What’s important to you?

I’ve managed to be involved in more than one career in my short time in the working world. Does that mean I have answers about how to go about starting a new one, or changing yours to suit your circumstances? Of course not. Does it mean I’ve had plenty of time to submit some incorrect or incomplete solutions to this problem? Absolutely.

Sure, it’s great to get a job. To get that job that you wanted is even better. You’ve made it this far – so what now?

It’s time to sit down and think about what’s truly important to you, and forget about the rest. If you don’t define what it means to be successful and happy in your own life, it can leave you feeling empty, lost, and incomplete.

Maybe your priority is money. Maybe it’s family. Maybe it’s influence or change. Maybe it’s serving a purpose. Maybe, just maybe, it’s about being happy. Whatever it is – you need to know. You need to know what you want and, more importantly, what you don’t want.

Something I’ve observed a lot is that we’re seemingly never happy with what we have; we want what others have too. This is especially true about money. If you don’t know how much you need, the default becomes thus: more. And more. And so, your critical energy is diverted from your calling and toward filling your bank account.

We seem to start out with a vision of what’s important to us, but once we’ve achieved what we want, it can be easy to lose sight of our priorities. We go down the path of wanting to have more than everyone else – to have more success, to get that promotion, to make more money, to get more credit.

We can all get trapped in this regard in our work – we can all say “yes” unthinkingly, because we think it’s what we should be doing, out of some vague attraction or, even worse, out of greed or vanity. It’s easy to think that saying “yes” will let us accomplish more, because we might miss something if we say “no” instead. Some people pride themselves on the mantra that “if I’m good at my job, I can do someone else’s”. Is that a good thing? These extra responsibilities prevent us achieving the very thing that we set out to accomplish. All of us can waste our time doing things we don’t like, to prove ourselves to people we don’t respect, and to get things we don’t want or need.

It can be easy to forget or overlook this when you’re just starting out, but so many of us jump right into the middle of something else before we’ve mastered what we began with. When you combine insecurity and ambition, you get an inability to say “no” to things. Eventually, you can say “yes” to too much, chasing Moby Dick like Captain Ahab for reasons we don’t even understand any more.

Why is it that we do this? Most of us begin with a clear idea of what we want in life. We know what’s important to us. However, the success we achieve, especially if it comes early on in our careers, or in large quantities, puts us in an unusual place. Because now, we’re in a new place and have trouble keeping our bearings. The farther you travel down the path of success, whatever it may be, the more often you can meet other people who can make you feel insignificant. It doesn’t matter how well you’re doing, how much of what you originally set out to achieve has been done, their accomplishments can make you feel like nothing. It’s a cycle that goes on to infinity – whilst our time here does not.

We unconsciously pick up the pace to keep up with others. But what if different people are running for different reasons? What if there’s more than one race going on? There’s a certain irony in how badly we chase those things that are of no value to us.

If only we could all stop for a second.

Seneca’s Euthymia (translated as The Tranquillity) establishes and emboldens a sense of our own path and how to stay on it, without becoming distracted by all the others that intersect it. In other words, it’s not about beating someone else, it’s not about having more than others. It’s about being who and what you are, and being as good as possible at it, without giving in to all the things that draw you away from it. It’s about going where you set out to go. About accomplishing the most that you’re capable of in what you choose. That’s it.

I’m not saying that competitiveness is not important. Because it is. It can drive some of humankind’s most impressive accomplishments. It’s on an individual level, however, where it’s critical to have a clear sense of the space you’re in, who you’re competing with and why.

Only you know the race that you’re running. That is, unless you decide that the only way you can have value is to be better than, have more than, everyone. Each one of us has a unique potential and purpose; that means we’re the only ones who can evaluate and set the terms of our lives. Far too often, we look at other people and make their approval the standard we feel compelled to meet and, as a result, squander our potential and purpose.

So here you are, on the precipice. What do you want to do? Who do you want to be? Only you can answer these questions. Only when you do, can you understand what matters and what is nothing but a waste of your time and energy. Only then can you say “no”, can you opt out of races that don’t matter or even exist.

Anybody can buy into the myth that if only they had that thing that someone else has, they would be happy. It took me a few times getting burned to realise how empty this illusion is. It can be easy to find yourself in the middle of some task and not understand why you’re there. It will take courage and faith to stop yourself.

Find out why you’re after what it is you’re after, and set your targets based on those things. Write them down and stare at them. If you had achieved these things, would you feel good? How do you know you’ve made the right choices? Trust me, you’ll just know.

Stand by your reasoning and ignore anyone else who tries to sway you from your course. Let them covet what you have, and not the other way around. To know what you like is the beginning of wisdom: happiness resides not in possessions, and not in gold. Happiness resides in the soul.


Work-related stress is becoming dangerously acceptable

“Stress is nothing more than a socially acceptable form of mental illness.” – Richard Carlson

Many people appear to be stressed, or claim to be stressed, but I’d suggest most people accept it as part of modern life. Particularly in this age of being constantly reachable, via phone or email, I believe that work-related stress has become one of the largest threats to the health of the population at large.

Being under pressure is a normal part of life. It can be a useful drive that helps you act, feel more energised and get results. I believe that being respected and appreciated by significant others is one of the most fundamental human needs. Consequently, people go to great lengths to gain acceptance and approval. These actions, and the pursuit of further acceptance, can often lead to stress. Such experiences may have far reaching consequences in terms of health and well-being.

But if you often become overwhelmed by stress, these feelings could start to be a problem for you. It’s important to remember that stress isn’t a psychiatric diagnosis, but it can lead to one. It’s closely linked to your mental health in two important ways:

• Stress can cause mental health problems, and make existing problems worse. For example, if you often struggle to manage feelings of stress, you might develop a mental health problem such as anxiety or depression.

• Mental health problems can cause stress. You might find coping with the day-to-day symptoms of your mental health problem, as well as potentially needing to manage medication, heath care appointments or treatments, can become extra sources of stress.

This can start to feel like a vicious circle, and it might be hard to see where stress ends and a mental health problem begins.

Stress is a difficult issue to tackle, especially in the busy, competitive world that we live in. But that doesn’t mean we should avoid it completely. Being more honest with yourself about the stress in your life can help you start to feel calmer and more in control at work and in your life.

Whether you’d like to admit it or not, your health should be of greater priority to you than your job. Should there be a choice between being happy, and working in such a way that makes you more stressed than ever, because of the pressures you put on yourself to achieve what may be impossible?

The truth is: your stress levels could be killing you. The more I read about the matter, the more I am convinced that there are a lot of people out there doing themselves some harm. I’ve written before about the link between body and mind. Long gone are the days when the medical world viewed them as two separate things; the current consensus is that what goes on the body is strongly related to the mind. As an example, recall the last time you had a headache or couldn’t sleep. Was it something to do with stress or worry about work? These are prime examples of the body following the mind’s lead.

This process is called psychoneuroimmunology and it is the study of the interaction between psychological processes and the nervous and immune systems of the human body. There have been countless studies showing that stress can:

• Lead to an increased chance of weight problems;
• Cause poor sleep which can lead to other health issues;
• Impairment of memory and concentration;
• Have an impact on your heart’s health; and
• Impact your immune response.

These (and the onset of other mental health problems) are serious and, over time, can do lasting damage to your body. It is extremely important for our health that we understand how stress affects us and learn a few things to get it under control.

And yet, despite the topic being covered in hundreds of papers published every year, work-related stress is still an evasive concept to many.

Only 19% of British people believe stress is an acceptable reason to have a day off work, according to research from mutual health and wellbeing provider Benenden. (Additionally, the researchers found that an even lower 17% of people considered broader mental health issues as a reason not to go into the office).

A YouGov poll commissioned by Mind found that of those workers who had needed to take time off sick due to stress, just 5% admitted to their employer that it was stress-related. It’s no surprise that staff worry about opening up about their mental health given that this research shows most people don’t view mental health problems and stress as being as serious as a physical health problem.

The most obvious thing to say here is that this standpoint must change. Stress can develop into a more serious problem over time that can have a negative on not only your life, but those around you. Admitting that you need some time to gather yourself because of stress isn’t weak. It’s an admission that can bring you back to the strongest version of yourself.

As health is not merely the absence of disease or infirmity but a positive state of complete physical, mental and social well-being (WHO, 1986), a healthy working environment is one in which there is not only an absence of harmful conditions but an abundance of health-promoting ones.

It’s easy to get into the mindset amidst the career ladder that you must try to be perfect and to be all things to all people. It’s easy to become too thinly spread, attempting to please everybody. Remember that it’s okay to say no sometimes, to make time for yourself, to switch off and not feel guilty about it.

If you find yourself becoming stressed, try to think about how far you’ve come, not how much you have to do in the here and now. How well are you doing today, compared with how you did yesterday, last month, or last year? When you think about what you are doing in terms of learning and improving, accepting that you may make some mistakes along the way, you experience far less stress. Psychologically, it’s often not whether we’ve reached our goal, but the rate at which we are closing the gap between where we are now and where we want to end up.

A dose of self-compassion when things are at their most difficult can reduce your stress and improve your performance, by making it easier to learn from your mistakes. So, remember that to err is human, and give yourself a break.

There are ways to both overcome stress and manage it. Acknowledge and accept your feelings and thoughts. Being under stress can make it seem like there aren’t enough hours in the day, or even make you lose track of the days. Identify the causes of your stress and make time for yourself, to relax and follow those things that you enjoy.

Take care of yourself, talk to others, take a break. Don’t be your own worst enemy. It really doesn’t suit you.

What it’s like to have an anxiety attack

Around three weeks ago, I had my first anxiety attack in a very long time. I was at a good friend’s birthday party, surrounded by people who I enjoy spending time with; I recognise what I feel is irrational and I can’t explain why it happened, all I know is that it did. And when it hit, it was terrifying.

I noticed that I started to play with my watch and couldn’t keep eye contact. I began to feel wave after wave of fear. My breath quickened, I started sweating. I could hear my heart pounding so loudly I thought it would beat out of my chest. I struggled to stay standing. Soon after, I became so afraid that I couldn’t catch my breath.

It’s an emotional nightmare. Everything feels surreal, ethereal, and dissociated from my personality. I felt like I was losing control over both my mind and my body; I felt dizzy and claustrophobic, as if I had water in my lungs and fire in my skin simultaneously.

Holding my anxiety in causes me to think about it too much, which only increases it. It can seem embarrassing to tell people that you’re suffering from an anxiety attack, but from experience the best thing for me is to talk about what’s going on so that I can reduce its severity.

Fortunately, I have a great set of friends. I knew what was happening and I knew that I had to leave. I told two of them before I walked out what was going on, and one came outside with me until I calmed down. No fuss, no drama. Which was perfect. The last thing I wanted was for it to be made a big deal; I’m so thankful for that.

I distracted myself by walking quickly home, so that I could focus on breathing properly, and listening to some music. It’s simple but, for me, it works. I couldn’t stop it, but I could lessen its severity by doing something that relaxes me immediately. The less severe my anxiety, the less I fear the attacks, and the easier they are to control.

Perhaps the worst part of an anxiety attack for me is the uncertainty of their appearance. They can occur at any time. The fear-inducing experience peaks around 10 minutes, but the exhausting physical symptoms can extend far beyond that. It took me a few hours to fully calm down, and even after that, I hardly slept that night.

One thing that some people don’t understand about anxiety attacks is how they can be so scary when people know that they get them. Doesn’t the fact that you know you have an anxiety disorder help you realise that it’s an anxiety attack?

It’s just not that simple. Oftentimes the fear is about losing control, embarrassing oneself in public, or being trapped in an uncomfortable situation. So even if you know this is your anxiety talking, it’s still terrifying to feel like you’re not in control and that you can’t do anything to stop it.

I used to ask myself if what I’m experiencing is real or just inside my head. I’ve come to learn that even if sometimes is inside my head, that doesn’t make it any less real.

I used to try to escape and pretend it wasn’t happening. The problem with escaping the situation whenever you have an anxiety attack is that it only works in the short term.

After the anxiety subsides, you can feel like it was a good decision to take yourself out of the situation and can sometimes cause you to avoid those same situations in future. When you have an anxiety attack, you can fear that you’ll have another one, and that can cause you to avoid those same situations that you associate with them.

Your mind is your prison when you focus on your fears; you might tell yourself that these are insignificant choices, but really, you’re avoiding putting yourself in situations in which you might potentially have anxiety and are made to cope with it.

If you start avoiding things, modifying your day, you know you’re giving in to the anxiety. You might feel stronger because you’re not experiencing it, but really what’s happening is that you’re sheltering yourself from the anxiety. Instead of getting a handle on it, you’re giving it more power. Too many of us are not living our dreams because we are living our fears.

Now I acknowledge it. Face it head on. Beat it. It’s perfectly okay to admit that you’re not okay; you’re not fragile or broken, you’re simply experiencing emotions more acutely than some other people. You’re not alone.

If you find yourself in this position, know that everyone feels pain, even if they don’t appear to. It can happen to anybody and it’s not a weakness. Anxiety attacks can appear out of nowhere, with no cause and with no explanation.

The symptoms are very real and very stressful, painful even. But they’ll go away when the attack is over. The more you worry that something is wrong with your mind or your body, the more likely the attack will be worse.

You can’t snap your fingers and simply be okay, but you can understand your body and your mind and learn to control them. Remind yourself that this is an anxiety attack and that what you’re feeling are normal symptoms. Describe what they are so you can let them go. It’s not going to stop an anxiety attack, but it can really help if you find yourself having one.

When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at begin to change. You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them.

LGBT and mental health

Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender mental health is a real and significant problem. Society treats everyone from birth as if they are heterosexual. If you’re not heterosexual and/or cisgender (where your gender aligns with the sex you are assigned at birth) then it can feel like there is huge pressure to suppress that part of yourself.

The RaRE report, a five-year-long study commissioned by LGBT mental health charity Pace, found that 34 percent of young LGB people (under 26) surveyed had made at least one suicide attempt in their lives. Forty-eight percent of young transgender people had attempted suicide. This is compared to 18 percent of heterosexual and 26 percent of cisgender young people. Major causes were identified as homophobic or transphobic bullying and struggles about being LGB or transgender within the family and at school. Furthermore, the report found that 57.1 percent of LGB and 85.2 percent of transgender young people have self-harmed at least once.

We need to talk more about sexual diversity.

Mind is the biggest mental health charity in the UK, and they acknowledge that the scars left by isolation of LGBT youth can last well into adulthood. Mind wants access and availability of mental health services to be truly person-centred, and for commissioners of services to understand the importance of offering genuinely inclusive and LGBT-affirmative support.

In one of the biggest surveys of homosexuals in England, researchers from Cambridge University found that 12 per cent of lesbian women and almost 19 per cent of bisexual women reported mental health problems, compared with six per cent of heterosexual women.

Meanwhile 11 per cent of gay men and 15 per cent of bisexual men reported problems, compared to five per cent of heterosexual men.

A research project at London’s University College hospital found “significantly higher” rates of mental illness among gay men than their straight peers. “It’s an incredibly sensitive issue that gay men are very defensive about,” reported one interviewee, “because we fought so long to say we’re equal, we’re happy with who we are. While that’s true, we’re are also suffering from the trauma of the journey, the isolation, the secrecy and the shame, and the resulting effect on your mental health that is more likely to happen to you if you grow up gay than if you grow up straight.

The most significant time period for the development of views and, for this argument, the development of those prejudices, is when we are growing up. More than half of younger LGB people experience homophobic bullying in Britain’s schools. Nearly half of pupils who experience homophobic bullying have symptoms of depression. One in six lesbian, gay, or bisexual adults has experienced homophobic hate crime or incident in the last three years.

If there were proper, open sex and relationships education in all schools – discussion of different families and LGBT role models in Britain in the 21st century – then I am almost certain that children would be more aware of differences, and people wouldn’t stand by and allow bullying.

As it stands, the idea of speaking openly about LGBT issues, or even gay sex, is still a taboo idea for so many. The gay-shaming attitudes of some (presumably straight) men towards gay sex are routinely evidenced as a way of boosting social status among heterosexual male friendship networks and self-esteem by exalting the in-group (fellow heterosexuals) through holding prejudice. The human tendency to form out-groups and in-groups is part of our coalitional psychology, but it is also malleable and so can change. Therefore gay-straight alliances in schools are a good idea because they promote a newer kind of positive relationship between LGBT and straight students.

The problem is, though, that gay-straight alliances are thin on the ground in mainstream culture. On TV, we don’t seem to have moved on from the perennial-outfit-judger-carrying-the-shopping-bags for Carrie in Sex and the City template. It’s rare to see a straight guy with a gay best friend on any screen. Socially, too, the LGBT “scene” is – with some noteworthy exceptions – largely segregated. Some might like it that way, but the us-and-them thing produces its own unhealthy mentalities.

Things may be changing, but the damage inflicted by homophobia and growing up “different” has already been done for many LGBT people. “Homosexuality” was not taken off the list of psychiatric disorders until 1993, making it especially difficult for people to reveal their sexuality to mental health providers.

If hate stems from a fear of difference, then understanding is our first step to eradicating that fear. James Taylor, Head of Policy at Stonewall, says: “Our ambition is for a world where every single LGBT person can experience acceptance without exception.” Moral development has not reached its climax with the modern age. In the future, historians will hopefully look back at our culture as brave enough to make all its members feel that they belong.

But if we leave things as they are – if we don’t address society’s lingering stigmas at a formative level – then none of us can lay a finger on the notion of pride.

What’s in a word? Trying to describe depression to somebody who’s never experienced it

Words have a strange way of becoming more focused over time. You might hear people say that they’re “depressed” about something or other all the time: Raining again? Depressed. Team lost? Depressed. Supermarket didn’t have that thing you wanted? You get the idea. In everyday speak, “Depressed” is just another term that means “This is irritating”. It’s a vague concept that, for some, has no applicable meaning, and is a word that can be used with some degree of flippancy.

Like many things, depression can be a difficult concept to understand until you have a real sense of what it’s like. Depression is inexplicable, too, because it comes in waves, without warning. Anybody can be affected by it, and if you are, it’s like nothing else you’ve ever felt. It’s difficult to believe there isn’t a more succinct word or way to articulate something so agonising. You might use the word “depressed” day-to-day, but trust me, you’re clueless about its meaning until that’s the only thing you can think about.

How easily depressive thoughts creep into your conscious brain is, for me, the most terrifying aspect of depression. It might be because of a particular event, sequence of events, or perhaps through no reason at all other than randomness. There’s no explanation, just hurt. It’s difficult to admit, but suicidal thoughts are commonplace when it comes to depression; it’s difficult to understand this if you’ve never experienced it – and I certainly wouldn’t wish it upon anybody – it can feel like most of the time you aren’t in control of your own mind, less so your body.

Suicide is less likely to be an impulsive action in current times – in some cases, this is down to design – but in most cases, a great deal of consideration goes into suicide. Even so, just to have the thought, to have it in your head as something tangible that could be an option, remains the most frightening realisation I have ever had in my life. If I ever think about suicide now, I’m aware that it’s just that: a thought. One that will come, and then go. But for a few weeks it felt so incredibly real that I began to lose a sense of who I was. Thinking something so at odds with the personality you’ve built up until that point shakes you to the core.

Returning to the use of language, the flippancy of how we use these words applies again here: “If I have to sit through another meeting I’m going to kill myself,” you might hear today in your office. But when the notion, the sheer enormity of the word “suicide” enters your head, it’s like nothing else on earth.

I began to disassociate from society. For the next few months I couldn’t think properly. Everything was backwards, sideways. I’d reject offers for people to come and see me. When I was in the thick of it, it was as if nothing else existed, and sometimes I felt that extended to myself. It’s been a while since that period and while I could keep on top of depression, the prospect of it returning is a constant fear. I managed, mostly through reading and writing, to intellectualise it; to separate myself from my thoughts. If I considered the logical aspects of it – being a product of my own mind, which I control – then surely, I could consciously push it out? It took time, but I started to feel the positivity return.

Really, though, it’s always there. The memories don’t leave you. You can get over it, you can beat it, but there’s always a chance it will come back. I’m thankful that my dealings with depression resulted in some positives for me, but others are not so lucky. I tell myself now, when I feel negative, that it gets better – not because I know it will, but because it must. You must steady yourself under the weight of depression however you can, to accept that you’re unwell but that you can cope, and not surrender to finality.

I think about the language surrounding mental illness a lot, how “depression” was just a word to me before. Now it makes me shudder when it’s mentioned, and the memories of a more desperate, dark time flash before me whenever I hear it.

It’s difficult to describe all of this in a way that someone who’s never experienced it can make sense of it. You can’t sell people on an unexplainable, existential crisis that questions every inch of their character. It just doesn’t work like that.

So what is depression? Even trying to describe what it is sounds morbid. Pitching it to people who have never personally experienced depression or loved anyone struggling with it is difficult. It’s detached from any reason or rational thought. We have no idea how many people experience depression. We can do studies and ask everyone in the world if they’ve been depressed – but how many really know what they mean by their answers? Maybe it’s a question of linguistics, maybe it’s a question of self-image. Maybe it’s simple, maybe not. I just don’t know; all I can tell you is how I’ve experienced it.

Words change meaning all the time, but rarely in such personal ways.

A sense of perspective in the face of adversity

Our understanding of the world gets caught up sometimes, in storytelling and mythology. In our own lives, we aren’t content to deal with things as they happen – we must dive endlessly into what everything means, or whether it is fair or not. Our perceptions determine, to a large degree, what we are and what we are not capable of. In many ways, they determine reality itself. When we believe in the block more than the goal, which will inevitably come out on top?
What’s the usual response to a bad situation, an impossible deadline, or a change in circumstance? We get mad, we get angry, we complain, we question. How could they? What’s the point? Why me? We look for a way out and feel sorry for ourselves. None of these things affect the objective reality; not in the way that pushing forward can. Would you believe in somebody who didn’t believe in their own abilities to succeed? Push through those limitations, and create something entirely new. I understand, this is different to the way we’ve been brought up. “Be realistic” we’re told. “Compromise” they say. “Life’s not fair” is how they justify it. But what if that’s wrong? What if this so-called wisdom is all too conservative? It’s this impulse to complain and defer that holds us back.
To argue, to complain or to give up are choices; choices that do nothing to help us accomplish what we need or want to achieve. To achieve great things requires the power to decide what is under our control and what is not – we cannot change those things that simply are not ours to change. Focusing on what is in our power magnifies it, enhances it. Focusing on anything else is simply wasted time. Will you have a chance? Is it up to you?
How we interpret the events in our lives is the framework for the forthcoming response, or even whether there’ll be one at all. The difference between the right and wrong perspective is everything. Small changes can alter what once felt like impossible tasks. Where we once thought we were weak, we now are strong. With the right perspective, we can discover the leverage over a situation that we never thought we had. To aim low results in accepting mediocrity. Aim higher, and you could create something extraordinary. Altering perceptions doesn’t come easily, and that’s understandable. Remember – though our doubts seem reasonable, they have very little bearing on what is and isn’t possible.
Though we don’t control reality, our perceptions certainly influence it. Fear is debilitating, distracting, tiring, and often irrational. The task is not to ignore fear or those obstacles that we face, but to explain them away, to take what you’re afraid of and break it apart. We choose how to look at situations – we can’t change the adversities themselves, but the power of perspective can change how they appear. How we approach, view, and contextualise them, and what we tell ourselves that they mean, determines how daunting they will be to overcome. It’s your choice to frame a situation in a negative light – “I can’t do that” – just the same as it is for you to grant yourself the power to overcome it. The right perspective has a strange way of cutting those obstacles down.
What is behind adversity is irrelevant, it is how you react to it that matters – as Emerson put it: “we cannot spend the day in explanation”. We can get ourselves so worked up because of overthinking, that if we’d just focused on the problem, we could have conquered it already. What matters right now is right now. Perception precedes action; right action follows the right perspective. We do not simply exist but always decide what our existence will be – what will you become in that next moment? You can change at an instant.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s much easier said than done. It’s not a matter of saying “I’ll live in the present now”, you must work at it. But it can be done. Catch your mind when it wanders back, discard those distracting thoughts, and leave things well enough alone – no matter how much you feel like doing otherwise. The past is the past, and it’s a chance to hit refresh and wipe clear what came before. A chance to evolve, a chance to become a better reflection of yourself. How will you learn from what you’ve been through? That is a question that only you can answer through the right perspective. It’s easy to forget that adversity seems huge when it happens, but this is just one moment in your life; this is not your life.
The faith in your ability to make something new when there was nothing before is incredible. Given adversity, see it as a chance to test what you’re made of, to give it all you’ve got no matter how difficult it might be to win. In that state, we are our most creative, our most passionate, and our most open to new ideas. Embrace it. Harness your own power when your obstacles illuminate new options.
Now that you’ve managed your perceptions, what’s next is to act. Are you ready?

Media reporting of suicide is fucking ridiculous

Let’s get this straight. The coverage in the media when somebody takes their own life is appalling. Contrast this with something like a sexually-motivated murder, and all the details are reported, plain for all to read. But suicide? Nobody wants a bar of it.

Only yesterday, The Sun reported on the suicide of magician Daryl Easton. Was there any mention of mental health problems, or how those around have attempted to help him? Absolutely not. What was mentioned, twice in fact, was the debate over whether the man in question was fully clothed or not when he was found dead by hotel staff. A man’s battle with mental illness, reduced into nothing more than a media circus in a crass attempt to sell newspapers.

What’s more unsettling is that this happens repeatedly: terms such as ‘mental patient’, ‘nutter’, ‘lunatic’, ‘psycho’, ‘schizo’ and ‘mental institution’ are thrown around so often – do the writers ever stop to think how this language stigmatises mental illness and perpetuates discrimination? This selfish, insensitive, capitalist culture is shifting the debate from talking about why these people are committing suicide, to some minor detail with no bearing on the situation.

Inaccurate, insensitive or sensationalist media reports on mental illness and suicide can have significant consequences: research by mental health charity Sane has shown that people who read negative articles about mental illness expressed more negative attitudes toward people with a mental illness. Sane also illustrate that exposure to negative media stories has a direct effect on attitudes about people with mental illness, which was not altered by subsequent exposure to positive stories, and that media accounts of mental illness that instil fear have a greater influence on public opinion than even direct contact with people who have a mental illness.

The media fascination with extreme violence, vulnerable victims and having someone to blame seem to make suicide newsworthy. Even when mental illness is mentioned as part of the story, so often are those involved portrayed in a stereotypical manner, with pejorative language used to describe mental illness, alongside inaccurate and speculative reference to mental disorder in newspaper reports. More worryingly, in some newspapers, speculative comments concerning the offender’s mental state are produced with no evidence behind these claims and, in addition to the speculation regarding diagnoses, reporters often seemed to select quotations from witnesses that provided a default assumption of mental illness when there was seemingly no other plausible explanation.

The complexity of the events is so often lost in the reporting, that it’s becoming less frustrating and more imperative to change this.

The media has an important role to play in influencing social attitudes to suicide and, potentially, the actions of vulnerable people. Research by MindFrame has demonstrated that not only is the way suicide reported significant, but that there remains a strong association between media presentations of suicide and increases in actual suicidal behaviour (including suicide deaths, attempts and thoughts about suicide).

Stories about suicide appear to have the greatest impact on people in the community who are already vulnerable. The risk is increased where someone identifies with the person in the report, where the story is prominent, is about a celebrity, details method and/or location or glorifies the death in some way.

Would anybody argue that we need to find ways of increasing community discussion of suicide and suicide prevention? Probably not. Would those people take an active role doing so? I’d guess few would. That’s why, with the media so predominant in our lives, that its role in increasing community discussion is necessary, yet complex, to shift.

The reality is that all of us, every single human being, whether you are suffering from mental illness or not, wants to feel connected to one another. We all want to feel our lives have meaning. If only we could see what this type of reporting is doing to the minds of those who are suffering the most.

We must stand up to stigma and discrimination. We must try to understand, educate future generations, and prevent anyone who experiences a mental illness from feeling ashamed.

The trouble is that ‘suicide’ and ‘mental health’ aren’t sexy topics that the tabloids can print on their front pages with some terrible pun of a headline to churn out copies. They want stories that sell. They want to talk about violence, or preferably sexualised violence, horror, and chaos. All the while, the suicide rate sits quietly in the background, as big a problem as ever but overshadowed by the irrelevance that is printed.

This isn’t a problem that we can simply sweep under the rug and let it be dealt with by someone else. Being honest about what you’re going through might not make for a headline, but it takes real courage to stand up and say something when you’re at rock bottom.

If we start a greater conversation around suicide, wipe away the stigma and let everyone know that it’s okay to admit how they’re really feeling, we can create a culture where people seek the help they need. We all have a responsibility to tackle the silence that leads to suicide. It’s such a privilege for us to be able to talk about our own experiences and contribute to building the momentum around changing attitudes to mental health. Just dive right in.