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Your Mental Illness Is Not Your Fault

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“If only I found a new job. If only I exercised more. If only I kept to my mindfulness schedule. If only I changed my diet. If only I invested in finding the right relationship.”

If only, if only, if only.

There can be a tendency for us to place overwhelming responsibility for our mental illness on ourselves, both in terms of what we do to improve it, and what caused it in the first place. However, I think a common feature of mental illness is the tendency to give ourselves a far harder time than we deserve.

The burgeoning “well-being” industry, and its multitude of apps, books, and podcasts encouraging us to take better care of ourselves, doesn’t always help. Here, we risk blurring the boundaries between mental well-being, something that ebbs and flows for every human on the planet, and mental illness, which for many cannot be remedied by a good page-turner, positive thinking, or an improved diet alone.

Meanwhile, the dominant self-help culture within health services (in no small part due to chronic underfunding of mental health provision) is in danger of reinforcing the idea the future of our mental health is overwhelmingly in our hands. And the frustration I feel with myself for not doing enough to look after my own state of mind can quickly turn to self-blame. My inaction, I tell myself, is part of the reason why I have my mental illness in the first place.

“Do I even want to get better?”

It is clear pursuing a healthier life and developing a more positive outlook leads to better mental health. Like most illnesses, we play a role in what led to, as well as how to improve, our own state of mind. But also like most illnesses, what we believe to be the cause of our anguish, can often be mistaken or unclear.

There is something uniquely intangible about maladies of the mind. In the absence of identifiable traumas in my life, the root of my mental illness can seem eternally vague. And, by its very cruel nature, it can send self-blame into a spin.

Inevitably, I gravitate toward endless circumspection, doubt, and guilt about my own life attitudes, decisions, and actions that got me to where I am today. Seemingly innocuous moments from my childhood take on evolving meanings as I search for causes that aren’t there. I must be kinder to my younger self. I was just a kid after all.

The Stoics of Ancient Greece believed our state of mind is not determined by life events, but rather by how we choose to react to them. If we can’t get that right, well, it’s on us. But as much as I think this ideology will work well for some (and good luck to them), for others, it’s clearly tosh.

“Why am I the one who’s struggling to cope amongst others who just, well, do, despite having to handle far more stressful things in their lives?” is a thought pattern I am sure many will be familiar with. “If others are able to ‘get on with it’ whilst I surrender to the most benign of life’s challenges, well… I only have myself to blame.”

But the extent to which a person with mental illness can “choose” how they react to life’s events is debatable to say the least, especially when those events are taking place inside, rather than outside, our heads.

A defining feature of mental illness can be a tendency to get caught in a spiral of self-recrimination. When this leads to feeling overwhelmed, it becomes a vicious cycle that feeds the self-blame because we feel unable to do anything about it.

I have to admit, at times I find solace — liberation even — in the idea that there is actually very little I can do about my own mental health. When I’m going through a bad patch, I try to imagine it as a wave washing over me. When it’s gone, I may still find myself at sea, yet not being engulfed by a disorderly swell. Until then, I baton down the hatches, try to avoid things that will make it worse, and enact what self-care I can.

But most importantly, I think some of us need to keep reminding ourselves our mental health problem should be someone else’s problem too. And the word “should” is very important here.

Because blaming ourselves for our mental anguish is just one step away from avoiding help we feel we don’t deserve. Countering this doesn’t just mean going (back) to our doctor or reaching out to friends or colleagues for help. It means doing it with our heads held high, and not for a moment feeling ashamed or guilty for doing so.

If you are experiencing a mental health crisis, in the UK and Ireland, the Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is on 13 11 14. Other international crisis helplines can be found at Befrienders Worldwide.

You can follow Will Sadler on Twitter @wsadlertweets

Unsplash image by Nikola Mihajloski

Originally published: January 16, 2022
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