The other day, I had finished work and was skimming through Facebook when I saw a status posted by the author, Matt Haig. He said it was about time we discussed the effect mental health could have on our behaviour without being shamed into silence about it. He said, echoing the work of Brene Brown, that shame is not the medicine.
Condemn behaviour, not people. Shame is not medicine.Matt Haig, Facebook, July 2020
I’ve read many times people say that mental health is not an excuse for bad behaviour. I’ve probably spouted something similar at some point. However, the more I learn and become aware of myself, the more I agree with Matt Haig’s status.
When an episode of anxiety or depression strikes, depending on the severity, my mind is corrupted. My thoughts are often twisted and distorted, manipulating me into patterns of thinking that are negative, irrational and demonstrably not true. We who experience mental health issues or who know or work with those issues recognise this reality. The truth is that we often only accept that reality after the episode has passed and our minds are back to being our own.
The Lockdown Effect on Mental Health
When lockdown went into effect in March, I was content with the whole thing because it made sense for our safety during the pandemic. It saved me money, gave me time to exercise, be creative, do my counselling work for my diploma and spend time with my fiancé.
All went smoothly for April. However, in the week beginning of May, I was assaulted by the severest anxiety attack I have experienced in years. It completed distorted my thinking about my engagement and relationship for three long days. I don’t clearly remember the trigger, by my thoughts were in ferocious overdrive, blocking out almost all else. My mind felt stretched out like it had been strapped to the rack. The result of that three-day assault was a severe notion that I should break off my engagement and leave my fiancé because he was abusive to me.
It was a level of anxious insanity I haven’t reached in a long time. When the three days ended, I walked nine miles to clear away the remnants of the assault and bring a little peace to my delicate mind. The following day, I surveyed what had happened, and I couldn’t believe the crazy thoughts that had so dominated my mind.
Not in control
The scary part was that is that attack with all its violent ferocity had continued for a week or a month, who knows what irrational decisions I could have made. And I would have been convinced they were the right choices during that episode. It is impressive how persuasive anxiety can be when it speaks with your voice. Only after it ended would I have reaped the consequences. To those who claim that mental health is never an excuse for behaviour, I say this: It may not be an excuse with all the connotations that word implies, but it is a cause of specific actions.
For many years, my anxiety caused me to believe that self-sabotage was the best course of action regarding relationships because it was going to end anyway, so why to prolong it. I would enter a relationship to see how far it would go and giving it my all. Except before long, my mind would revert to treasonous activity. My thoughts would speak of failure and preferred loneliness. The result so often or not would be a premature ending of the relationship or an affair or one-off in adultery. The actions were mine and therefore are my responsibility, but the root was my anxiety. Does that excuse the behaviour? Of course not, but about acknowledging the source, it allows us to discuss how mental health issues can affect each of us in different, subjective ways.
The Dangerous Choices
In mental health conversations, there appears to be an acceptance that anxiety and depression can cause more dangerous choices like drug-taking, alcoholism, self-harm or suicide. The fact that mental illness can be a cause of these choices is readily accepted. My depression and anxiety stemming from my time in the closet resulted in extreme suicidal thoughts.
However, we are not always so readily accepting of the claims that mental conditions causes certain behaviours. We tell them not to use their mental health as an excuse. We pass judgements on them, thinking our knowledge of mental health trumps their subjective experience of their situation.
It appears toa strange thing that occurs when a person is permitted to discuss that they have mental health issues and how they feel about that, but cannot express how certain behaviours are rooted in mental health without being judged for them.
We need more empathy
Empathy allows us to view the person as a person first and their behaviours second. It helps us realise that they are human and that their lived experiences could be incredibly different from ours. Therefore their behaviour has different roots based on those experiences than we might experience in our lives.
It is not about allowing excuses or dismissing the behaviour. But about creating a space where we can have empathetic conversations. It will enable us to grow in understanding. Showing compassion and removing shame from the debate allows us to lessen the stigma. Not just the external stigma that silences so many voices. But also the internal stigma within the mental health community that prevents those conversations being had.