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van goughReactions to suicide say much about society’s attitudes to mental health. In Victorian times, suicides were often explained away in order to avoid a social stain on the family. There was also the unhelpful religious belief that those who died by their own hand went straight to hell. So we got things like: he accidentally fell into the pond and drowned, or he accidentally shot himself while cleaning his gun.

There’s still an air of evasiveness when discussing mental illness, but there is at least a recognition now that it is a real illness rather than a weakness of character. When someone known to us takes their life, the reaction is one of shock that anyone so well liked/loved/respected could ever feel that way and we be unaware of it. But there’s guilt too that we did not see it coming, that we did not do more to help. We feel complicit, guilty in our silence at holding to the secret of others’ despair. But what can one do? Not everyone suffering from mental illness wants to talk about it. And when you realise how little others understand your feelings, you can hardly be blamed for not wanting to share them.

There are no easy answers.

It’s an unfortunate fact that high-profile celebrity suicides raise awareness more than any well meaning mental health campaign. They launch tragedy squarely onto the front pages, but even here amid the collective shock, “normal” people can still be dismissive, telling us celebrities are notorious libertines, usually off their heads on drugs and it should be no surprise they kill themselves now and then. But this is to ignore the despair and the sheer existential emptiness that underlies mental illness, an illness bullet-pointed with unshakable, negative self beliefs:

* My life is a mess;
* I am ill adjusted to the place I find myself in, yet cannot escape it;
* I am unequal to my responsibilities;
* People expect more from me than I am capable of delivering;
*I am letting everyone down;
*It’s all out of control;
*I cannot move another step;
*I am useless;
*I am a bad person;
*My life has no meaning;

Do any of the above ring true for you?

Of course people in the forefront of public life are no more likely to suffer mental illness than the ordinary and the poor. Indeed being poor, being unable to make ends meet is a very dangerous place to be in the mental health stakes, more so as you are less likely to have the money to access competent people who can help you. But we all worry, and even when we have nothing to worry about, like having no money and no job, we invent other worries – seemingly trivial things – and inflate them to apocalyptic proportions. If we are susceptible, these worries will plant the seeds that blossom into hideous mental blooms of distorted self image.

We need to talk about it. Even just sharing the secret with someone can help. I spoke of mental health services last time – admittedly in less than glowing terms. Lack of funding means the gap between aspiration and reality is now unbridgeable, at least for 90% of the population, but the important thing here is that we make the effort. We admit our fears by sharing them with as many healthcare professionals who will listen. Even if the person we’re sharing them with has one eye on the clock, and can never get our name right, the process of sharing can be helpful. But there are other things we can do too, things that are even more effective in returning control of our selves back to our selves.

With a little imagination we can think of the human being, metaphysically, as comprising three vessels – the physical, the mental and the spiritual. We need to keep all three topped up. If one of those vessels is leaking, it can be replenished by the others. If all the others are leaking too, then we’re in trouble, but the good news is paying attention to any one of them can help the entire system to restore its balance.

The easiest to fix is the physical.

Among my memories of the darkest of my hours there shine radiant beacons of days simply walking in the Lake District Mountains. I have never felt ill on a mountain. It was when I came back down to earth the problems recurred. Physical exercise of any kind is good for us, good for circulation of the blood and the lymphatic system – getting the good stuff in and the bad stuff out, and you don’t need to do it on a mountain; a walk in the park is good too, or take up dancing, jogging, tennis, Tai Chi,… whatever interests you and suits your abilities. The after-effects of even gentle physical exercise dribble through into the mental vessel, surprising the most depressed of moods with little revelations of relaxation and calm.

It sounds too good to be true, that merely exercising the body can make a real difference the problem is, getting up off your arse when the black dog comes calling takes a monumental effort. We resist it, even though we know it’s good for us. This is another of the mysteries of mental illness; it is as if the pain is itself an intelligent entity dwelling within us and fears for its existence; it sees where we’re going with this and holds us back; it would much rather we vegetate in front of the telly, drink alcohol every night, and drop fatty treats into our mouths. I know, I’ve done it. But we must resist the resistance.

And keep moving.

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