendering control in how these personal aspects may be perceived frightens me, but also because I’ve been still unable to form neat or satisfying conclusions from them, and they still perplex me. Sometimes it all just feels like an arbitrary, boring synaptic mess that it would be meaningless to interpret.