I recently wrote about things people with long term mental and physical health conditions have in common. One of the main misconceptions is that a cause of our illness is a lack of gratitude.
It’s true that gratitude can contribute to a general sense of gladness and fulfilment in our lives. It’s true to a great extent we can control our happiness by actively pursuing certain ambitions; investing time and effort in relationships; taking care of our physical health; using our skills in meaningful ways; building resilience in order to cope with hardship and rejection; and making an effort to identify and acknowledge things we are grateful for.
However, it is more likely that privileged people like me, who do not to face structural inequality or discrimination in our everyday lives, will be able to gain the comfort and opportunity which can lead to such happiness. And it is easy to be grateful when, on the whole, opportunities are accessible. Individuals who experience social and economic barriers can be absolutely grateful for everything they have and strive tirelessly everyday, but having to constantly struggle -whether due to poverty or social attitudes – can lead to mental health difficulties.
That’s not to say mental illness doesn’t make my life difficult, but my difficulties are not because I am white or middle class. So to say that mental illness is due to a lack of gratitude or completely a matter of personal responsibility is offensive to the many People of Colour, disabled and LGBTQI+ individuals who are struggling, often with significant additional barriers to accessing services.
As with other health conditions, mental health problems are not the opposite of happiness or gratitude, they are the opposite of wellness. For example, the disturbing feelings of extreme emptiness experienced by those who have Borderline Personality Disorder stem from – amongst other possible causes – adverse childhood experiences or trauma, not from being pessimistic. You could have a great relationship, a fulfilling career, be the most mindful and grateful individual in the world and still be affected by Bipolar Disorder, Anxiety Disorder, Diabetes or Cancer.
It is often suggested to people who experience both mental and physical illnesses, usually implicitly, that they can think themselves well. This is why I hate the rhetoric of ‘warriors’ or ‘battles’ when it comes to people managing or recovering from any illness. It can be particularly hurtful for those who have life-shortening illnesses or the families of those who have taken their own lives. It is reductive of the complex experience of illness and, indeed, life in general.
My mental illness has actually given me a more positive outlook and sense of hope and I can honestly say that on a daily basis I am appreciative of my relationships, my family, my freedom and having some money in my pocket. An indicator that I am free of symptoms such as depression is actually when I have a bad day – one of those classic bad days where things go wrong, people are being difficult, I’m in a bad mood about everything and nothing, I think ‘why me?!!’ and that the universe is against me! In a way, I quite like those days because, when I’m well, I can cope and feel confident I’m not sliding into depression. I know the difference between a bad day or a difficult time and mental illness (although it is always important to be aware of how certain situations or events can trigger symptoms).
I don’t have mental health problems because I think I have a hard life, but sometimes depression, anxiety and other symptoms can make my life hard. Some people do have a hard life and, even though they try everything to stay upbeat and hold it together, they still develop depression. Sometimes life experiences and circumstances are so overwhelming, such as bereavement or physical pain, that it can throw people into the depths of depression, robbing them of all control. Illness is not a bad attitude, it is a state of being unwell.