In the last few years there has been increased awareness of mental health issues in the media, way before the pandemic hit. Mental health professionals are seeing a growing mental health epidemic which has become significantly worse due to the human and financial cost of Covid-19, prolonged lockdowns, and a general shift in how people live, work and study. Nowadays, most of us know someone with a mental health issue or have experienced it ourselves.
Mental Health Issues are Human Issues
The language used in the mainstream media to describe mental health does not adequately portray the issues people present with in therapy. Terms such as trauma, anxiety and depression are often overused and do not describe their full meaning. Most of us experience fear, grief, sadness, and fluctuation in emotions. Whether we choose to acknowledge it or not, most of us have been through a challenging life event(s) or loss(es) with significant emotional and psychological impact.
Anxiety and Depression – An Emotional Accumulation
I often hear people say that they or someone else “suffers with” anxiety or depression, or “has a mental health issue”. My first thought is: what does this mean? Though these terms have been fed to us through both clinicians and the media, I believe there are much better ways of describing someone’s experience in a less diagnostic, medical and all-encompassing way.
Although some of us may say “I feel anxious” or “I feel depressed”, anxiety and depression are not actual feelings but a cluster or accumulation of many things. Feelings and emotions when undealt with (supressed) and poorly understood, can result in what we currently describe as depression or anxiety.
For instance, a prolonged period of low mood which we call depression can ensue as a response to anything from prolonged grief to suppressed anger, feelings of powerlessness and helplessness, just to name a few. Depression can range from low mood to intense depressive episodes, depending on cause and other psychological and biological factors.
A prolonged or chronic state of high alert resulting in unpleasant feelings of fear or dread which we call anxiety, often manifests when we are responding internally to a certain situation that we perceive as a threat of some description, either actual or imagined. Like depression, anxiety symptoms range from generalised anxiety to panic disorder, depending on the level of accumulation of emotions, life circumstances, personal resilience, previous trauma, etc.
Finally, our mood is also impacted by environmental and physiological factors such as sleep, hormones, mood altering substances such as caffeine, alcohol and drugs (illegal or prescribed), exercise, fresh air and sunshine, screen time, etc.
The Role of Psychotherapy
Is to help people make sense of why they feel the way they do. To understand what is behind the symptoms that people label as anxiety or depression because they do not know what they are experiencing and why. Uncovering the ‘why’ is a big part of the process of getting better – the more we know why, the more we know ourselves.
Elsewhere on this website we list the issues that people commonly seek therapy for. Anyone who comes to therapy seeking help with a particular issue or issues, also brings with them a rich context and personal history. Making links between symptoms and experience (past and present) is an essential part of understanding, accepting and therefore overcoming some of the barriers we face in feeling mentally well and more at ease with ourselves.
Further reading by Sam Jahara