Mental health not just a question of positive thinking (2)

In today’s self-help world, I often see and hear advice being given based on the idea that people need to be more responsible for their own health and well-being. Quite often, this advice is given in an arrogant, self-righteous tone by people who clearly feel superior to the person on the receiving end. In essence, advice givers in this school are saying, “look at me… I am physically fit, healthy and happy and all because I make the right decisions and live a healthy lifestyle.” If the rest of us simply model ourselves after these successful individuals we too will be healthy, happy and fit.

Such advice is the modern day version of an old favourite —the “pull yourself up by your boot straps”—school of advice couched in personal responsibility lingo. Based on the tenets of this philosophy, if you’re unfit you need to work out, if you’re unemployed you need to look for a job, if you’re depressed you need to think positive thoughts, if you're anxious you need to do yoga or some other form of meditation and if you’re fat you need to exercise and eat less.

While all of these activities in themselves might be helpful to many people and may do the trick for some, unfortunately life isn’t usually this simple. The problem is that for many people these strategies are not helpful and put the responsibility in the wrong place. Often, this type of advice only adds to the problem by making the depressed, anxious, unemployed or unfit person feel guilty and more inadequate.

Many problems we face in this life are not solely the result of our own behaviour and we are often quite powerless to solve them on our own. Depression is a good example. Believe it or not, depression has a biological, genetic basis for many people and comes out of the blue even if they are doing everything right. The individual is truly not responsible for its occurrence.

Because depression is also accompanied by pervasive feelings of guilt, it is easy to convince depressed people that they are responsible and the authors of their own misfortune. Even if they agree with this point of view, they are mistaken and this thinking only serves to delay seeking appropriate and effective treatment. Many people don’t seek treatment because they don’t believe they deserve it and feel they shouldn’t need it. Perhaps they fear having one more person tell them to smarten up and get over it. Such arrogant advice can certainly contribute to their sense of hopelessness and may push them over the edge to suicide.

If you have never experienced this type of disorder, it may be hard to believe that someone else’s experience is different from your own. When you feel stressed or blue, positive thinking and yoga may do the trick for you—but what works for you, may not work for someone in this situation.

So the next time you feel the urge to tell someone else to smarten up and be more like you, try some humility—try to put yourself in that person’s shoes and imagine what it would be like if you actually didn’t have control of your mental state. Next, show some compassion.

If you are experiencing depression or anxiety, effective help is out there. Speak with a professional about your options.


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