Trigger Warning: anxiety, depression, suicide
I began writing this a number of months ago and abandoned it. This was partly because I am not someone who is naturally comfortable sharing intimately personal experiences, but mostly it was because I sensed that the space for discussion around mental health issues has been colonised by the medical community and by state apparatuses and that, because of the seriousness of the issue, only a certain kind of discourse is permitted, and to say anything different is to invite attack. But the enormous wave of condescension following the death of Robin Williams has pushed me to finish it. I am open to discussion on any of the points I make here.
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A few months ago, I was walking across Dublin to meet a friend. At the top of Grafton St., a woman from some religious group or other was handing out glossy leaflets titled something like “Reasons to go on living”. How absurd. I wanted to take her aside and explain to her that, while she probably means well, anyone who is actually considering suicide has a complex and personal web of problems in their life that couldn’t possibly be addressed by a one-size-fits-all pamphlet of generic reasons why life is worth living. I also wanted to shout at her for being so completely, offensively patronising. How self-absorbed do you have to be to think that your fleeting interaction could conjure away someone’s suicidality? To think that the most alienated and impersonal form of social interaction – shoving a leaflet into someone’s hand – is going to decisively alter their relationship to society? As if depression is just the result of ignorance or stupidity: of never having been told, or never having thought, of things about life that are good.
I did neither, as it happens. I just kept my head down and walked past, hoping she wouldn’t try to engage me. It was far too early in the morning for that shit, and I was in no mood for it.
In the Arts block in UCD they’ve installed a blackboard, that says “Before I die I want to _____________” about 20 times. Predictably enough, it’s been used by men to anonymously sexually harass women they know – “Before I die I want to ride X” – and to make jokes about how useless an Arts Degree is. I’m not really sure what the point of it is. Do its instigators imagine that people with suicidal thoughts don’t realise that if they’re dead they won’t be able to go on a skiing trip, or learn to play the banjo, or get a blowjob off the Pope anymore? Or do they think that they’re crowdsourcing a set of useful suggestions as to what one’s life’s purpose might be that might actually change someone’s trajectory? Does it have a point beyond spending a sum of money earmarked “suicide prevention” so that someone in an office somewhere can tot up in monetary terms how much “suicide prevention” has been done this year?
It seems every other week there’s someone on TV cycling a bike or jumping on a trampoline or swimming to prevent suicide, all bleating the same condescending message “it’s ok not to feel ok, and it’s ok to ask for help”, as if the weight of fears and stigmas that keep people locked in silence can be dispelled by a catchphrase. College campuses are intermittently swarmed by these people: happy-clappy do-gooders in brightly coloured clothes baking cupcakes and putting up balloons and smiling rather too earnestly. At some point in the recent past, it was decided somewhere that the issue of suicide would be tackled, and that it would be tackled in the most obnoxiously fluffy, self-congratulatory, and insubstantial way possible. It’s one thing to think you can save the world by holding a jumble sale for Africa when you’re in primary school and don’t know any better, but adults should be able to address serious issues seriously.
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I’ve never felt myself to be at serious risk of suicide, thankfully. But for the past four or five months I’ve been struggling with anxiety and depression, which had me struggling to get out of bed, never mind leave the house, sleeping erratically, not eating, fighting with those close to me, panicking over college and other commitments which I was unable to make very much progress on, and enveloped in a dread that my whole life was about to collapse around me, which culminated in my having to abandon this semester of college because I simply couldn’t cope anymore. Life stopped being enjoyable, except in intermittent flashes; at best it merely was – flat, anhedonic, boring – and at worst it was a cloying trap of worry. The last thing I needed – and I needed, and still need, many things – was chirpy teenagers in fluorescent t-shirts enjoining me to “please talk”. (To whom?) I find it utterly alienating, superficial, empty. Are there really people whose world is so pleasant that all this joyous affirmation could be an authentic expression? Or is it simply a naivety that thinks the psychosocial damage of the world can be healed with an injection of fake saccharine positivity? Either way, there’s no possibility for communication here, because this mode of expression simply doesn’t inhabit the same world: how could all this Crayola-coloured positivity have anything to say about anything real?
What’s missing from all of these efforts by mainstream culture to address the issue of suicide is any capacity to grapple with the ambivalence of life in this society. What I mean by this is the recognition that life does not automatically provide us with a reason to carry on, that the world is not waiting to shower us with pleasures if only we would embrace it. Uncertainty and vulnerability are fundamental to the human condition, and thus too are anxiety, despair, and pain. The possibility of boredom is proof enough that mere experience is insufficient. If we find a reason to persist with life, a possibility for enjoyment, it is the result of a process of struggle, an active creation – the product of an act of will, or perhaps faith, not of reason. There is always the possibility of hope, perhaps, but it is pure fantasy to suggest that it is always immediately available to us in all circumstances.
In my experience, a good psychotherapist understands this, and is willing to engage with the validity of negativity. But as a culture we do not permit such things to be expressed and acknowledged. Instead all we can muster is the absurd moralising insistence that life is always worth living – an axiom that cannot be questioned – and the corollary pathologisation of the real lived experience of those who feel otherwise. Perhaps it is because existential questions are painful that such things are confined to the therapeutic situation and the backrooms of philosophy departments. Perhaps it is because those of us who are “healthy” recognise on some level the precariousness of that position. I don’t know. But I do know that socially-enforced positivity, the social ethic that commands that life must be enjoyed, consigns the reality of negativity to a grim and dangerous silence.
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What does the reality of anxiety, depression, suicide, say about society? According to the dominant medical discourse, nothing at all. Healthy people are healthy, sick people are sick and need to be made healthy. There are only individuals and their problems. It would of course be obscene for me to try and suggest that all mental illness is political in origin or meaning – moreover, I don’t believe it – but it is, I think, equally obscene to treat mental illness as if it were merely an individual dysfunction with no social component. (This is of course not to deny the biological/clinical reality of mental illness, merely to question the compulsory individualisation of their causation.) There are political reasons why we experience anxiety and despair. There are political reasons why mass culture permits only the celebration of the often miserable conditions of our existence, and why the permitted conversation on these matters has all the depth and nuance of a playschool mural. Precarious work, unemployment, poverty, homelessness, drug addiction, social isolation, the fear of one-another, the patriarchal system which poisons our most intimate connections and alienates us from our closest companions: these are social diseases which can only be tackled politically. There are limits to the powers of medical practioners. We should demand more from life than coping strategies and medications, and that requires that we implicate the society in which there is so much unhappiness, and not just our selves which are unhappy – that we reject the repressively depoliticised official discourse on mental health, and dare to think about the kind of world in which life might be worth living.