In the last few weeks, while I’ve been largely alone in Orkney, I’ve been aware of having to cope with my mood and thoughts from day to day and reading about how people with mental health problems cope on Twitter and support each other.
I’ve also been reminded of something I read many years ago.
At the turn of the millennium, the Mental Health Foundation carried out some service user research and produced a report called ‘Strategies for Living.’ Over 400 people had completed Knowing our own Minds – a user-led survey of alternative and complementary treatments and therapies in mental health and Strategies for Living reported the findings from interviewing 71 people with experience of mental health problems in depth. This was a really positive piece of work, which highlighted the particular activities and experiences which people with mental health problems found helpful in coping with their everyday lives: from on-going survival strategies, such as the need for financial security to crisis strategies such as making contact with friends or professionals, ways of controlling symptoms such as taking medication, having therapy, taking exercise or using a Walkman (yes it is a few years old) to distract from hearing voices, to ‘healing strategies’ through religion and spiritual beliefs to complementary therapies.
Relationships with others were key. Several common themes could be identified:
• Shared experience… shared identity
• Emotional support… ‘being there’
• A reason for living
• Finding meaning… and purpose
• Peace of mind… and relaxation
• Taking control… having choices
• Security… and safety
Mental health services were largely absent from the accounts that people offered although some individual professionals clearly offered a great deal of valued support
Why am I reminded of this now?
How we cope from day to day is a very personal phenomenon. There are of course some common strategies that people find helpful and these were the ones reported in Strategies for Living.
However there are also some other ways of coping that were not reported in here. The strategies that people do not always want to admit to. I know some of these intimately. Despite growing up in a household of heavy smokers, I’ve never tried a cigarette, but I watched my father consume 40 a day as his own personal way of keeping life at bay. Excessive drinking is something I’ve always suspected I could sink into and I’ve consciously tried to cut down in recent months. It isn’t always easy. I spent some of my career working in alcohol services and I know how hard it can be to withdraw from alcohol and other substances. But there are other ways too that we cope with how we feel: eating, or not, over exercising, self-harm and self-injury , spending every night out on the town or shutting ourselves away completely from the world to the point that we feel completely isolated and ultimately brooding about strategies for dying rather than living. Suicidal thoughts are themselves a coping strategy. Knowing there is a way out when it all gets just too much.
My concern with much of the self-help literature, some of which sits on my own bookshelf unopened, is that it makes various assumptions:
- We actually want to change, and stop using the sometimes self-destructive ways of coping we find helpful in day to day survival.
- We can find the resources to be able to do that.
- We have the material resources and social capital to be able to adopt some of the positive strategies people suggest to us, such as time, money and a place to live to start off with.
Its difficult to adopt new ways of coping until you have acknowledged what you will lose in giving up the other strategies, the ones health professionals would prefer you to unquestionably ditch. Such positive ways of coping cannot be prescribed (such as in the advice to ‘go home and have a warm bath and a cup of tea’ that currently seems beloved of some crisis support teams- actually I didn’t see these even mentioned in Strategies for Living either). Health professionals need to start from where we are at now. What have we found helpful in the past? What do we do now to cope? What is difficult about changing ? And avoid being judgmental if they want us to be honest.
The problem with feeling depressed is that it involves rumination. Indeed in some cultures it is considered to be a problem of ‘thinking too much’. We become aware of our thoughts, and struggle to cope with them minute by minute. I certainly have some obsessional features to my thinking, and I’m aware that if the day doesn’t go ‘right’ in some often hard to clarify way, I can feel as though everything has gone ‘very wrong’. I have to mentally restart the day in some way. These thoughts can be painful and repetitive and I seek ways to avoid them. Distraction is probably the most effective way I’ve found and I deeply resent that some psychologists I’ve met seek to denigrate such an effective coping strategy as a ‘safety behaviour’ in CBT speak. Hell- give me a break- it’s what I find helpful!
There are many different strategies for living and quite a few for dying.
Help me to find the ones that fit me best to help me survive.
Don’t advise, lecture or proselytize.