Millennial Existentialism and the Dopamine Addiction Crisis

Whilst genetic predisposition certainly plays a fundamental role in an individual’s mental health; there are nonetheless, other factors that are conducive (or detrimental) to one’s mental well-being. In this article, I want to explore some aspects of modern society that may be fostering poor mental health amongst the millennial generation. Whilst we cannot control the numbers spewed out and given to us by the genetic lottery; we are nonetheless, radically free to decide how we choose to perceive – and more importantly respond – to the cards we are dealt.

“[We are] free, free in every way, free to behave like a fool or a machine, free to accept, free to refuse….”
— Jean-Paul Sartre

 

If you have experienced bouts – or prolonged periods – of poor mental health; or, if you have a history of mental health issues in your family, this article is for you. We must realise that no matter how unfortunate we may feel at times for being endowed with a brain genetically predisposed to depressive, anxious or suicidal tendencies; we must take full responsibility for how we manage our mental health. We must be conscious of the toxic aspects of modern society and become aware of harmful behaviours that we may have unconsciously adopted.

To avoid having a full blown existential crisis, one may be tempted to ignore one’s responsibility and whip out the ‘fatalistic mental health card’ – I can’t change how I feel because I am born with a brain predisposed to X – thus, I will continue to engage in self-destructive behaviours; because, I have no control over how I feel and have no chance of improvement, or recovery. At times, I have viewed my situation through this lens. It’s an attractive and comforting thought during a mental health crisis, because its requires zero effort and, more importantly, it requires zero change. When one is depressed, one is likely to be feeling hopelessly lethargic; thus, the commonly touted ‘self-help’ suggestions such as “Go for a run!” and “Do some yoga!” may not be very helpful. If one can barely find the energy to get out of bed and wash, it is unlikely that such an individual will sporadically find the motivation to step onto the yoga matt and perfect their downward-facing-dog. Now this does not detract from these tools being incorporated into one’s mental health arsenal – they certainly have their time and place. However, I believe that the most important thing for an individual during a mental health crisis, is that they are fully conscious of the harmful patterns of behaviours that may contribute to a further decline in their mental state. The first step to improving one’s mental health is becoming aware of how various activities can contribute positively, or detrimentally to one’s feelings of well-being.

In this article, I want to briefly explore something which –  for the sake of convenience – I will term the dopamine addiction phenomenon. We millennials were born into a drastically different world to our ancestors – even our grandparents generation. Consequently, our brains are continuously bombarded with a plethora of stimuli that we are not cognitively competent to deal with. As we grew-up our parents warned us of the harms of addiction – they warned us of gambling, alcohol and drugs – however in modern society addiction is rife; yet, some of the addictions that our generation struggle with were not even mentioned by our parents – simply because, they didn’t exist to the extent that we face now. Subsequently, millennials at times may feel uneasy; down, or anxious and often, it’s hard to pinpoint why. Whilst there may be genuine underlying medical mental health problems, there can also be societal factors compounding these negative mood states. However, instead of investing some cognitive will-power into discerning the potential causes to this feeling of discontent, we often take the easy option – we crawl under our duvet, consume our high-sugar high-fructose syrup goods and unconsciously scroll through our social media feeds; our brains not fully engaged to the content on our ‘smart-phones,’ as we try to pay equal attention to the white noise coming from the superficial contestants of Love-Island on our laptops (and we wonder why our brains are not performing optimally).

Our moods and mental well-being depend fundamentally on the neuro-chemical cocktail that flows through the three-pound lump of grey mass between our ears. Don’t underestimate how sensitive our brains are to environmental stimuli. Our hormones evolved to serve a specific purpose; modern culture now provides us with frequent and occasionally constant sources of hormone-inducing stimuli that entirely undermine the very function that some of our hormones are meant to serve. For example, we know that dopamine is the neurotransmitter responsible for controlling the brains reward and pleasure centres. Dopamine is released by the human brain whenever an individual engages in activities that further it’s chance of survival. Prior to the modern age, dopamine surges would be limited to the climax of certain activities, including procreation, successfully hunting down a prey or finding food in the wild. In response to these types of events, dopamine would be released as a climatic reward for the immense effort that courting a mate or stalking and hunting down a prey takes. Unfortunately for the millennial generation, there are dopamine triggers everywhere – including those I have mentioned already – social media and fast-food. Other triggers include video games and HD porn; the latter is an extremely harmful stimuli for someone that struggles with poor mental health, but I will go into this in more detail later in this article. First, I will explain why these activities are harmful.

All the activities that I have listed are known to induce large dopamine spikes over prolonged periods of time. Whilst this flooding of dopamine in the synapse may result in feelings of excitement in the short term, the consistent flooding of dopamine can contribute to depression; a decrease in energy and loss of motivation in the long run. What happens is that our receptors eventually become desensitised to the constant and excessive concentration of dopamine in the synapse. Furthermore, when a stimulus (such as social media or HD porn) is removed, our dopamine receptors remain desensitised. Subsequently, our body requires more and more dopamine just to feel normal or content. This is the general mechanism of addiction. Thus, someone with poor mental health that experiences feelings of low-mood may be inclined at times to use these dopamine spiking-stimuli to give themselves a short-term mental boost; doing so however may be extremely detrimental to such an individual in the medium to long term. Not only will such an individual become dependent on these things to feel normal, they may end up feeling worse than before. Subsequently, an individual with poor mental health or a hereditary predisposition to mental health problems will do themselves a great service to consciously resist drinking from the poisoned chalice of dopamine spiking-stimuli.

Addiction to these cheap sources of pleasure have a host of nasty repercussions; the most common being:

  • Obesity
  • Low mood (even lower than before)
  • Anxiety and stress
  • Lethargy
  • Inability to focus
  • Lack of motivation and drive
  • Erectile dysfunction or general lack of arousal in real-life situations

This list merely includes some of the most common effects that dopamine-spiking stimuli have; there are a host of other equally nasty consequences from cheap sources of pleasure. One must never be tempted for a quick-fix solution to feeling mentally unwell – the stimuli I have listed are illusory solutions; anticlimactic and detrimental.

If you’re feeling lonely do not binge on high-sugar food. If you’re feeling sexually frustrated do not resort to HD porn. If you are feeling depressed and lacking motivation do not binge-watch mind-numbing ‘reality’ TV.

The instant access to dopamine spikes we have today is counterproductive to the biological function of dopamine and has resulted in a generation that – on average – would rather lie in their beds and watch Netflix for 6 hours straight, than read a book. Young men and women turn to porn instead of pursuing a potential mate and partner. We want quick-fix, instant solutions and we are not to blame; we are bombarded with cheap sources of pleasure every minute of every day in modern Western society and it’s often hard to resist. But, if you care about your mental health, you need to become aware and acknowledge whether you may have unconsciously desensitised your brain to the effects of dopamine.

If you are experiencing any of the symptoms/effects that I listed above, it is very possible that you have become desensitised – you may want to consider altering your behaviour for the better.

Thus, if you are genetically predisposed to mental health problems, you do not want to make your situation more difficult by desensitising your brain to dopamine; doing so will make it extremely difficult to live a productive lifestyle in the long-run. Desensitisation will result in you becoming increasingly less willing to perform the fundamental tasks that are conducive to mental well-being. If you are feeling depressed and lack confidence about your image, binging on fast-food – although a short-term way of improving mood – is, in the medium to long term, detrimental. Similarly, if you are lacking motivation to socialise, scrolling through social media and allowing your brain to be stimulated by notifications and likes merely compounds the problem and will further reduce your ability to sustain a healthy social life. The same applies to if you are feeling emotionally lonely or sexually frustrated; the real solution would be to find a suitable companion and engage in a healthy relationship – sitting in a dark room scrolling through extreme HD pornography simply re-wires your brain to be aroused by extreme visual stimuli.

We have a generation that sits behind a screen and consumes HD porn at an alarming rate and wonder why it’s so difficult to fall in love and maintain a stable, healthy relationship.

Someone that binge-watches HD porn will soon find themselves searching for more extreme images and videos to stimulate the same level of excitement and pleasure that they experienced the first time they encountered pornography, ‘normal’ sex with a ‘normal’ partner no longer becomes appealing – it is no longer exciting enough. The consequence for regular porn consumers is that they will soon become less aroused by physical interaction with a potential mate.

The porn addicts relentless search for a new, more extreme and more exciting video is similar to the addictive process that a heroin addict goes through chasing the first hit.

It’s time to stop using dopamine-surging-stimuli as a crutch for poor mental health. I read somewhere an analogy that explains this reasoning well – you wouldn’t reward a dog with a treat for sitting round the house and then suddenly expect that dog to start performing tricks. Why would such a dog be motivated to do additional work for a reward that he gets for nothing. The same applies to us. To live a life that is conducive to mental well-being we must be willing to put in the work necessary and start taking pro-active measures to securing our own happiness. If you struggle with your mental health, then one huge positive step in the right direction is to stop rewarding yourself for doing nothing. It is time that the millennial generation woke up and broke free from the neuro-chemical shackles that are dragging us down. We cannot let an unconscious resistance to modern culture keep us in a state of depression, anxiety and loneliness.

The most toxic neuro-thrills that millennials need to resist:

  • Binging on high-sugar/high fat food
  • Social Media
  • HD pornography

If you can resist these cheap short-term mood-boosts, then you are at least ensuring that your genetically predisposed brain is not further exacerbated by unnatural surges in dopamine. You may not have the best hand in the deck, but you are fundamentally free to decide how you act and the behaviours you choose to engage in.

Use the cards you have and play the game of life to the best of your ability.

Do not be fatalistic. Do not be another unconscious member of the distracted collective. Do not allow high-sugar, high-fat fast-food to become a staple in your diet, simply because its relentlessly marketed to you. Do not waste your days and brain cells watching hours of Kim Kardashian and Joey Essex. Do not use social media to bolster your feelings of self-worth. Do not watch pornography. The world we live in is a world of endless opportunity; we have a staggering amount of information at our fingertips, we must choose to engage our brains properly and develop our intelligence – be that intellectual or emotional. Yet we use the internet to scroll through personal marketing apps such as Instagram (because that is what they are) and we compare ourselves with the others we see and wonder why we lack self-confidence.

“If you are on social media, and you are not learning, not laughing, not being inspired or not networking, then you are using it wrong.”

― Germany Kent

We forget that people only show the best version of themselves at select moments. Use social media for what it is – an opportunity to network and self-market yourself. Show the world what you are all about. Your hobbies, your achievements – your real personality; the things that distinguish you from the other 600 million monthly active users on Instagram. There is more to you than your appearance; vocalise it. Network with others that share your passions. We need to stop worshipping false idols on social media and inferring from their professionally staged and polished photographs that their lives are so much better than our own. You would be surprised how many things you have in common with these ‘famous’ individuals. They too have low days, anxieties and self-esteem issues. Also. do not strive to achieve their level of fame – it does not bring with it any additional happiness. Whether you have 1 like on your social media photo – or one million likes – you will not be happy unless you focus on what matters and when it comes down to it, that is our family; our close friends and our passions. We need to move away from this vicious cycle of posting on social media for validation and compliments whenever we feel low.

So long as we use our social media to determine our self-worth, we will always feel worthless.

So, it’s not imperative to delete your Facebook and Instagram accounts, but make sure you use them for what they are. Furthermore, we need to recognise that whilst social media and modern technology allow us to contact our loved one’s all around the world at any moment we desire, such tools are not substitutes for proper inter-personal communication; rather, these platforms should only be used as a last-resort option – merely when we cannot talk face-to-face, or on the phone. We send our friends a message on Facebook or Snapchat and consider that sufficient contact – then we wonder why we feel lonely.

If we are to succeed as a generation, we need to acknowledge these harms and consciously choose to resist them; doing so is fundamental for our collective well-being. It’s time we ditch – or at least monitor our consumption of – these cheap neuro-thrills; it’s time to improve our mental well-being.

“The point of modernity is to live a life without illusions while not becoming disillusioned”
— Antonio Gramsci

Article written by Scott Newall

sn13385@my.bristol.ac.uk

We Need to Talk About Suicide

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The first step to addressing any problem, is admitting that there is one. Suicide is a problem. A catastrophically big problem; in the United Kingdom, it’s the leading cause of death among young people aged 20-34. But, I’m not here to talk about statistics, nor am I going to discuss suicide from an objective standpoint. This article is personal. At various stages in my life, I have gone through particularly difficult depressive episodes. I feel rather blessed to be able to write this article and share my story and learning’s with you. I have considered writing this piece for a few years; but, I have always been concerned that doing so would affect my professional career. Recently however, I have come to accept myself; the way I am. I would say the good and the bad; but, I don’t perceive my mental health struggles as constitutively negative. They have given me perspective. They have taught me to value love, friendship and family. They have taught me to appreciate temporary, fleeting moments of beauty – such as the sunset on my drive home from work; morning coffee; kindness in strangers. They have taught me the importance of values, such as honesty and integrity. They have induced an unquenchable thirst for life and taught me to seize every second – of every day – that I am on this planet.

So, if in the future, a particular company does not want to work with me – because they stumbled across this article and learnt that, at times, I struggle with my mental health; then, I would rather not work for that company. Because, the fact is, far more people struggle with their mental health than we like to admit. Furthermore, with experience comes knowledge; knowledge that can applied to help others. What is a good manager but someone that can understand, empathise and discuss real problems with real people; to find real solutions, that advance that person’s personal and professional life? Such positive influence is – in my opinion – a fundamental prerequisite to a flourishing business. People are not unconscious corporate zombies; they have rich, subjective lives, and we need to treat them accordingly – with genuine compassion, understanding and humanity. However, as individuals, we still fear the remnants of a lingering stigma; so, we just stay silent about these things for fear of judgement and fear of professional repercussions. But, I will not stay quiet; we must talk about these things – even if doing so is difficult, awkward, embarrassing and uncomfortable. Other people’s ignorant perceptions; gossip, professional hindrance – these things are insignificant. Young lives, on the other hand, matter significantly. If I manage to help even one person by discussing my personal experiences openly and sharing the insights that I have learned from these experiences, then this article was worth writing. So, let’s begin.

Despite how common suicidal feelings are amongst young people; suicide, as a topic, is still commonly perceived as constitutively private – something that should not be discussed in public. As Robert Duff explains:

“Some people seem to think that suicide is like Voldemort and we should never utter the name out loud, or… [if we] say it three times, suddenly someone will decide to kill themselves. That’s not how it works. In fact, I think that a lot of people kill themselves because it isn’t talked about.[i]

Duff is right; the more we choose to ignore the fact that a lot of young people have suicidal thoughts, the worse this problem will get.

The societal stance to abstain from discussing suicide publicly is, at best unhelpful, and at worst, dangerous.

It is time we became comfortable with the uncomfortable and confronted the issue head on. We can no longer speak of suicide in hushed tones; we need open, honest discussion.

We need to talk about suicide.

If any of the content in this article does resonate with you; please, speak to someone – a family member; a close friend; your boyfriend; girlfriend; one of the caring individuals at the Samaritans. Anyone.

If your life is in danger, call 999 or go directly to emergency services.

Samaritans phone number – 116 123

  • This number is free to call. They are available 24 hours a day – 365 days a year.

Samaritans text number – 07725909090

  • Not many people know this, but you can text for support and advice at any time. Not everyone will feel confident enough to pick up the phone to ask for help – if you fall within this category, consider texting and asking for some advice.

Section 1: FAQ and Addressing Misconceptions:

Firstly, let me pre-emptively answer some questions. As a society, it is imperative we try to foster a better understanding of mental illness. The more understanding and compassionate we become, the less suicides will result; we will be better equipped to support individuals in a state of distress. The first step towards a better understanding of mental illness and suicide, is to abolish unfounded and harmful misconceptions.

Q1: “Why would you want to kill yourself? Life isn’t that bad…”

A1: Let’s make this clear; no one – myself included – ever wants to kill themselves; the notion that individuals think about suicide, or carry out a suicide attempt; simply, because they want to die is a gross simplification. Firstly, suicidal thoughts are a symptom of mental illness – this is something that people frequently forget. Secondly, this question implies that suicide is simply a ‘logical’ or ‘rational’ choice – a response to the fact that one’s life is ‘so bad’ – that they have decided that they want to check out early. What people seem to get confused, is that mental illnesses – such as depression, anxiety and PTSD can – at times – distort one’s ‘rationality.’ They can prevent individuals from behaving or thinking ‘normally,’ or rationally. Subsequently, someone struggling with mental illness is unlikely to be thinking the same way a non-sufferer is and, to try to apply rational and logical reasoning to someone that is suicidal is to completely misunderstand the nature of mental illness; people persist and (mistakenly) try to discern the ‘rationale’ or ‘logic’ behind thoughts of suicide and suicide attempts; but suicide isn’t rational. Perhaps none of it makes sense from a ‘logical’ perspective, but insisting on logical thinking from someone in the grips of a mental illness is like insisting that someone with a broken leg walks normally; logically, you shouldn’t do that[ii]. What I am trying to make clear, is that mental illness, is an illness of the mind – it affects the way we think and the thoughts we have. Suicide is not a logical thought or choice it is a deadly symptom that many individuals suffering from mental illness experience.

 “The so-called ‘psychotically depressed’ person who tries to kill [themselves] doesn’t do so out of quote ‘hopelessness’ or any abstract conviction that life’s assets and debits do not square. And surely not because death seems suddenly appealing. The person in whom Its invisible agony reaches a certain unendurable level will kill [themselves] the same way a trapped person will eventually jump from the window of a burning high-rise. Make no mistake about people who leap from burning windows. Their terror of falling from a great height is still just as great as it would be for you or me standing speculatively at the same window just checking out the view; i.e. the fear of falling remains a constant. The variable here is the other terror, the fire’s flames: when the flames get close enough, falling to death becomes the slightly less terrible of two terrors. It’s not desiring the fall; it’s terror of the flame yet nobody down on the sidewalk, looking up and yelling ‘Don’t!’ and ‘Hang on!’, can understand the jump. Not really. You’d have to have personally been trapped and felt flames to really understand a terror way beyond falling.[iii]

As Wallace mentions, it can be difficult for people that do not suffer from mental illness to conceptualise the state of suicidality; it is difficult to understand the ‘heat of the flames’ without having experienced them first hand.

Q2: “I understand that mental illness is hard… but isn’t killing yourself when you have a family and friends a bit selfish?”

A2: Unfortunately, I have heard this sentence uttered a few times; a few times too many:

“People pontificate, ‘Suicide is selfishness.’ Oafs argue this specious line for varying reason: to evade fingers of blame, to impress one’s audience with one’s mental fiber, to vent anger, or just because one lacks the necessary suffering to sympathise…[iv]

It is time we completely abolish the attribution of selfishness to individuals that lose a tragic battle with a genuine and severe illness. When someone suddenly dies of a heart attack – their death is merely a random event – an experience that lacked any real ‘fight’ – or ‘struggle’ – before-hand. That person merely dies. They did not spend years and years struggling in anticipation of that heart attack. They just died. We do not ever describe that person as selfish. Yet, when an individual that struggles with their mental health for years and years; finally, can no longer cope with the hell that they endure, people pontificate that such an individual was ‘selfish’ – a quitter. In reality, an individual that finally succumbs to suicide; probably did so, after years and years of struggle and persistence. If these accusations of selfishness ever fall out of your mouth, just know that your brain – like everyone else’s – is not immune to mental illness.

Unless you’ve walked through the flames unscathed, don’t assume that you cannot be burnt.

Furthermore, going back to my previous point – perceiving suicide as selfish implies that it is a logical or rational choice – they chose to kill themselves knowing the emotional pain it would cause their family and friends. Again, this reasoning is confused:

 “Killing oneself is… a misnomer. We don’t kill ourselves. We are simply defeated by the long, hard struggle to stay alive. When somebody dies after a long illness, people are apt to say, with a note of approval, “He fought so hard.” And they are inclined to think, about a suicide, that no fight was involved, that somebody simply gave up. This is quite wrong[v].”

The tendency to conceive suicide as a selfish act appears to stem from an ineptitude to understand how an individual can carry out something knowing the full extent of the emotional cluster-f*ck that it will cause. To someone that has not experienced suicidality themselves, it may be difficult to comprehend how an individual can deliberately act in a way that causes so much harm to the people they are ‘supposed’ to love. Again, this reasoning is confused and undermines the severity of mental illness. Suicidal individuals love their family and friends as much as you or I; their struggle simply appears to be insurmountable. Whilst I concede that we must discuss the serious implications of suicide; we must note that often – it is the case that – mentally ill individuals commit suicide despite being aware of the consequences of their actions (I concede there may be extreme instances of psychosis which may defy this claim). Subsequently, perceiving suicide as selfish, is to undermine the extent of these individual’s suffering. They take their own lives knowing they will cause emotional harm to people they love; but still, the intensity of their suffering entails that they make this choice nonetheless. Mentally-ill individuals are not acting selfishly when they take their own lives; they are seriously unwell. The first step to a better understanding of mental illness and suicide, is to abolish these unfounded and harmful misconceptions; suicide isn’t ‘selfish’. This view is not simply erroneous, but it is an unjustified and grievous insult to those individuals who have taken their own lives after losing a battle with their genuine illness. Human decency requires that we challenge this idea. It is time we heeded the Latin aphorism:

De mortuis nil, nisi bonum dicendum est – of the dead, nothing but good is to be said.

Mental illness (and addiction) are the only illnesses that we blame the individual for. People die from suicide just like they die from any other illness. Death by suicide, is a symptom and tragic consequence of an individual being mentally unwell. We do not slander the dead when their death results from physical illness; it is about time we extended the same courtesy to those that have lost their lives to mental illness.

Q3: Isn’t suicide just the ‘easy way out’ though?

A3: No.

As Dean Burnett highlights, there are many ways to describe the sort of suffering that overrides a survival instinct that has evolved over millions of years, but “easy” isn’t an obvious one to go for[vi]. The sort of people that spout this sort of nonsense tend to also be the people that demand for the logic or reason behind a suicide. It is time they started being rational and logical themselves. There is nothing easy about suicide – not one single thing. What people really mean and fail to clarify – is that it is ‘harder’ to stick one’s problems out – that it is harder to fight the illness. There is an element of truth to this notion – it is certainly hard for a suicidal individual to choose to persist with their life; especially when they are fully aware that they may have to endure what they are experiencing for an extended period, only to later experience it again at a later stage or; if they are unlucky, frequently throughout their lives. This sentiment is what I believe underpins Albert Camus’ assertion that:

“…in the end one needs more courage to live than to kill himself [vii].”

Camus is right to an extent – it certainly takes a lot of courage to persist when you are in the depths of hell; however, this doesn’t entail that suicide is an easy option.

Section 2: Let’s Get Personal

Now I have addressed some common misconceptions about suicide, I want to discuss my personal experience of depression and anxiety. The reason for doing so, is that – I believe that, the more we keep these experiences to ourselves; the longer mental health will remain stigmatised. So, we need to talk and that’s what this section is about; real, open, honest discussion. Before I begin however, I want to emphasise that mental health issues; depression, anxiety, PTSD, schizophrenia and so on are all experienced differently; no two people will have the exact same experience of these things. Matt Haig words it well:

“Minds are unique. They go wrong in unique ways. My mind went wrong in a slightly different way to how other minds go wrong. Our experience overlaps with other people’s, but it is never exactly the same experience. Umbrella labels like ‘depression’ (and ‘anxiety’ and ‘panic disorder’) are useful, but only if we appreciate that people do not all have the same precise experience of such things. Depression looks different to everyone. Pain is felt in different ways, to different degrees, and provokes different responses. That said, if [all discussions of mental health] had to replicate our exact experience of the world to be useful, the only [articles] worth reading would be written by ourselves. There is no right or wrong way to have depression, or have a panic attack, or to feel suicidal. These things just are.[viii]

Therefore, when reading this section, it is important to remember that I am describing my personal experience; someone else who also suffers from depression may experience a completely different set of symptoms and have totally contrasting depressive episodes. This section is not to try and give a complete account of what it is like to live with depression – all persons with depression will experience things differently. The purpose of this section is to highlight the dangers of ignoring mental health issues and keeping things to yourself. Before I begin, I want to make it clear that this section contains potentially distressing anecdotes; I do not sugar-coat anything.

I would issue a ‘trigger-warning,’ but it seems rather ironic when talking about suicide.

My advice is, if you are currently struggling with mental health issues, skip to section three where I offer some advice. If you believe that you are in a psychologically stable position – and you are able to read some potentially distressing things, then read on. The purpose of this section is to provide a perspective for people that are not familiar with depression and suicidality. It’s extremely hard to describe suicidal feelings to someone that hasn’t experienced them first-hand, but I feel through honest anecdote, I may be able to foster at least a vague comprehension of what it is like; so, I will begin by describing my first suicidal episode, which occurred during my second year of university.

I’d not been feeling right for some time. It was hard to put a finger on what exactly was ‘wrong.’ But, something was. I’d lost interest in, well, everything – this state is known as ‘anhedonia’ – it is essentially, the inability to feel pleasure in normally pleasurable activities. Seeing friends? No thanks. Good food? Lost my appetite weeks ago. Sex? Oh you didn’t realise, medication gets rid of those urges from time to time. I’d become cold, numb; distant from my normal self. Then, within the fortnight, my mental health rapidly deteriorated. What first began as a benign, sombre mood; mutated into something dark. Something self-destructive; something extremely dangerous. My thoughts were no longer apathetic – they were extremely distressing and my mind continued to wonder towards suicide. So, I slept – hoping that, when I woke up, the thoughts would have passed. They didn’t. I spent the following weeks in bed, only rising very occasionally to shower or eat something. Hypersomnia – excessive sleeping – is an extremely common symptom amongst depressives.

“I didn’t want to wake up. I was having a better time asleep. And that’s really sad. It was almost like a reverse nightmare, like when you wake up from a nightmare, you’re so relieved. I woke up into a nightmare.”

– Ned Vizzini, ‘It’s Kind of a Funny Story[ix].’

This unhealthy period of slumber continued until one day, I couldn’t sleep. I sat up on the edge of my bed and immediately felt in danger. I wasn’t feeling the typical lethargy that usually anchored me to my bed-sheets. I felt anxious; extremely anxious, agitated and distressed. This day, I had not only the passive thoughts to cause myself harm; but, I now had the means – I was capable. See, typically, depression makes even the most basic of tasks utterly exhausting. Therefore, on most of my gloomy days, the only injury I’m likely to sustain is a bedsore; this day however, was different – I actually had the energy to carry out what I’d been thinking about for so long. Finally, I could get ‘relief’ from these tormenting, toxic thoughts. Consider the cliché analogy of having an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other. The angel, provides a voice of reason; it rationalises your situation and provides you with sensible guidance. The devil, on the other hand, plants the seed of temptation and encourages you to proceed with actions that are not in your long-term interest. I had a devil on both shoulders; one suggesting I walk to the bridge; the other, encouraging me to ‘man-up;’ go to the kitchen, get a knife, slit my wrists and be done with it – at least then I didn’t need to leave the house. Unfortunately, there were no ‘devils’ and these thoughts were my own; the voice of depression. After a few minutes, I made my decision; I stood up, took a deep breath and tried to compose myself. Then, I heard the front door. Someone had come home. I panicked. I couldn’t let anyone see me in this state; I hadn’t washed in nearly three days, nor had I eaten in two. Anyone that saw the state I was in would have instantly known something was wrong. I jumped back in bed and tried to be as silent as possible. Lying there, motionless – trying to not make a sound – I started to calm down. As I calmed down and my breathing returned to normal, a wave of exhaustion swept over me. I fell asleep. Back to square one.

The following morning my mother rang me; endowed with maternal intuition, she immediately sensed something was wrong – she knew I wasn’t at university when I should have been. She asked me what was going on. I was rather unsure how to respond. Boys don’t talk about their feelings. Men certainly don’t talk about feelings. Not only did I feel embarrassed, I was extremely concerned of the impact that my honesty would have on my mother. How could I tell the woman that gave birth to me, that I’ve been thinking about killing myself? I sat there, silent; with the phone pressed against my ear. I tried to think of what to say. I knew I needed serious help; my life depended it. But, I simply couldn’t get the words out. Ned Vizzini explains the struggle of communicating when you’re suicidal:

“It’s so hard to talk when you want to kill yourself… it’s not a mental complaint – it’s a physical thing, like it’s physically hard to open your mouth and make the words come out. They don’t come out smooth and in conjunction with your brain the way normal people’s words do; they come out in chunks as if from a crushed-ice dispenser; you stumble on them as they gather behind your lower lip. So, you just keep quiet.[ix]

I simply couldn’t get the words out; I knew how much they would affect her. So, I tried to play it down; I said that I had not been to university for a few weeks; that I was feeling mentally unwell. It was a start. That evening, my father was at my front door to collect me. Unfortunately, despite being surrounded by my loving family, a few days later – around 2.am, I found myself with a lock-knife blade hovering over my wrist. The devils were back and I could no longer tolerate them shouting when I was trying to sleep. I took a deep breath and traced the arteries of my inner-forearm. Up – not across. Up – not across. This mantra could have been my final thought; but, as I started applying pressure and felt the cold blade against my skin, the thought of my family crept into the forefront of my mind. The loving words that my mother had spoken to me earlier that night sent chills down my spine and caused my grip on the knife to loosen. I realised I couldn’t do this; at least not here, not now. Regardless of how much psychological distress I was experiencing, I knew that she would be the one to find me. Sat there, the knife still in my trembling hand, I realised something important:

Suicide doesn’t end the pain. It just passes it on to someone else.

I realised that I could no longer hide this from my parents; I was now a very real danger to myself and urgently needed their support to keep me from acting on these thoughts. I woke my mother up; in absolute hysteria, I spluttered through my tears. I told her that I was extremely suicidal; I was going to hurt myself unless I got serious help. This conversation saved my life. Is everything fine and dandy now? No, not quite; but I am a lot better than I have been.  I still struggle with my depression; the ‘devils’ paid me a nasty visit just a few months passed. However, this time, they were greeted with a firm and resounding ‘f*ck-off’ from my entire family – who did everything in their power to support me and help me through an extremely tough period in my life. Had I not spoken to my family shortly after the first incident and continued to be open and talk to them whenever I experience suicidal thoughts, I would most likely be dead by now. That is the blunt and uncomfortable truth. One of these episodes would have been fatal. I could not have done it on my own.

This leads on to the following section; advice for individuals suffering from mental illness and suicidal thoughts.

Section Two: Advice for Suicidal Individuals

Catch it early

You need to be vigilant and responsive. Often people that struggle with mental health have cyclical, or repetitive aspects to their suicidal episodes. For example, one key indication that something is awry, is that I lose interest in pleasurable activities and start sleeping all day. These for me, are warning signs. When I notice them; I know it’s time to take preventative measures. Now, whenever my mental health deteriorates, I do the following:

Step 1) Speak to my parents and/or brother.

Step 2) Surround myself with the people that love me – go home.

Step 3) Go see my GP.

These steps sound simple, but they require a) that you are honest with your loved ones, b) that you speak up at the hardest times and c) that you get some professional medical help in place. Now these things aren’t always the easiest things to do, especially for the first time; so, let’s go through them in turn.

It’s time to talk

Speaking to your family about these issues is never an easy thing to do. But please take my word for it; it is worth struggling through a difficult few sentences; doing so may end up saving your life. I speak from experience.

I mentioned towards the end of the previous section that I had a particularly bad episode a few months ago. Despite going home, despite being surrounded by my family; I was still suicidal. I took to my bed – where I remained for the following days. I stopped eating, refused to drink and refused to take my medication. My parents and brother tried their best to help; I simply just refused to comply. I had given up and my body had shut down. My brother soon realised that I was ignoring all verbal communication. So, he and my parents went downstairs and left me in my room (something they had refused to do for the previous 24 hours). Then, he sent me a text, knowing that my phone was beside me. Whilst the spoken words of my family had not gotten through to me, this text hit home. My brother had sent me the following passage taken from Andrew Solomon’s ‘Noonday Demon:’

“Listen to the people who love you. Believe that they are worth living for even when you don’t believe it. Seek out the memories depression takes away and project them into the future. Be brave; be strong…Reason with yourself when you have lost your reason[x]”.”

I realised that, once again, I was allowing depression to win; I was ignoring the advice of the people that loved me. My brother however, wasn’t going to simply allow me to lie there and waste away; nor was he allowing me to forget how much my family loved me. My walls were still up; but, he was starting to chip away at them. When my brother returned, I tried to ignore what he was saying. He was talking too much sense. Being too logical – something which I couldn’t be in that particular moment. There’s nothing logical about wanting to die. Nothing rational. So, I tried to ignore him. He wasn’t having it. He dragged me from my bed, stood me up and looked me square in the face and told me something that was true. It wasn’t just about me; my actions, my behaviour, were affecting my family; all of them. The raw emotion in his voice and the look in his eyes is something that I will never forget. It’s not easy knowing how much your mental health issues affect the people you love. But, he wasn’t angry at me for being unwell. He was angry at my refusal to fight to get better. After I calmed down; after I had had a drink; after I’d talked to my brother about how I’d been feeling and the thoughts I was having; the weight started to lift.

You see, sometimes, people can help; sometimes they can say the right things. For me, the constant reminder of my family’s love was sufficient to help me ride out the storm. It wasn’t easy, but it could have been a lot worse; it could have been fatal. The important thing is that I had a support network around me, because I had already spoken to my family about my mental health. They were aware and so they could help – I wasn’t fighting this on my own. You need to reach out for help. People aren’t psychic. If you take one message away from this article, it is that we need to talk to our friends and families about how we are really feeling. We often feel as though other people will not be able to understand the struggle we are going through and will simply brush off our intense psychological distress. We don’t bother asking for help because we think that we will be met with bemused looks and an awkward silence. When you are depressed, it may seem that no one will ever understand what you are going through:

“Men are never convinced of your reasons, of your sincerity, of the seriousness of your sufferings, except by your death. So long as you are alive, your case is doubtful; you have a right only to their scepticism.”

– Albert Camus, The Fall [xi].

Camus – although a wonderful novelist and thinker – is talking sh*t here.

Words are powerful beyond belief – we just need to learn how to use them better.

I promise you, if you speak honestly with those that care about you – they will listen; they may not immediately understand, but they will try their best and they will do what they can to help. I urge you – if you are struggling- stumble through those difficult sentences. Break down in tears if you need to. Just talk to someone. You will be surprised at how much of a relief it is to admit to someone that you need help. But remember; no-one can rescue you, if no-one knows you need saving.

Guys, that applies to you too.

Ladies, please excuse me, but this one is for the guys. Before I begin, I want to clarify that this sub-section does not detract, or intend to undermine the reality that many women suffer from mental health issues. It is merely my attempt to communicate to guys, the reasons why I believe that – statistically speaking – we are more likely to die from suicide than women.

Masculinity is killing us. In the United Kingdom, four times[xii] as many men die from suicide than women:

suicide graph

Suicide trends over the last 30 years (1984-2014)

I think part of the reason that men are statistically more likely to kill themselves is that, most of us suck at communicating how we are feeling. It isn’t really our fault. As J. P. Tate explains, society has conditioned us to be this way:

“A ten-year-old girl scrapes her knee and is crying, so an adult rushes her side to comfort her, cooing words of reassurance. A ten-year-old boy scrapes his knee and is crying so an adult tells him to stop crying like a girl and be brave like a man. The girl learns that displaying her vulnerability brings sympathy and support. The boy learns that displaying his vulnerability brings censure…I mention this…simply to make the obvious point that each child was being groomed by society to accept a gendered attitude regarding human pain. Women had society’s permission to cry…men absolutely did not. From childhood onward, traditional ideas of gender promoted a deliberate social insensitivity toward male pain[xiii].”

Whilst Tate is explicitly discussing physical pain, I believe his point similarly applies to psychological pain. We are conditioned from an early age to believe that men are not supposed to cry; not supposed to feel emotions. Feelings, we are told, are for women and ‘gays.’ We are essentially conditioned to repress an essential part of our humanity. Now this has extremely problematic consequences – it makes us less likely to seek help for mental health issues. The result is that many men feel alone with their problems; this isolation is extremely dangerous. It’s time to change fellas. We too, need to start talking about how we are feeling. Because, as isolated as you may feel; I guarantee one of your male friends is struggling silently – wishing he had someone to talk to. Now I’m not saying we need to drop all talks of beer, weights and tinder hook-ups; but the next time you ask your pal “how he is” and you get an unconvincing ‘fine;’ ask again. “Is everything really fine? You know you can talk to me about anything mate.” It doesn’t sound like much, but it can be enough to get the conversation going. We are human too guys; don’t forget it. We feel; we hurt and we cry. We all do. Any bloke that says he doesn’t, is a liar and insecure. Support your friends:

Men, we too, need to talk about mental health.

Professional help

Scary-sounding, isn’t it? Well, it’s not; I promise. If you have been experiencing some, or many of the following, then I urge you, go to your GP and discuss whatever is going on:

  • Dramatic change in appetite (binge eating/not eating)
  • Relating to the above – rapid weight gain/weight loss.
  • Insomnia (not sleeping) or the converse – hypersomnia (sleeping all the time).
  • Anhedonia – inability to feel pleasure in normally pleasurable activities.
  • Self-destructive behaviour – drug abuse, unprotected sex with strangers, self-harming.
  • Suicidal thoughts – this is the major one: book a GP appointment immediately.

What do I say to my GP?

Grab a pen and paper – we can prepare this together. Write down the following:

  • How do you feel right now? How long have you felt this way?
  • Do you always feel this way?
  • What are the symptoms that you are experiencing? Lack of sleep? Too much sleep? Anxiety? Lack of energy? Lack of sex drive? Too high a sex drive? Thoughts of self-harm? Thoughts of suicide?
  • What do you think would help? Counselling – someone to talk to? CBT (ways to re-frame negative thought patterns)?

Do not worry about confessing these things to your GP, they will have heard it more times than you will believe. Do not think that there is a ‘criteria’ to meet. Doctors tend to use lists of symptoms to roughly diagnose; but, this ‘diagnosis’ is not legitimate. It can take years and years of consistent visits to a psychiatrist to get an accurate diagnosis. Your doctor just needs to get a rough snap-shot of your experience. Do not think that your experiences are not ‘severe’ enough to ask for help. Experience is subjective; if it’s affecting you, then ask for help – you deserve support and there is nothing wrong with asking for it. It’s ok, to not be ok. But it’s not ok, to not ask for help.

My advice summed up:

  • Talk to your close friends and family – be honest
  • Get professional help – see your GP
  • Accept the way you are. Nothing is ‘wrong’ with you – you just need some support.

Section Three: Advice for Friends and Family of Individuals with Mental Health Issues

In this section I am going to present some advice for those that do not themselves suffer from mental illness, but know someone that does; I will attempt to guide you in such a way that you will be better equipped to support that person.

Supporting someone that is struggling with their mental health is not easy. What do you say? What do you do? Well, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer. Each person is unique; each person will respond differently to the support you offer and the words you speak. I think the most important thing when dealing with someone that is struggling is simply to be there; your presence is paramount. Something to remember is that, there isn’t always ‘something’ wrong. Whenever someone we care about is in distress, our immediate response is usually to ask them what is the problem. Well, sometimes, the problem is simply your mind. Unfortunately, our detective skills are not as good as we might like them to be, it’s not always easy to discern the root cause of what’s exacerbating someone’s mental health condition. Stephen Fry illustrates my point nicely:

“If you know someone who’s depressed, please resolve never to ask them why. Depression isn’t a straightforward response to a bad situation; depression just is, like the weather. Try to understand the blackness, lethargy, hopelessness, and loneliness they’re going through. Be there for them when they come through the other side. It’s hard to be a friend to someone who’s depressed, but it is one of the kindest, noblest, and best things you will ever do[xiv].”

The important thing is that you make it crystal clear that you are there; that you care about them; that you will do anything in your power to help. This, is often enough to console someone that is struggling with mental health issues. So, the answer is simple. Try to understand. Understand and extend your compassion, your sympathy and your love. You won’t always get it right. You will say the wrong things; you may even upset them; you may make them angry; but, you have to try your best. Saying something is often better than saying nothing. So, show them that you love them. Show them that they are valued in your life and that you cannot conceive of a world that does not include them within it. These are the things that will keep them battling through the most difficult of moments. Your love is something that they can hold onto no matter how engulfed they are in the flames of crisis. And take it from me, they will hold onto that love pretty f*cking tightly; they will do everything they can to not let it slip from their grasp. Keep them hanging on, vocalise your love for them.

Concluding remarks

No one chooses to feel suicidal intentionally; but, this feeling is a reality for many people. We need to talk about it. We need to start showing genuine compassion and love to our friends and family. We need to stop saying to people “we are here for you,” when; in reality – when the time comes – people duck and hide. People run a mile when they see others in crisis; because, it’s extremely difficult to know how to react and how to help. Hopefully this article will have shed some light on the issue and will help you deal with not only your own personal issues in the future; but, help you assist others with theirs.

Finally, if you are currently struggling; then, these concluding remarks are for you. No matter who you are, or how suicidal you feel; you need to remember that there is only one, and will only ever be one of you. Never before; nor in the future, will someone walk on this earth as an exact replica of you. For your friends, and for your family, nothing will replace you. No matter how badly your illness tries to convince you that your network would be ‘better off without you’; this is far, far, from the truth. Your departure from this world would turn your friends and families lives upside down. If there is anything left living for; it is knowing that you can continue to put a smile on the face of a person that you love and that, your struggle is preventing their pain. Fight for them. Leaving the world prematurely is – as they say – a permanent solution to a temporary problem. Now the reality – unfortunately for some of us – is that the problem is not a one-off occurrence; but, rather a recurrent problem. Suicide however, is not the answer. Not only are most suicides unsuccessful and extremely painful; but, your last fleeting seconds on this earth are going to be plagued with regret. For obvious reasons, I can’t quote any solid statistics; but, if I had to conjecture; I would imagine that out of the totality of individuals that have carried out a fatal suicide attempt (I did not use the word ‘successful,‘ as it is not a success) in the history of time; a large proportion of these individuals final moments would have been spent regretting their decision. Kevin Hines – the man famous for jumping off the Golden Gate bridge in San Francisco and surviving – reinforces this point:

“What I am about to say is the exact same thing that nineteen golden gate bridge jump survivors have also said; the millisecond my hands left the rail, it was an instant regret. And I remember thinking, no one is going to know that I didn’t want to die.[xv]

No matter how hard things may be; do not rob yourself of the opportunity to see them improve. All storms pass. Furthermore:

You will never experience the sought-after relief from taking your own life.

You won’t experience anything. You can kid yourself of an afterlife; but, if you subscribe to any of the monotheistic religions, it’s going to require some serious mental wrestling to reconcile suicide with a pleasant afterlife – you’re better off struggling here. A life of struggle is better than no life at all. Learn to value the small things. Breathing in fresh air on a crisp winters morning. Classical music. The smile on your mother and fathers face when they are proud of you. Your sibling’s friendship. Kindness. Stop asking why the world is so unfair to you and ask yourself what value are you currently adding to the world? How can you make this crazy planet a better place? Start tomorrow. Wake up, have a strong coffee and go about making as much positive change to other people’s lives as you can. See how you feel when you go to bed after a day of making positive change.

“We all want to help one another. Human beings are like that. We want to live by each other’s happiness – not by each other’s misery. We don’t want to hate and despise one another… The way of life can be free and beautiful, but we have lost the way…Our knowledge has made us cynical. Our cleverness, hard and unkind. We think too much and feel too little…we need humanity. More than cleverness we need kindness and gentleness. Without these qualities… all will be lost….You, the people have the power… The power to create happiness! You, the people, have the power to make this life free and beautiful, to make this life a wonderful adventure[xvi] .”

Tomorrow is another day. Fight on.

Article written by Scott Newall,

To my family; my loving father, mother and brother – thank you for always being in my corner, and refusing to let me drop my guard.

sn13385@my.bristol.ac.uk

References:

[i] Robert Duff, Hardcore Self-Help. F***K Depression, p. 51

[ii] Dean Burnett, Robin Williams’s death: a reminder that suicide and depression are not selfish https://www.theguardian.com/science/brain-flapping/2014/aug/12/robin-williams-suicide-and-depression-are-not-selfish

[iii] David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest,

[iv] David Mitchel in ‘Cloud Atlas:’

[v] Sally Brampton writes in ‘Shoot the Damn Dog: A Memoir of Depression

[vi] Dean Burnett, Robin Williams’s death: a reminder that suicide and depression are not selfish

[vii] Albert Camus, A Happy Death

[viii] Matt Haig, reasons to stay alive, page 4.

[ix] Ned Vizzini It’s Kind of a Funny Story,

[x] Andrew Solomon, Noonday Demon

[xi] Albert Camus, The Fall

[xii]  SUICIDE STATISTICS REPORT 2016 https://www.samaritans.org/sites/default/files/kcfinder/files/Samaritans%20suicide%20statistics%20report%202016.pdf

[xiii] J. P Tate, Feminism is Sexism.

[xiv]  Stephen Fry

[xv]  Kevin Hines, I Jumped Off the Golden Gate Bridge: Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WcSUs9iZv-g

[xvi] Charlie Chaplin, Final speech from The Great Dictator Copyright © Roy Export S.A.S.