Credit: Kirsten Colligan

Mental health: the black sheep in the black flock

Credit: Kirsten Colligan


Kevin Le Merle
Kevin Le Merle raises the difficulty of sharing personal mental health issues.


Mental health issues are becoming so widespread that they can now be considered normal. This is a huge problem when the diagnosis of a disease is made, thanks to the standard of what a normal healthy population looks like. How can a black sheep seem out of place when in a black flock?

Most frightening maybe, is that “no definition adequately specifies precise boundaries for the concept of ‘mental disorder.’” The difficulty of outlining an object of study is a cross-disciplinary one, that haunts nearly all academics (except maybe those in the applied sciences). Here again, we run the risk of turning an issue into a non-issue because of how widespread it is.

Yet here we still stand: the black-box of the mind remains just that. However, I am not here to dwell on the ontological structures that make mental health a difficult issue to tackle (although they are worthwhile). Instead, I would just like to relate a set of subjective experiences, under the form of hypothetical narratives.

You are at a party, sipping a drink, (as you do), ready to have a good time, but suddenly someone starts to share their story. The story outlines a bleak reality that you do not want to face. In fact, the story opens up a void. A void of agony and despair. Maybe that void finds resonance in you, or maybe you have had an extremely sheltered life and are unable to relate to that void. In both cases, by continuing the conversation you find yourself pushed, slowly but surely, to the very edge of that precipice. That precipice of agony and despair. And it is at this point that the flight or fight mechanism pops in, and you start to think “maybe if I ignore that void, that darkness, it will just disappear”, and you change the subject. You can justify it later by telling yourself that a party isn’t the setting for sad stories, or better yet, set yourself up as a hero by having been the person to “cheer” someone up by talking about jollier things. Let’s pretend that you are a hero. Let’s say you are conscientious and listened attentively and gave it your all. You gave all the advice and all the compassion you could. But it’s been an hour now. Has the void resorbed? Has the despair disappeared?

Now you are either moving on, thinking you have been a coward, and that you have fed the myth that it is not okay for someone to speak about things that will bring others down, you are the selfish one who just wanted to have a good time at a party (is that so wrong?). Or, you are despairing, feeling helpless and unable to help. Ultimately, in both cases, that harrowing feeling remains.

Whether shame or helplessness, mental health issues create significant distress for both parties.  This can make people attempt to ignore them, and bury their head in the sand, in which case solutions will never arise.

And the crazed individualistic pleasure principle (created by the consumer society we live in no doubt), makes our mind forget the adage: “shared sorrows are halved”. People have become so conditioned, that while they are happy to “share joys [that] are doubled”, they have a hard time truly suffering alongside others.

Where has human solidarity gone? Why are individuals with mental health issues empowered, or pushed, to “talk about it”, when the general population has not been taught to really listen, and accept the pain of empathy? A vast number of people are effectively encouraged to open up, only to receive responses such as “that sucks, let’s hang out soon and pretend that everything is good”.

Capitalism has so far encroached its valuation of commodification onto society that the mentally “ill” need to pay a professional to be truly heard. And there again, do you think that someone suffering from paranoia will feel sincere empathy from a person that he pays to listen? If “Neoliberalism is creating loneliness”, maybe it’s time to teach people how to be real friends, and to make mental health counselling free where it isn’t already.

And to the sceptics who say not everything can be taught: I highly encourage starting to read Vladimir Jankélevitch. Empathy is an innate quality in every one of us that is too often undervalued in our society. Empathy is too often suffocated in the race to fulfil individual pleasures. Education presents itself as an opportunity to grow empathy. Raising awareness for mental health should not only target the mentally “ill”, but target the potential helping party just as much. And although some campaigns have done this, a lot remains to be done, and our focus needs to shift.

There should be no inappropriate setting for facing human suffering. People need to learn that it is okay to share sorrow, rather than to artificially repress it.


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