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Are you mentally ill or very unhappy?

Back in February 2022, Sophie McBain – associate editor at the New Statesman – courted controversy by writing an article exploring whether the current rise in people seeking professional help with their mental health is a result of a rapidly unfolding healthcare crisis. Or whether it is simply the natural reaction of people emerging from the undeniably tough period of the COVID-19 pandemic and plunging straight into cost of living issues, wars and other worrying times[1]. She asked where natural reactions to difficult times, such as sadness, anxiety or despair, stop being symptoms of unhappiness or uncertainty and start becoming troubling evidence of a more serious mental health concern. Also, more significantly, how we can tell the difference, and at what stage should we step in to offer professional help? For her article, McBain interviewed people who had undergone intense reactions to traumatic feelings or events and had received diagnoses of serious mental health conditions as a result. In one case, a mother lost custody of her children after a mental breakdown. Professionals diagnosed borderline personality disorder and feared that her mental health struggles could put her at risk of harming herself or her children.

“But, that’s not me…”

However, as supposed diagnoses were revealed, interview subjects found themselves wondering if that really was what was happening to them: ““But that’s not me, that’s not who I am!” she remembers telling her solicitor, terrified. A social worker told her she needed to achieve greater “emotional stability”. (“If you could just close your eyes for a second and imagine someone taking your children away,” Samantha asked me, “how would you feel?”) But the psychiatrist deemed her disorder “untreatable”, and her children were removed.[2] In the case above, the mother was re-diagnosed ten years later with complex post-traumatic stress disorder – a natural reaction to a dysfunctional childhood and violent ex-boyfriend. It came as welcome confirmation of what she had been slowly realising; that it wasn’t a flaw in her personality that had caused her breakdown, but the negative things that had happened to her and how they had made her feel. In other words, emerging from a tough time of life and struggling with how it had made her react.

A mental health pandemic?

Mental health referrals have increased dramatically in the UK since the start of the pandemic. Government statistics suggest that the number of adults diagnosed with depression has increased by a factor of five. The figures for children are equally stark, with double the number of young people seeking professional health for suspected depression since the pandemic began.[3] During her research into these results, McBain delved deeper into the debate about whether this is due to a new wave of mental health concerns arriving, or whether it is simply that we as a country are suffering from mass unhappiness and are unsure how to react. While it is clearly crucial to take people’s struggles with their emotions and feelings extremely seriously, it is equally as important to help them work out where their concerns are coming from, and why they might be feeling as they do. This helps professionals, friends, family members and peer supporters work out how to help those affected deal with their challenges in the most appropriate and effective way.

Sadness versus depression

For example, is someone feeling persistently sad, or are they experiencing clinical symptoms of depression? We all feel sadness at certain times in our lives and there are things we can do to help lift ourselves out of feeling sad. Self-care is key in these situations, such as stopping to rest, having a long bath, eating a nice treat or doing something we love to help relax our minds. While this doesn’t always remove the cause of the sadness, it can often help us find inner strength to face it with renewed energy and determination. Depression, on the other hand, is a longer-term mental health condition that requires a different approach to sadness. If left untreated, depression can last a very long time, even when the cause for sadness disappears, improves or is hard to identify in the first place. Depression is a mental illness, whereas sadness is an emotion. It cannot be fixed by a long bath, bike ride or ice cream. Symptoms of depression can include sadness, as well as irritability, lack of concentration or focus, fatigue, loss of interest in life, thoughts about taking one’s life, as well as physical signs like headaches, dizziness and unexplained pains in the body[4]. Seek professional help at an early stage if you suspect signs of depression in yourself or someone else in your circle. At the same time, look for avenues of peer-to-peer support where you can process your feelings and work out what may be happening to you. Or, if you are worried about someone else, let them know you are available to talk without fear of judgement, indiscretion or attempts to ‘armchair diagnose’ them too readily.

Sharing is caring

For those seeking connections and support, social media has become a vital tool. It is a weapon in the fight to give a voice to people who are struggling with their feelings or working out if they are feeling an extreme emotion or living with a mental health condition. Finding and joining responsible online platforms, groups and pages can provide direct access to professionals, peer support groups, academic research and credible sources of advice, help and community groups. While there will always be individuals and areas within social media that are best avoided while feeling fragile, many platforms help people realise that what they are going through is not necessarily alarming and strange, but something that many others are struggling with too. This knowledge can be life-changing (or even life-saving) for those who feel unsupported, judged, frightened and alone. It can lead people to seek help, reach out and make positive, healthy connections to help them deal with their own individual challenges. Identifying suitable online avenues of support can also help people find positive, pro-active ways of working through their challenges. These may or may not involve seeking ‘official’ mental health condition diagnoses. Conversely, they may simply be about working out what the problem really is through research, connecting with others and soul-searching to start putting things right. Or helping people find ways to start exploring their natural reactions to what’s going on in their lives so that their challenges and worries can start to seem less scary and difficult to cope with.

Where to seek help

If you are concerned about your mental health or that of someone else then reach out to a mental health first Aider in your organisation, or you can contact your EAP provider. You can reach out to your GP if you want to get some more professional support. If you are facing a crisis or know someone in crisis then please reach out to the Samaritans by calling 116123 or text SHOUT on 85258.
If you are not concerned about your mental health but do need some support to deal with current life challenges, or want to work on your personal growth and development then do reach out for some coaching support. You can contact me here Let’s Connect to find out more about coaching then click here Services


[1] Source: Accessed 28 June 2022 [2] Source: Accessed 28 June 2022 [3] Source: Accessed 28 June 2022 [4] Source: Accessed 28 June 2022

Post Author: Gayle Young