I was fine until I started speaking to you!

Was what I overheard on the train to central Brum on the Saturday of this positively scorching bank holiday weekend. Of the pair, it seemed one was perfectly fine being single until her insensitive friend decided to tell her about her lack of a man. She continued to goad her despite the none of your business sign on her face, obvious even to the most emotionally illiterate person.

The charity MIND reports that in the UK, 1 in 4 people will experience a mental health problem each year and in England, 1 in 6 people report experiencing a common mental health problem (such as anxiety and depression) in any given week. Much of the time, the causes of anxiety and depression involve some major life event: childhood trauma, death, divorce, unemployment, and so on. However, for others, I suspect those in the latter statistic, the causes are not due to such factors: The causes stem from their daily interactions with people.

Much of the current discussion on mental wellbeing puts the responsibility thereof, on the individual. For example, as a teacher, you would definitely have come across advice telling you to eat and sleep properly, to get regular exercise, to spend time outdoors, to not drink too much, etc. and this is all well and good. Our happiness is directly linked to the amount of dopamine regularly released in our bodies and all of the aforementioned cause dopamine release, so I 100% agree: We should be all up in there.

What’s been bothering me of late, is my feeling that a disproportionate amount responsibility has been placed on the sufferers of mental health problems, rather than the causers mental health problems. To be absolutely blunt, no one should feel pressured to meditate, go running, or do yoga because they are surrounded by one too many antagonistic people at work or at home. Just as we advise others what they can do to manage their wellbeing, so too should we advise- in fact, pressurise- others into not ruining other peoples mental health.

This past week I spoke to colleagues and my year 10 form and asked the question: Aside from the traumatic experiences (described earlier), what do other people do to negatively impact your mental health?  This blog will outline some of these. (Disclaimer: Lest this come across self-righteous, we have all been guilty of these, so by no means do I speak from a position of superiority!)

Reinforcing peoples insecurities

Social media has successfully destroyed the self-esteem of the masses. It’s bad enough that the image of beauty promoted by the media is neither realistic nor attainable, but to add insult to injury, simply turning on a snapchat filter is enough to tell us exactly what’s ‘wrong’ with us- where we ‘require improvement’, so to speak. (Couldn’t resist that one!) A recent news article stated that people are now suffering from ‘Snapchat dysmorphia’- where the subject visits a plastic surgeon requesting to look the way they do when particular filters are on. It would appear that while Ed Sheeran might tell us otherwise, most of us are not in love with our bodies.  (I once got tagged in this three times, by three different mates, in the same three minutes. FML . . . Banter is different, but if someone has a genuine insecurity, we’re better off keeping our mouths shut!). 

big nose

Of course, physical appearance aside, there are a whole myriad of other insecurities. What came out in my discussions last week, was that when people receive unsolicited confirmation of their insecurities by friends (‘friends?’) or colleagues, they definitely feel the impact on their mental health. Prior to that, they could have convinced themselves that they’re just being paranoid, over analysing, etc. but once someone else says it, the belief becomes knowledge. I suspect your average Joe wouldn’t reinforce someone’s insecurities obviously, but it seems that many of people have subtle ways of doing this, like the two young ladies mentioned earlier. The one could have been insecure about being single, and her ‘friend’ reinforced her insecurity by mentioning it and trying to change it; because she was ‘concerned’ of course.

Reminding people of their mistakes, shortcomings, failures, regrets etc.

The hallmark sign of a jealous person is not only that they cannot stand to see you succeed, but they will also desperately clutch to a time or event in your life when you weren’t so successful. Again, this is done subtly. For example, myself along with 19 other NQTs at my school, had a very tough NQT year. With no behaviour policy, we would literally stand and shout at our classes to absolutely no avail, and SLT would blame us for planning ‘boring’ lessons to the point that we even stopped sending for them to help with our unruly classes. Cut to three years later, my results were excellent, I had good relationships with my pupils and I was even nominated for a teacher award. Then of course, I had to deal with the occasional jealous colleague making comments such as ‘Well done! You were struggling to pass this time last year!’ Gee- thanks.

Telling people what they should have done

You may have been forced to make a decision in a situation in which there was no right or wrong answer, and your decision may not have been the best one. It could have been the decision to leave a job, to stay with a partner, to not follow your marking policy, to get into a physical altercation etc. When you relayed the story, no doubt, someone told you exactly what you did wrong and what they would have done had they been you. Basically, telling you how stupid you are and how clever they are, (because after all, they were there and they had time to think?!) Nothing more appreciated than unsolicited advice eh?

know it all

Blaming the victim

This one I just can’t stand. You’ve just had your car stolen and someone makes a smug face and tells you that you should have parked nearer to the venue; you’ve just tripped over a dog whilst running (me last week) and someone makes a smug face and tells you that you should have allowed more clearance when going past it; your significant other cheats on you and someone makes a smug face and tells you that you should have paid more attention to them. The list is endless, and examples that are far more sinister can be given. In my experience, this type of behaviour is commonly demonstrated by people who have been both under-socialised (lack of empathy) and over-privileged (never suffered any real trauma).

Trivialising your concerns

You’re stressed because you’re moving house. So what?! They moved house twice last year and it was nothing. You need to get over yourself and stop moaning. You have a headache. So what?! They have three migraines a week and they just shut up and get on with it.

I’m sure you know the type of person I’m referring to. Not only will these types contribute to a mental health problem, but they are also a part of the cause of the stigma attached to mental health problems. After all, your anxiety is nothing but a product of your weakness so don’t waste other peoples time talking about it!

In conclusion

The golden question then, is how do we react to the above?

I recently read The Sociopath Next Door, and author Martha Stout argues that when dealing with a sociopath, a victim should give up the need to be polite. Of course, I’m not arguing that the above are all sociopaths but this advice seems to resonate. Often people with mental health problems are very concerned about how others perceive them so they end up being polite to their own detriment. While I’m not qualified in psychology, and this is my first non-teaching blog, I still feel that telling someone to shut the fuck up is both reasonable and appropriate in the right context. If someone violated us physically, it is very rare that we’d carry on being polite, so why let others damage us mentally? (The use of profanity was deliberately hyperbolic- I’m sure you can take the spirit of the message!)

As an avid reader of world religion, I have noticed something truly uncanny: All of the faiths, from Christianity and Islam to Native American philosophy, emphasise the duty of man to deal justly with his neighbours.

Why is this uncanny? In itself, it isn’t. It’s how this does not seem to be a huge part of the current discourse on mental health that is uncanny. Why is that whenever there is a mental health awareness week at school for example, there is nowhere near as much emphasis on treating ones neighbour as there should be. Rather, it is more geared towards, healthy eating, proper sleeping, exercise, and other to-do’s. As well as the to-do’s, we should make a greater point of the do-not’s and emphasise the truth that our actions are key variables in the mental wellbeing, or lack there of, in others. 

love your neighbor

Let’s make sure people are happy.

Before they speak to us.

After they speak to us.

Enjoy the rest of the long, hot weekend! Time to run . . . avoiding dogs!

By Omar Akbar

For more advice and guidance check out The Unofficial Teacher’s Manual: What they don’t teach you at training college. Available on Amazon £6.75/£3.99

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