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'Mental health' by Chris JohnstonHumans cling to the illusion of control, to the notion that we are masters of our fates and captains of our souls, but when that veil of illusion tears, as it so often does, the results are often disastrous to our emotional and mental wellbeing.

I consider myself a suitable case for treatment: apart from anything else, my original family has a demonstrated genetic tendency towards marked mood disorder. I am not alone, of course: one in three of the general population has suffered, or will suffer, an episode of what used to be called nervous breakdown.

My sister and our first cousin suicided after years of undiagnosed suffering, undiagnosed largely because of family fear of stigma, which exists because 'normal' members of society are terrified of mental illness, and of its threat to order.

Yet mental illness has always been with us, as the ancient Greek tragedies prove. Hippocrates' theory of the four humours, particularly the part of it that attaches melancholia to an excess of black bile, has remained significant throughout the centuries, as has his view that what is needed in the human psyche is isonomia, a balance: none of the four humours should dominate.

Later a supernatural explanation was advanced: Christ cast out the demons from the afflicted. The demonic explanation of mental illness persisted for centuries, during which time the clergy were the equivalent of psychotherapists.

In Greek villages they still are. In the Peloponnesian village where I live difference of any sort is immediately suspect, and the false self is rigorously cultivated. Mental illness is regarded with fear and loathing, and most villagers, when not denying its existence, blame its incidence on the Evil Eye.

A relevant anecdote. A handsome young shepherd named Yianni was going about his business when he sustained a severe shock: another villager, an older man, had hanged himself from the branch of an olive tree. Yianni cut the body down, but never recovered from the experience.

I envisaged assistance from doctors, counsellors and anti-depressants, but Yianni's family thought otherwise. Church and priests were the answer. Unfortunately, this solution has not worked: Yianni's health, both physical and mental, is very precarious, and his marriage broke down long ago. The damage that stigma can do.

One weapon against stigma is knowledge. In 1963 nobody knew much. Mental health was a given, so people rarely asked what recipe/circumstance/magic wand was a guarantee of what is now viewed as a fragile state of wellbeing.

There is, after all, a disturbingly fine line separating those who cope with their pain and those who cannot. It was in 1963 that my sister, at 17 a star in every way, had her breakdown. She never recovered. Doctors too numerous to mention advanced their own theories. My own bitter reflection is What does it matter now?

What matters is the trying: the heartfelt attempt to treat such desperate unhappiness, to recognise symptoms and to nip them in the bud, if possible. It is also essential to acknowledge the dignity in difference, to accept the fact that some people will never conform to society's expectations, will never be content to have a so-called conventional life.

There are multiple ways of living, and no precise moment at which mental illness starts. What is needed is the greatest possible awareness of contributing factors. Mental health and illness are very complex issues, and parents have a weighty responsibility to build resilience in their children.

This is best encouraged via honest communication and the fostering of creativity. Creativity can be a weapon for life, enabling us to live doubly, in providing us both with escape into alternative worlds and solutions to problems in the mundane everyday one.

A ruling passion is at least some protection against the dreadful sense of futility that is a feature of mental illness. An active social life also protects, which is one reason an extended family is important in traditional societies.

Parents and friends also need to recognise warning signs without becoming overprotective. Any change in behaviour, any prolonged withdrawal from usual company, any impulsive acts such as binge drinking and eating, extravagant and irrational spending, and/or sexual promiscuity, should be monitored very carefully, and professional help sought.

Intending suicides often seem almost recklessly happy, for the decision has been made. They also often start giving people presents.

Before this stage has been reached, however, the voice can be another signal: it is often very flat and monotonous, reflecting the terrible hollowness that the sufferer lives with. Such severe stress affects the vocal cords, experts have found.

Honesty, courage and open communication are absolutely essential for mental health to be achieved and maintained. There must be an end to the fear that leads to so much distress being swept under a metaphorical carpet.

Thursday 10 October is World Mental Health Day. World Federation for Mental Health

Gillian BourasGillian Bouras is an Australian writer who has been based in Greece for 28 years. She has had eight books published. Her most recent is No Time For Dances.

Topic tags: gillian bouras, mental illness, Mental Health Awareness Week, World Mental Health Day, depression



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Existing comments

The living of an unconventional life, fostering creativity,a ruling passion, and the understanding of the importance of a social network have helped me live with depression for some 15 years now. The Black Dog also walks amid the biology and life choices of my family. There are times when i feel that i am living life with clipped wings, and yet when i accept this fact i feel the firm breeze of grace gently lifting me up. How long i dare keep my wings open is the new challenge of my life. Life with depression has taught me that openness and responsiveness to love (this breeze of grace), however and whenever love comes, is perhaps the most important thing in life. Thank you Gillian for reminding me of what i am doing well and for affirming my choices of lifestyle. I am indeed unconventional. Faithfulness to this is an antidote to darkness.

Andrew | 06 October 2008  

Thank you Gillian for your brave, commonsense approach to the taboo topic of mental illness. After many years of chaplaincy among these sufferers I wholeheartedly agree with your sentiments. Would there were more of you! Blessings on the road ahead.

Mary Trainor | 06 October 2008  

Gillian's Matters of Life and Deaf in August provided what I considered some most insightful commentary on "creeping deafness" during an awareness day back then. I was most appreciative of it and should have said so at the time. This further testimony from within her own realms of experience, on aspects of mental health, is another powerful contribution to our understanding of the human condition. May we all be more alert to troubled souls within our families, friends and workplaces.

Murray | 07 October 2008  

Thank you for your honest and open insights. I know that I need honesty, courage and open communication and a supportive love environment to help a member of my family who has days and sometimes weeks of depression. Your from the heart approach is just what I needed to be reminded of today ... thank you Gillian!

Anthony | 07 October 2008  

Most adults must have come across many different forms of mental illness during their lives, and articles such as this are very helpful in enabling people to respond to such contacts in a positive way, perhaps to give advice or support in time to avoid the tragedy. Suicide of a seemingly healthy person is always shocking and wasteful and never more so than when it is a young person who can no longer cope and takes this path. In my own personal experience this has happened to three young men, all seemingly blessed with everything they needed to live fulfilling lives; given that these are not isolated incidences I feel that more and better information should be available to everyone and the subject of mental illness and its worst outcome, suicide, should be a matter for much greater discussion and hopefully, understanding.

Coral Petkovich | 19 October 2008  

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