And so the Daily Mail headline reads: A nation hooked on happy pills.
Happy pills - A common, if somewhat outdated, vernacular for depression meds. One of those charming phrases one thought would have gone out of the window a long time ago along with other choice words that your elderly relatives probably still use to describe black people or gay men. But alas, this is England, and if there is one thing we are great at, for better or for worse, it is holding onto the past.
This article has arisen at an interesting time for me. I've not been writing of late and haven't blogged for many months. In fact the creative process had ground to a halt completely for the best part of a year. I've been dealing with a handful of small changes in my personal life. It is nothing Earth-shaking - just enough for me to have to concentrate on other areas for a little while. Now for those of you who know me, or have read any of my writing know, depression is something I've been dealing with for many years. It’s under control, but it does loom like a spectre over most of what I do. Times of change only serve to exacerbate that.
But it’s all good folks. I'm at a point in time where I've managed to wrestle the situation back into my control, and feel like an absolute boss for doing so. The aforementioned changes have either passed without incident, or they’ve been turned into opportunities for bigger and better things. I'm beginning to write once more. I have great opportunities within education on the horizon and I'm looking at developing my website, business and blog further. So, things are looking up.
Then last week, seeing a national news paper reducing my fight, and by extension, my victories, down to a throw away line about crazies and their wacky need for drugs got my back up.
So today I want to talk about the phrase "happy pills", my own experience of mental health related drugs, living with depression and what I feel are some common misconceptions about both. Finally, I want to think about what we can do as educators to tackle stereotypes and misconceptions surrounding mental health.
For starters it needs to be started: Whoever coined the phrase happy pills did not understand depression and certainly did not understand happiness. Depression is not the antithesis of happiness. Even if it were, I do not believe happiness can be found in a purely extrinsic stimulus - certainly nothing as simple as a pill. No drug, no matter how mind meltingly good, can give you actual real happiness. Happiness cannot be crushed into pills, distilled into spirits, rolled into a smoke or snorted up your hooter through a rolled up twenty. Don't get me wrong - I'm sure a lot of people have been very happy whilst enjoying all the activities I’ve listed above. But that would be due to a complicated mix of intrinsic and extrinsic stimuli. The happiness did not come from drug alone.
And drugs come in many forms. Happiness cannot be injected into a doughnut, bought on a black Friday sale or require the latest upgrade, extra air time and 4g coverage. It’s a cliché but consumerism - the drug that most of us, in one way shape or form, are addicted to - cannot provide happiness either.
My point being – Happiness is complicated. It does not come in pill form.
And yet this statement is the complete opposite of everything we've been sold by society. Adverts and film have us believing that we can have anything we want. If you're willing to work hard and spend your cash - anything is possible - so why not happiness? Why can't it be that simple? Listen to advertisers on television; they want to sell you a lifestyle. You may be buying a car, or a shirt, or an aftershave, but what has been advertised is happiness. And it cannot deliver that. Every drug has a “come down” and I find that the post purchase hangover is just as real.
Happiness is complicated. It’s cocktail of the extrinsic and intrinsic. It comes from without and it comes from within. A lot of you reading this will be teachers *. Think about when, during training, we all had to study Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Humans are complex animals. We need an awful lot more than food, shelter and a new IPhone to self actualise and achieve happiness. And even when happiness is achieved through a complicated mixture of circumstances and your own mental state, it's fleeting isn't it? So much in life promises permanent happiness! Can you imagine such a thing? Imagine smiling like a Wally all day long and being constantly, ecstatically happy. It would be unnatural - an absolute living hell. * *
So happiness is not attainable through some drug, or product to be bought- nor is it a state of mind that can be maintained indefinitely. Neither for that matter - is it the opposite of depression.
In my experience the opposite of depression is feeling. Depression strips you of the ability to feel. You feel little or nothing. No regard for yourself, your health, your work and even little regard for others. You are emotionally blank and lack all form of self esteem, or motivation. Some days this lasts a moment, other days it lasts all day. It may be different for others but I can only attest to my own experience. There’s that little voice that tells you that you are worthless and ties weights to your arms and legs so that getting out of bed feels like a Herculean task.
Now medication exists to help sufferers of depression. Now if these are "happy pills"- are designed to what? Raise ones mood? I've been on a couple of different kinds in my time. I've also tried some of the supposedly "natural herbal" alternatives* * *. How have I felt they've affected me? Numbness. Pure numbness. When on the prescribed meds I’ve felt less negative thoughts and feelings sure, but happiness? No way. It has simply rebooted my CPU in “safe mode” so that I can get out of bed and perform basic functions. It’s facilitated the earning of wages, the eating of food and maintained a social facade that I'm not, at that point, experiencing major melt down. It has given me the space from that voice to begin to heal, but it hasn’t healed me.
Now don't get me wrong. That's no bad thing. When I've been at my worst sometimes the pills have been a God's send. They've put me into full blown automaton mode and allowed me to get through a period of time. They helped me survive. Did they make me happy? Were they happy pills? Absolutely not. But were they a bad thing? No. They helped me survive in the short term and gave me the time I needed to get well in the long term.
Depression is a complicated beast. But an over simplification of it does nothing to help our understanding. Because logic would state, to the casual observer, that if somebody needs happy pills ...then surely they must be sad. No. Depression is not the opposite of happiness. Sadness is not the same as depression. And to be happy all the time is not achievable - nor, in my opinion particularly desirable!
So lets go back to that head line. "A nation hooked on happy pills". What's the real message there?
Hooked - addicted, like a junkie. This brings up negative connotations and mental images of those skinny blokes from Trainspotting living in a squat. It’s associated with dependence and ultimately weakness. You’re weak for needing something so badly that you cannot function without it.
Happy Pills - an over simplification of the causes and treatment of depression. Honestly, a snide little snigger at the drugs that have probably helped saved many lives in the short term and a taunt at those that use them.
How absolutely irresponsible. We can laugh and say "Oh well, its only the Mail, nobody takes that nonsense seriously". An awful lot of us take it for granted that tabloids are shit rags and assume people take little or no notice of what they say. But we do this at our peril because many people do. Papers like this play to people’s prejudices - they don't create prejudice from the ground up. In many ways they serve to simply confirm prejudices that people already hold and help them feel vindicated in their outdated views. People like reading things they agree with - it makes them feel right. They do this with causal racism, misogyny, xenophobia and it seems prejudice against sufferers of mental health issues.
So how do we combat this? We combat peoples views.
This starts in our schools****. We need to speak about mental health with our students at all ages throughout their education.
We tell little kids to brush their teeth don't we? We teach healthy eating in Science. We have those awkward lessons where the nurse comes in to do a talk once year six body odour reaches unbearable levels. We need to do the same in our schools for mental health. Treat mental health like every other type of health. Break the stigma, aid our kids in developing ways to protect their own mental health and never ever allow it to be simplified as people being "mental", "mad" or, god forbid, needing "happy pills".
We also need to treat mental health seriously in our schools. When somebody needs time off for stress of depression, a school needs to examine why this could be. Has the school had any part to play in negatively impacting the health of an employee? Does the school have facilities such as counselling, or buddy systems in tackling workload and the more stressful parts of our jobs? And if someone has had to have time out for depression, how are they treated upon return? Are they viewed as weak and tainted or are they welcomed back in a supportive yet professional manner and trusted to fulfil their role within the school?
A school is most people’s initial experience of society at large, the world outside of their immediate family. We can help set social norms for young people that will stick with them for the rest of their lives. Let’s make sure we send the right message. The stigma around mental health only exists as long as people believe it does. The tabloids only print this nonsense as long as lots of people already believe in it.
I can't think of a better group of professionals to go out and combat these ill informed views before they even have a chance to take root.
* And not because this blog is an education focused one…because I’m sad and surround myself with other sad teachers. Teachers can’t make friends with normal people.
* * In fact smiling too much can be bloody awful...We had to have a photograph taken at my primary schools 50th anniversary when I was about 8. You should see the picture. My face. I've had enough. The photographer had to organise about 300 kids or so from 5 to 10 years old to sit still and smile. It took an age. And so I look like a miserable little bastard. Seriously, ask my mum!
But why? Smiling for any longer than ten minutes is fucking torture. If you don't believe me, ask anyone who's ever got married. Smiling for all those photos. It's unnatural. So now I am a firm believer that smiling causes physical pain. You should probably avoid it at all costs.
* * *I know, hippy.
**** See, this is an education blog…I promise.