Open Book

Hey there everyone!

Oh no, she’s back, what will we do? Well, exams are done with, I can stop panicking and begin thinking clearly again *rousing chorus of Hallelujah.* It also means I can get back to this with a bit more regularity – terrible as it feels skipping weeks, it’s either that or post something that makes no sense AND distract myself from my revision AND possibly have an all out meltdown. I hate the anxiety I get around my exams; I also genuinely need to give the rational thinking portion of my brain a pay rise – by this point it’s earned it.

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So this week, the plan was to talk about Guardians of the Galaxy 2 (which most of you ought to have seen, and I’d highly recommend it if you haven’t) and their autistic representation; however, World Mental Health Awareness Week was this week. Plenty of my friends have been doing cool things for it like webchats and articles and a favourite artist of mine released a music video based on recovery and relapse (here, if anyone’s interested –  I’m not taking any money for publicity, I just think it’s amazing), and to throw in my ten cents, I wanted to talk about books.

*Trigger warnings ahead for mention and discussion of self harm*

Trust me, it makes sense. I’ve been re-reading one of my favourite series this week to take my mind off the hideousness that is my research methods exam; Vampire Academy, by Richelle Mead (Goodreads Link). Before you all roll your eyes at yet another vampire romance fan and completely switch off – it’s not Twilight, it will never be Twilight, it is not even in the same league as Twilight. Fun fact – one main character has depression. Another fun fact – another has bipolar disorder. The way it’s handled here is that their mental disorders are intrinsically tied to the kind of magic they wield – psychic powers. Firstly, I love this because it lends the idea that awesome telepathic and healing powers should have consequences, which isn’t something I see a lot in young adult fiction. Secondly, it brings up a couple of things about mental health which I feel should be pointed out.

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Like many illnesses, mental illnesses and psychological disorders are not asked for. We can argue genetics and environmental stressors all we like, this fact remains immutable. There was a very cool article a few years ago which argued that depression was an allergic reaction to the world; whether there’s any true scientific background to this apart from this one study, I’m not sure, but it’s a very interesting concept. Regardless, neither Lissa nor Adrian can control or change the consequences their magic has, expect by cutting themselves off from it altogether, and this is mirrored in the real world. Regrettably, pills are not the quick fix for us mere mortals that they are for these Moroi, but there are very, very few people that can get out of mental illnesses without help. If you are one of those people, I salute you. But neither of them asked for this, and neither does anyone else struggling with mental health.

The second is the way it’s handled in popular media. The first book of the series (and there are six in total) was made into a film a couple of years ago – Vampire Academy, starring Zoey Deutch and Lucy Fry (can be found on Netflix) and like so many of these things, was really rushed and badly cut and would have been so much better as a TV series – hey, I criticise because I love. I think the biggest bone I had to pick was to do with Lissa’s self-harming, an issue close to my heart as some of you will know. In the book, her harming was a conscious decision, borne of depression brought on by a rare form of magic. For the film it was the same – except they cut out the conscious decision part, and had the cuts simply appear on her arm after magic use. Do not ask me why, to me it makes far more sense the book’s way, but maybe they’re trying to water it down for the poor little kids. Which gets to me.

I’m sure there are disorders where it does happen, but I, personally, have never known anyone with depression who just woke up one day having done awful things to themselves. As a rule, self harm is a conscious decision – maybe not a healthy decision, but a conscious one nonetheless. And I think dumbing it down for the sake of a target audience of young teenagers (13-16), at exactly the age that this could be becoming a concern for them, is a terrible idea. Numbers of under-18s presenting at A&E with self-inflicted injuries are rising (as of NHS figures October 2016), and as with many things, the more we talk and encourage talking about such things, the less this is likely to happen. Painting it as an unexpected consequence isn’t the most helpful thing on the planet; neither is Lissa’s best friend terming her a ‘freak’ when this happens.

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Yeah, I know, the whole ‘talk about it’ thing again. I’ve said before, talking about it is not the easiest thing in the world to do for someone with a mental illness. And why do you think that is? Nobody else will. There’s been a lot of talk in the last few years about teaching mental health in schools as part of PSHE (or whatever they’re calling it these days), and I think the more that mentally healthy people talk about it, and the more educated they get, the more comfortable people will become talking about their own issues. All we’re asking sometimes is a listening ear; a recent review quoted in the BPS Research Digest stated that the biggest factor in stopping self harming is family support. So dumbing it down or changing it’s emphasis in books and TV shows and films is maybe not the most helpful thing in the world.

Saying that, I have no idea how Vampire Academy got a 12 rating; mental illnesses aside, torture of minors and dead animals all over the place, anyone? My mum barely let me watch Titanic at that age, never mind Lord of the Rings or similarly violent things. And that was a PG.

Anyway, /rant.

I hope everyone’s had a good couple of weeks, and continues to have a good couple of weeks. One chapter ends, another begins…exams finish, project kicks in for real. Wish me luck.

Stay awesome everybody 😉

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Book

Teacup

 

 

Now trending – #ignorance

Hola!

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Last week, I quoted an old opinion article from the Evening Standard, talking about how we need to stop giving kids diagnoses like dyslexia and dyspraxia, and dyscalculia and the like, blaming the failings of the education system and the willingness of teachers to believe these children have ‘brain diseases’ rather than bucking up their act and teaching them maths. You may also recall I got a Bit P*ssed Off about this.

It seems to be a trend.

Fessing up to my own ignorance first; until I did a Google search for autism a while back (for something else), I did not realise that there are people out there who do not believe the condition exists. I was moderately horrified (though I suppose, in the end, not really surprised) to find that this was the case across the board for learning disorders, and mental illnesses in general. Like this article from the Telegraph quoting a group of academics who want to drop the diagnosis of dyslexia because they fell there are no unifying characteristics for it. (To which my slightly incredulous response was, ‘Have you never heard of an umbrella term?). I had a fight with my flatmate’s boyfriend last week when he came out with the phrase ‘People with depression should just grow a backbone.’ (He apologised afterwards, but only after being shouted at for five minutes straight). This afternoon I was chatting to a bloke with an autism spectrum disorder, who apparently was made to attend a “special needs school” because nobody ever thought he’d amount to anything. Can’t vouch for its veracity, but all together it got me thinking about how we find out about learning disabilities and mental health.  I’ll tell you something – at school, when I was growing up in the 90’s/early 00’s, we were taught zip until A-Level, and then only because I took psychology.

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We all ought to know about the whole ‘autism is caused by the MMR jab‘ debacle that went down in the early 90s. Essentially some idiot published a paper of (completely fabricated) data that established a ‘causal link’ between MMR and autism, and anyone who’s ever done scientific research will know that concrete causal links are something of a holy grail, especially in psychology. This particular link was, of course, pure bullshit: yet is still extensively quoted by the anti-vax movement even today – America’s very own President Fart included. Because obviously, your child dying of measles is preferable to them having autism :/sarcasm/. What really gets to me is the wilful lack of education that these people seem to display. It’s not like we’re blinding them to the benefits of vaccination: we’re giving them reams of information on why it’s good for them, and the health of the population as a whole. We’re practically shoving it in their faces. Are they listening? Big Fat Nope.

(I should add, my mother and father were some of the ones that listened; autistic or otherwise, I was vaccine-ed up to the gills. Five-year-old me was not impressed).

It’s the same, I think, with mental health disorders. It’s gotten better, there is no doubt about that at all, but the second (and I mean the second) someone who has a mental disorder gets a gun and shoots someone/gets shot by the cops, everyone with a mental disorder immediately feels the fallout. Sometimes I feel like no matter how much we try to teach people about these disorders, and how to manage and care for people, and treat people with these disorders, it falls completely on deaf ears – or that all ears turn conveniently deaf whenever someone with a mental disorder commits a crime. And when you have people who are supposed to be professionals coming out and saying that disorders such as anxiety and depression are nothing more than myths…it’s enough to make anyone despair.

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It’s evident through history as well. One of the prevalent theories of autism through the 50s and 60s was that of the ‘refrigerator mother’ – the idea that autistic children are the way they are because their mothers are emotionally distant. This has thankfully been disproved a thousand times over, but the idea remains – as shown in this 2012 article arguing that children with autism are simply deprived of love. This, as we all know, is bullshit. I and people like me, react differently to the world; this does not mean we are neither capable nor deserving of love.

Thing is, as I said before, I never really expected to find the same case with dyspraxia as well – I guess because I grew up with a name for my difference, I simply took it for granted. Not to mention I study psychology, which probably colours my view somewhat. But then you get stuff like that Evening Standard article, and this book (the blurb actually makes me feel a bit ill). You note they both call learning difficulties ‘diseases’ as opposed to ‘disorders.’ Shoot me down if you will, but I think calling them diseases is a complete misnomer, and not for the reasons you might think. Yes, disease has a different stigma to it, but the word also implies that there is a ‘cure.’ And there isn’t. There is no cure for what I have, there is no cure for what my friends have, and in trying to cure us of autism, or ADHD, or dyspraxia, you’re more likely to destroy us. It’s like thinking you can cure someone of being gay, something else that makes me feel ill – the curing attempts, not the gay.

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And who suffers for this ignorance? The academics in their ivory towers, the titled professionals and the opinionated parents? No – it’s us. The labelled ones. Parents will scour blog-sites and newspapers for confirmation that this scary thing their child has is curable, and meanwhile I feel like nobody wants to understand why I am the way I am. Until my diagnosis, I’d never heard of dyspraxia. Nobody ever talks about this stuff, and it’s a crying shame. Because until we do, this culture of ignorance and fear of the unknown, or the different, or the extraordinary, is only going to grow, and prevail and I do not want to know where it may lead us.

So can we get the #ignorance trend out of society, please?

Stay awesome, everyone.

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Mental Health Top Tips – What’s Top and What’s Not

NEWSFLASH: Today (10/10/2016) is World Mental Health Day. I’m ashamed to say that Facebook had to inform me and it almost completely blew past me.

You may have noticed the mental health is very close to my heart. Today, 1 in 4 people in the UK have been diagnosed with some kind of mental health problem.  I personally have never been shy or retiring about the fact that I am one of those people. I have been through CBT, I feel far more in control of my low moments; but from personal experience, the truly bad days never really go away.

This is not the case for everyone. I know people who have been in therapy for years and it has done nothing for them. I know people who believe there is no help for them and therefore refuse to seek help altogether. Around a year ago I wrote an article regarding the crash of Germanwings flight 4U9525 and the stigma surrounding depression (to be found here), so I won’t return to those issues in as much detail here.

The other thing that cropped up on my Facebook was The World Mental Health Foundation (who sponsor World Mental Health Day) stating 10 Top Tips for looking after your mental health. These tips appear to be ubiquitous; most of them are listed in every single self help book, mental health leaflet, motivational poster and God knows what else that one can find in any relevant charity or GP office. However, this doesn’t mean they should be discounted.

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Because I can rattle for England and in the interests of keeping this post both readable and digestible, I’ll post five tonight and five tomorrow.So, let’s have a look at the first five:

  1. Talk about your feelings

The oldest one in the book, but nonetheless a goodie. Talking can be massively cathartic, and ‘guided talking’ (which is how I like to think of counselling) can lead you down mental pathways which are very illuminating.

Unfortunately, it isn’t that simple. There is no such thing as ‘one size fits all’ in mental health therapy – which is a good thing – but not everyone responds to them, not to mention that a significant proportion of people relapse following completion of treatment. Add this to the fact that most people don’t want to talk about their feelings. In spite of the advent of the internet,(where any idiot can post their opinion – case in point; me), we live in a very insular society.

Do not get me wrong: talking about your feelings is healthy, particularly in those feeling isolated and scared. It’s up to the individual, however, to decide whether, and indeed when, to talk and when to stay silent. You shouldn’t push someone into talking if they don’t want to; it helps nobody.

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      2. Keep Active

This is one I am a big fan of. I know not everyone is into fitness, but I love going for a run or a cycle if I’m feeling down or stressed. There is a literal stack of evidence that exercise improves mental health; it releases endorphins (the brain’s internal pleasure hormone) which promote general wellbeing, not to mention the physical health benefits. I could sit here spouting them all day (but I won’t, because that’s not why I’m here).

It’s not an alternative to therapy, mark you. At the height of my depression I was cycling and riding almost every day and I still felt like hell – in fact, it shut my background noise up so that I had more time to focus on the crappy thoughts – which arguably made it a lot worse. However, walks can help on a down day (or night, but if you’re going to go out walking at night, please be careful). Runs as well, if you are that way inclined. But for serious mental health issues, therapies (both pharmaceutical and psychological) are recommended. Exercise is not a cure-all.

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      3. Eat Well

I think this one is a little bit nebulous, to be honest. Laying aside the fact that people on special diets such as coeliacs or lactose-free are perfectly capable of living on these diets and being perfectly fancy-free, it’s a very under-researched area. This doesn’t mean it doesn’t have some merit – logically speaking, if eating the right diet is an aid to weight loss/gain, healthy skin, the improvement of general body functioning – why not improved brain function as well? An article written by Nutritionist Resource (here) links food consumption habits to conditions such as depression, schizophrenia, and Alzheimer’s disease. As with all mental health issues, however, it is never this simple; for example, there is evidence to suggest that most psychological disorders have some kind of genetic component. Don’t panic – these gene variations are small and not particular heritable, but their presence alone is enough to complicate matters when it comes to predicting and managing mental health issues.

I think that eating the right diet is important anyway, but when it comes to staving off or preventing mental disorders, I think that there is too much going on in the brain to ascribe a major significance to this approach – yet. As for the future…who knows?

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      4. Drink Sensibly

The World Mental Health Foundation classes this particular tip under ‘Don’t drown your sorrows in alcohol.’ Not arguing with this at all. They’re right – alcohol is a depressant, not a stimulant, no matter how crazy and alive it might make you feel when you’re out with your friends, dancing on the table with your shoes on your head or something equally odd (I maintain to this day, the video does not exist). Alcohol dependence is not a fantastic coping mechanism and adds a whole new dimension to treatment. Unfortunately, it does tend to co-occur with issues such as depression – keep a sharp eye.

I’d like to add a another dimension to this tip myself however – drink enough water. The average human needs up to 2.5 litres per day to maintain a good level of functionality (link and link). This is surprisingly hard to achieve (or maybe I’m just lazy), but it does make a difference – it aids digestion, brain function, cell function…it’s an all around good idea. Personally, I feel much better in the morning if I’ve drunk enough the day before, and like sh*t if I haven’t.

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      5. Keep in Touch

I would really like to class this under ‘talk about your feelings,’ but I feel this pertains more to having a social life than to talking to a professional or having good ol’ rant to your best friend. It’s also about maintaining good relationships, and being able to recognise if someone is toxic for your mental health. I’ve had to back away from friends sometimes for a good long while because they’re simply not good for my state of mind at a given point in time. There is nothing wrong with this. If they care, they should understand. If they don’t, they’re not worth your time.

Humans are inherently social animals; no matter how much of a misanthrope you might make yourself out to be, as a species we don’t react well to being alone. There have been studies which have shown that social isolation (real and perceived) activates the same region of the brain that processes physical pain; the cortex begins producing a painkiller. Being left out literally hurts. It therefore makes sense that keeping in touch with friends should help with mental health issues. It’s often not easy, however; on a bad day, the idea of being in the same room as someone else can be the worst thing in the world. It’s made worse if you live alone or with people who you don’t know terribly well (like a house-share or a student flat), or if you have to go into work when the last thing you want to do is be social. Having the support network certainly helps, but that same support network should understand if you need some alone time as well.

Okay, that’s it for this half. I hope that’s been at least partly interesting an informative, and I’ll see you tomorrow for the rest.

Stay awesome!

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Note; if anything discussed above has affected you, or you feel like you need to talk to someone, below are some links to sites which can take you further or give you more information. These will be specific to the UK (as I know most about this system) but there will be similar sites for people living in different countries and continents. Help is out there somewhere, promise. 

http://www.iapt.nhs.uk/about-iapt/

http://www.mind.org.uk/

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Destroy The Stigma Around Mental Illness

Stigma: a strong feeling of disapproval that most people in a society have about something, especially when this is unfair

To Stigmatise: to treat someone or something unfairly by disapproving of him, her, or it

Definitions according to Cambridge Dictionaries Online (source link)

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Speaking as an almost-ex-depressive (as in, I’m three years out of therapy but the bad days never quite go away), stigmata and stereotypes around mental illness do exist, and I’m willing to bet they are one of the most popular reasons people will not seek help for the condition they have. It was certainly one of mine.

Speaking as a psychology grad, if it hits you, it hits you very idiosyncratically which, as with most mental illnesses, makes it hard to pinpoint. I’m not going to go into massive amounts of detail about what depression is; suffice it to say, it can hit anybody and whether or not you get it generally comes down an unlucky hand of cards – I ascribe to the idea that it’s a combination of family history and the way one reacts to the world.

By this time, many of you will have heard of the crash of Germanwings flight 4U9525 in the French Alps on March 24th, tragically killing everyone aboard. It’s since come out in investigations that the co-pilot sent the plane into its fatal descent deliberately. The latest report from the crash investigation states that the co-pilot had been suffering from depression for some years, and had ‘hid this from his employers.’

And with the stigma that surrounds mental illnesses, I almost don’t blame him.

There are careers that require you to be mental illness free for upwards of two years – mostly in high risk occupations such as careers in the Army and the police force. This is not the result of stigma – this is in the interests of personal safety. Anyone seen the bathroom scene of Full Metal Jacket? In careers where they teach you to fire guns for a living, they don’t want the insurance nightmare. Which to be perfectly fair, is understandable (if annoying to be on the other end of – been there, done that, but that’s a story best left out).

Inferring in part from the report, flying is another one of those careers where they like you to undergo some kind of psychological evaluation before letting you fly a plane. Again, understandable if they’re going to let you control a massive metal tube flying 38,0000 feet in the air with hundreds of people on board, supervised or otherwise. But these tests are far from standardised, and because of this, there are calls now for more rigorous, standardised testing.

Which is utter bollocks.

Talk to anyone who’s done a psychology base degree – hell, even a psychology A-Level (or equivalent). They will tell you that there is no such thing as a reliable standardised test, because there is no such thing as a standard mind. As a point of interest, among the first standardised IQ tests were a set of tests created to “scientifically” prove that some people were of substandard intelligence – as in, specifically designed to make them look stupid (see here and here). In the same way, accidents occur, or crimes are perpetuated, in which a mentally ill person is involved. And suddenly everyone with a diagnosis, or the same symptoms becomes dangerous, or incapable, and generally substandard.

A fantastic post by a writer for the Guardian throws it into sharp perspective. I, personally, haven’t noticed any outright condemnation of people with depression in the media – but we wouldn’t, because wouldn’t that cause a public outcry. What we see instead is a very subtle chain of association. The German newspaper Bild calling it ‘his madness.’ The BBC releasing editorials examining screening process for pilots, asking how pilots with mental illnesses slip the system. Talking about his lifestyle and hobbies as though the condition he had was some dark and twisted secret.

As a species, we are hardwired to put people in boxes – it’s a survival thing. It’s when we begin to put people in the wrong boxes, or assign them boxes they don’t fit in, that problems begin to occur. This stigma around mental health issues makes asking for help something of a minefield, and it shouldn’t be. We should spend less time worrying about screening procedures and more time worrying about supporting these vulnerable people through the bad times and out into the better.

I’ll finish on a word from the mental health charity Mind:

“Clearly assessment of all pilots’ physical and mental health is entirely appropriate – but assumptions about risk shouldn’t be made across the board for people with depression, or any other illness. There will be pilots with experience of depression who have flown safely for decades, and assessments should be made on a case by case basis.

Today’s headlines risk adding to the stigma surrounding mental health problems, which millions of people experience each year, and we would encourage the media to report this issue responsibly.”