The problem with talking about mental health

We as a society tend to look at problems after they have happened and talk about what could have been different. What could we have done? What choices should we have made? What other options were available in order to prevent this from happening and how its important that more people should be aware of these options.

This is all very good in every other situation but not when it comes to suicide. Suicide is the ultimate act of hopelessness and helplessness. It is irreversible and no amount of discussions and solutions can bring back the one who is gone.

The physical ailments we suffer are very obvious to ourselves and to the world. They are there for everyone to see. Our mental and psychological health remains hidden often till it is too late.

We as a society are committed to good physical health. We want to eat right, follow the best diets and visit the best doctor. Basically when it comes to physical health we all want the best money can buy.

There is also a lot of importance given to physical appearance and we spend millions on beauty aids, and surgeries to make ourselves physically appealing.

We do all this because each one of us wants to be happier. Everything we do- the final goal is happiness. If my health is good, if i look attractive, i will feel good about myself and i will feel happy.

What happens when it comes to emotional health? When we are emotionally and mentally not feeling a degree of happiness in life, how do we allow ourselves to stay in that state and not question what is wrong. There is a taboo, a stigma on talking about mental health, unless a celebrity publicly shares that they are depressed or another celebrity commits suicide.

We are jolted out of our sleep state and suddenly mental health is the most important topic, but this is only short lived, and we go back to our routines, having given our wisdom and deep insight on social media. All the facebook posts and instagram stories are about why we need to talk about our mental health. Although we as a society do need to give the same importance to mental health, as we do to physical health, not many question why is there a problem in the first place.

People don’t get depressed overnight. Nor do rational intelligent people make a decision to commit suicide just on an impulse. They reach a point where they see no other choice. Its a place of hopelessness and helplessness.

So when did this actually start. Did it just happen because of one rejection or disappointment? It likely started much earlier, perhaps in childhood or maybe even before that in the womb.

We are ruled by our beliefs

Each one of us is a product of our beliefs. Our beliefs rule our life. Every decision we make or don’t make comes from our personal conscience. So what is our personal conscience?

Each one of us has a set of values and beliefs. These beliefs and values we acquire from our family, our upbringing, our society, our religion, our economic status and even our country. These beliefs are ingrained in us, we are aware of them subconsciously, which means when it comes to making a choice, we will unconsciously refer back to these values and beliefs to make our decisions.

These values and beliefs are a part of our personal map of the world. They are the signposts that give us directions. They are the milestones that tell us we are on the right path and they are also the warnings that tell us we are headed in the wrong direction. And this is very personal. What is acceptable for one may not be acceptable to another and may even appear dangerous.

For Example — in certain places of worship one can walk in with their shoes and in other places like a Hindu temples you must enter bare feet.

These beliefs are passed on from generation to generation unquestioningly. They govern most of our life. If we stop and think before every choice we make, we may become conscious of some of these beliefs which otherwise operate hidden behind the scenes.

The beliefs we form about ourselves start from the moment of our conception. The first response of the mother — joy or disappointment can be felt by the infant as an emotional feeling and can create a belief about his self worth and his place in life. Our nervous system starts to develop by 4 weeks and the initial response felt by the child gets stored in his nervous system as a feeling of either acceptance or rejection. This initial belief could affect how he views life and the opportunities it offers and his response to stress.

Our beliefs about ourselves and the world around us start forming from conception and get set by the time we are about 4 to 6 years old.

As children we observe our environment and like sponges we absorb everything we see and these influence our beliefs. Our parents are our first teachers and influence us the most. We learn by observing their behaviors, their responses and their actions.

Did we see our father strong in the face of adversity or did we perceive he gave up. Did we see our mother as helpless and dependent or as an independent woman. These observations teach us how to handle difficult situations and how to respond in adversity. Our ability to either get up after every fall or give up out of frustration is influenced by very early experiences.

Parents provide a guiding compass, for better or for worse

How we respond to adversity is also shaped by the attachment we form as children with our parents and care givers. The stronger this attachment, the more secure is our being.

We all have an internal compass, which orients us to our family. Especially for children this orientation is very important and crucial for their survival. New born babies orient to the mother and if she is not available, they orient to the next available person, hopefully the father.

As we grow up our orientation to a mature individual is crucial in our development and decisions. When parents or grandparents are unavailable the growing child may feel disoriented. They will then become peer oriented and all their decisions will be influenced by their peers. This orientation can be harmful and even dangerous, as peers are only as mature as the child themselves.

Peer orientation has a strange quality unique to it. It is about suppressing your vulnerability in order to be higher up in the pecking order. These peer oriented children are extremely insecure as they never know when they will lose the favor of their peers and be replaced by someone else. They suppress any emotional weakness so as to not lose the respect of their peers. Acceptance by their peer group is of utmost importance as their identity is defined by this belonging. Being rejected by the peers can be devastating to these children and literature shows that rejection by peers is one of the causes of the growing suicide rates.

Our attachment to our parents, our feeling of acceptance and knowing that we are unconditionally loved is important for our life. Children who grow up in secure family environments, where the parents play an important role in decision-making, rarely take drastic steps to solve a problem. These children are oriented to their parents, who become their internal compass when they feel overwhelmed with an issue.

The initial formative years of the child are important in their development into grounded and mature teenagers and adults. The parent-child attachment, which forms in these initial years, serves the child throughout his life. A sense of belonging and security that the child develops becomes the cornerstone of his life. These children grow up with a sense of safety and belonging.

Unfortunately there are no perfect families. Our parents are the product of imperfect parenting and that’s the legacy they pass on to us and we to our children. We carry our unhealed childhood experiences into our adult life. These drive our life and our decisions. Our unhealed traumas of the past affect our parenting and our ability to create secure attachments with our children. We pass on our unresolved pain to our children and they pass this on to theirs.

So how do we break this cycle?

Awareness of our past and willingness to look at our unresolved issues is an important first step. The more we can be present as adults for our children and not allow ourselves to be triggered by our unhealed parts, the more we create a safe environment for our child’s upbringing. Healing our unresolved issues allows us to operate in the present with maturity and invokes trust and confidence in our children. They know they can trust their parents.

When the parent is the compass point, it is the messages he or she gives that are relevant. When tragedy and trauma happen, the child looks to the parent for clues on whether or not to be concerned. As long as their attachments are safe, the sky could collapse and the world fall apart, but children would be relatively protected from feeling dangerously vulnerable.

There is a flip side to this dynamic, of course. To the degree that the child’s attachment to their parent protects them against hurtful interaction with others, it also sensitizes them to the parent’s own words and gestures. If the parent belittled or shamed the child, poured contempt on them, the child would be devastated. Their attachment to their parents renders them highly vulnerable in relationship to the parents, but less vulnerable in relationship to others. There is an inside and an outside to attachment: the vulnerability is on the inside, the invulnerability on the outside. Attachment is both a shield and a sword. Attachment divides the world into those who can hurt you and those who can’t. Attachment and vulnerability — these two great themes of human existence — go hand in hand.

The child’s attachment when it is with his primary caretaker or with a mature adult, whoever that may, gives the child a grounding and stability. That is not to say that the child will not have peer relationships. But the adult oriented child will not be dependent on the opinion of peers in his decision making process.

Our healing as parents is our responsibility, towards our children and towards society at large. The healed parent is a model for the child. Someone the child can emulate and be guided by in his life’s important decisions

Ritu Kabra

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