Mental Help

A man standing beneath a waterfall casting a rainbow

Its Geek Mental Help Week. Thats help not health. I realised Ive been calling it Geek Mental Health Week since it began in 2014. I like the more proactive, optimistic feel of help. It evokes a sense of camaraderie and pathos. But health works well, too, so no biggie. I thought I would point this out in case you hadnt noticed this nomenclatorial nuance, either. Whats that you say? Its perfectly clear and obvious? Just me being an idiot? Very well. Lets move swiftly on, shall we?

If youre not familiar with Geek Mental Help Week, its an annual week-long compendium of content dedicated to mental health issues. A sort of blog-based support group. A light shone in the dark; a killer of shadows. The internet is wonderful, sometimes, isnt it?

Reasons to Stay Alive

I read Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig a few weeks ago. This was, in part, because of the brilliant reviews its been receiving. It was also partly because I was trying to find a way to engage with Geek Mental Help Week. I tend to think about mental heath issues a lot for various reasons. It served its purpose well, although to describe the book as a purely functional reading experience - as if it were merely another self-help book - would do it a great disservice. While Reasons does contain many elements of helpful advice, it is at heart a vibrant story of struggle, of overcoming, and of hope. Classic themes beautifully wrought by Haig.

It is notably, and refreshingly, graphic. The author conjures images and scenes in vivid detail. It is pitch black and luminous at the same time. Its this duality that makes it so different: he doesnt paint depression as a solely dark or even grey experience as it is so often depicted, but as something more multi-coloured. Its a spectrum. Its an explosion of pain; its butterflies flickering in your cranial cavity; its bright flames of suffering and lurid, face-licking demons. It does contains cold darkness, yes, but also brio and good humour. Theres enough warmth to gently toast a crumpet and, at times, is more comforting than a peanut butter sandwich. Its deliciously British, too, capturing some of our nations eccentricity, self-deprecation, anxieties and enduring spirit.

One of the more surprising and positive themes of the book (it is, fundamentally, a positive memoir) is that depression, anxiety and mental health issues arent solely negative. There is a optimistic Yang to the depressive Yin. Haig makes the point that for many, creative work comes about because of these issues, not in spite of them. He argues that, perhaps, the darkness is what makes the light possible - the contrast is what makes it so bright. A world without that pain wouldnt be nearly so bracing. A world without anxiety wouldnt sharpen and amplify our sense of curiosity

Have you ever felt scared in the dark, your senses strained to the limit? Remember how you can hear your own heart and breath, every creak of the house, every flutter of a moths wing, every distant animal call? Darkness intensifies the senses. It makes you more perceptive. Theres something to be said for that, despite the obvious downsides.

Haig himself claims he wouldnt be a writer if he didnt have depression.

He also makes the essential point that depression is separate from you. Like clouds obscuring the moon. The clouds come and go but the moon is always there. Its important to remember this. It will pass. You are the moon and the sky, not the clouds.

Reasons to Stay Alive is an ideal read for the creative soul, especially if you struggle with demons. Its ideal if you consider yourself non-creative, too (if you really consider yourself non-creative, thats a whole other issue we wont go into here; suffice it to say: you are mistaken.) If you dont personally suffer, this book is a fine way to get a better understanding of those who do suffer. Its the sort of book you can gift to someone when youre struggling to explain what depression feels like; when you need for them to understand. It does the subject justice, in other words. That, right there, is an extraordinarily difficult feat. It is literally a life-saver.

Care for Carers

One of the most interesting people in Reasons is Matts partner, Andrea. The loyalty and support she provides Matt throughout is deeply moving. There are times when his anxiety reaches such crescendoed heights that it seems like it must take a superhuman effort to not shout, Just get a grip, man! But she remains calm and supportive in just the right ways throughout. They have rows and there is friction there, sure, but its not destructive. Its measured; necessary. She strikes me as an utterly remarkable woman. Strength, courage, patience, love. Easy to say, hard to practice. And yet she exhibits these qualities with a selfless ease.

It is this observation that leads to the central point of my post: we often forget those who support sufferers. Its common to hear stories of those who care for disabled relatives or loved ones getting burned out. Those who care for the elderly are classic cases, especially if those they care for suffer Dementia or Alzheimers. Empathy fatigue - and physical fatigue - are real problems. The need for a break, to unburden, and to refresh is a need for effective ongoing care. Love can get overgrown and shaded out by the weeds of tiredness.

With the relative invisibility of mental health, the support provided by true supporters can go tragically unnoticed. Yet, the burden is there. The mental fatigue of being a rock can be akin to holding weights in out-stretched arms. The desire to drop those weights is agonisingly tempting, yet carers can be uncommonly resilient. The need to unload and talk to others is as much a need for the carer as it is for the sufferer, and yet the carer - due to their very nature - will often pooh-pooh attempts at supporting them.

So spare a thought for those in a position of care. Make a point to seek them out and talk to them. Find out how theyre doing. Try to make it past the inevitable and expected brush-off response. Help them to see how loved and appreciated they are. Dont be heavy-handed about it: the last thing you want is to cause those who are unwell to feel any guilt whatsoever. But it is important to be mindful of the critical, often life-saving role a carer plays. They are part of a successful system of support as Andrea demonstrates in Reasons. Carers need our support and understanding too.

If this post has piqued your interest in Reasons to Stay Alive, Ill leave you with some material Matt has written for the Guardian: an extract from the book, an article and a Q&A. I also recommend the audiobook if youre so inclined. Its read by the Matt and he gets it absolutely spot on.