The problem with ‘Positivity Week’

Published

Liam Hainey
Photo by Toni Birrer

Photo: Toni Birrer

The recent controversy over the SRC’s decision to rebrand the all encompassing Health Week to the more narrow Positivity Week reminded me of a ditty by indie art crooner Amber Rubarth called “Chrysanthemum Song”. The song’s second verse goes thusly:

I read about a boy, who suffered depression,
his parents hung a mirror, inside his bedroom,
and they made him smile
at it three times a day,
’till it took his depression away.

I was a big fan of Ms Rubarth until I listened to this disgustingly ill informed nonsense. Go away Amber I thought. Your arrogant simplification of other peoples mental health issues are a sick joke. Shove your smiling. Mirrors do not cure depression. This was followed by a considerable number of expletives.

Thankfully I heard this song three years ago and much of the rage has dissipated, so the decision of Jess McGrellis and her SRC cohort to go down this indescribably foolish road provoked surprise, bitter disappointment and yes anger, but in a much less sweary way than when I originally stumbled upon the aforementioned tune.

I first became aware of plans to rebrand “Health Week” to the worryingly titled “Positivity Week” some time ago. At that stage details on what exactly the rebranding would entail in a material sense were thin and so, while concerned, I thought it best to give the SRC’s new team a chance to provide more information. Perhaps the idea would be to encourage a positive attitude toward those who suffered from various health issues, in the vein of the “see me” campaign. Maybe it was a new tactic to flag up the benefits of healthy eating or exercise. Maybe it was none of these and the SRC were trying something brand new. It was not to be, and the recent email sent round all students confirmed my worst fears.

The message claimed that the aim of the week to was to raise mental health awareness “specifically feeling positive and being positive towards others”. It is important to note of course that the full line up of events has not yet been revealed, and that this is just one sentence in a short preliminary announcement. None the less, that one sentence betrays a sorry lack of understanding of the issues that surround mental health, specifically depression, and combined with the name change serves only to stigmatise those who suffer from these burdens.

Positivity and mental health issues have nothing to do with each other. Depression and adopting a cheery outlook on life are not interlinked. An upbeat attitude has never and will never cure any illness, even if it is one of the mind. These facts have simply not been grasped by those behind this new endeavour.

What would have been a hilarious addition to the email if it weren’t so upsetting is that while launching this ill conceived addition to the campus calendar the SRC also points students in the direction of the Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival, the theme of which is “Walk in my Shoes”. The obvious irony of this has clearly escaped the sabbatical officers, who have displayed a deep lack of empathy. While I pointedly refuse to make assumptions about any of the organisers experience with mental health issues, the way in which this week is being presented makes it clear that they have never walked in my shoes.

I have suffered from depression for a number of years, coming in various batches of intensity and various levels of destructiveness, but always present. At its very worst it is entirely debilitating and normal function is an impossibly distant dream. If I could have cured myself by choosing to be functional I would have, and those who are capable of shaking themselves out of such a condition by the sheer magical force of positivity I am deeply envious of. In the entire history of my condition no professional has ever told me to be positive, to cheer up or any other synonym for the same. This is because they understand that in the context of what is a potentially devastating illness, one’s own attitude to life has little or nothing to do with what is going on.

I, of course, am only one person and my remarks on the issue are in no way universal, nor would I claim them to be. What I hope they do provide is an insight into why some, myself included, find the idea of encouraging positive thinking in the context of mental illness both morally questionable and personally quite hurtful.

It is tempting to draw parallel between this attitude and the current devastation being caused to lives by Atos, working under contract from the Westminster government, who are forcing those with mental illness claiming disability benefits to undergo physical examination then telling them to return to work because they can raise their hand above their heads and are obviously fit and able to do their jobs. However that would be unfair, and I have no reason to believe that this rebranding exercise is motivated by anything other than good intentions. But it is a sad fact that there still exists an atmosphere of suspicion and skepticism towards those dealing with mental ill health and this move serves only to further reinforce the idea that it’s all down to the sufferer. It’s their choice, it’s their fault, and it’s up to them to just cheer the fuck up. As a friend of mine (a psychiatrist with many years experience) said “it’s not that simple”. The SRC would do well to take note.

Liam Hainey is a fourth year Scottish Literature student and the Scottish Green Party Councilor for Langside. You can follow him on twitter @lphainey.