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When Did Emotions Become the Problem?

My father-in-law once asked my daughters this question: “What three words can make a happy person sad and a sad person happy?” My kids came up with a variety of answers but the one he was looking for was “Nothing lasts forever.” I liked that. I remember thinking that the impermanence of emotions was an important concept for my kids to grasp. No matter how happy you feel or how low you feel, something is bound to drag you down or to make you smile. Humans are blessed with a wide range of emotions. Our emotions offer information about how we perceive the world around us and the circumstances in which we find ourselves. They can be tricky things too since different emotions pop up for different people and we feel them differently as well.

Some of us are not very good at listening to our emotions, unpleasant ones especially. We can clamp down on feeling or expressing certain emotions because we find it to be uncomfortable; because we fear judgement from others; because we believe these emotions to be weaknesses; and sometimes because we simply would rather ignore unpleasant emotions than slow down and face them. On the flip side, other people may feel unpleasant emotions deeply, exaggerate them and stew in them for long periods. In these cases, the person’s identity can become intertwined with these emotions. Feeling these emotions justifies and perpetuates a cycle. Neither case is overly constructive. Acknowledging our emotions from a calm standpoint, feeling them, perhaps being curious about the lesson behind them and letting them go are skills that need to be developed and practiced. Meditation can help us to sit with emotions, to learn from them and to understand that we do not need to become those emotions. Sadly, it’s not a skill that is commonly held.

Over the last decade or so, and more so since the start of the global pandemic, I’ve noticed a shift in the public narrative about mental health in terms of how it relates to emotions, particularly those associated with depression and anxiety.

There was a time, perhaps 15-20 years ago, when the term ‘mental health’ brought to mind disorders like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, clinical depression, social anxiety disorder, obsessive and compulsive behaviours, addictions, etc. We would hear about chemical imbalances in the brain that needed to be managed with the use of drugs and cognitive behavioural therapy.

More recently, with campaigns like Bell Canada’s Let’s Talk Day and the creation of various mental health organizations at all levels of government, ‘mental health’ now appears to more closely resemble what I would call emotional wellness. Mental health is a blanket term that no longer requires a medical diagnosis. We no longer speak about mental illnesses or disorders but address it from a health protection standpoint. Everyone has a responsibility to protect their mental health and to be mentally healthy.

We have certainly come a long way in terms of opening up the dialogue about mental health, specifically depression and anxiety. Employers and governments have funded and implemented programs and practices to further support those who struggle with mental health challenges. Celebrities have shared their personal stories; articles, books and research papers have been written.

With the arrival of COVID-19, the focus seems to have landed squarely on how the population is feeling. I can certainly understand the logic. Our lives have been in a tailspin since early 2020. Some people have reported positive effects like spending more quality time with immediate family members and remembering what’s important. Others, however, indicate feeling sadness, grief for our pre-COVID lifestyle, anxiety about the future, worry about their health and that of loved ones, loneliness and missing the social interactions they used to enjoy. Everyone is different and feels things differently but I would suggest that it’s reasonable to feel all those emotions given the situation in which we find ourselves these days.

Federal, provincial and municipal governments have responded by making available mental health information and community resources for those who may be struggling. But what constitutes struggling today? Is it the presence of unpleasant feelings or is it being stuck in those emotions for so long that we are no longer able to participate in our lives? Has being sad now become the problem? I worry that this oversimplification of the term ‘mental health’ and the over-emphasis on the need to protect our mental health may have led us to be wary of unpleasant emotions.

In Ontario, the deciding factor in reopening schools, despite a stay at home order punishable by fines, was the mental health of our children. Don’t get me wrong, I believe children certainly benefit from time with their peers, to learn in a social environment. But, wouldn’t that be more of an overall wellness issue or a social development one rather than mental health? Would being at home, learning remotely and “seeing” their classmates through platforms like Google Meet and Zoom necessarily lead to poor mental health in a clinical sense or is just about them being sad about the way it is?

The COVID-era messaging on mental health seems to have had the unintended consequence of normalizing being unwell. Take, for instance, the slogan “It’s okay to not be okay.” It’s prevalent on social media. It’s the title of a pop song and of a television series. But what does it even really mean? I get the idea behind it. It’s meant to be catchy. It’s meant to be inclusive and say that unpleasant feelings are common these days. By its very nature though, the statement creates a dichotomy between being okay and not okay - being happy and being sad - being mentally well and unwell. It’s as though it has effectively made any unpleasant feeling the enemy of happiness - and happiness, the baseline of human emotion. This, makes me shake my head.

I read it as giving people the permission to be unwell, as if it’s a choice. This is where it gets muddled for me. Someone who suffers from a mental health problem is not choosing it. If the slogan is then targeting mentally healthy people who are feeling sad, bummed out about their current situation then, aren’t we saying that those unpleasant feelings are problematic and should be guarded against through the use of mental health information and resources?

In this era of over-sharing on social media; of googling any and all symptoms; and of tying our self-worth to the number of likes or comments received, I fear that this over-emphasis on the need to protect our mental health - especially if people start to believe that sadness is the enemy - creates additional mental health stressors.

As a side note, I’d be remiss if I didn’t say this. If the mental health narrative no longer includes the experiences of those who are diagnosed with mental disorders like schizophrenia, mood disorders, compulsive behaviours, etc., are we not only further diminishing their experience? Are we truly raising awareness and reducing stigma around mental health if we are creating a mainstream class that includes everyone who might be feeling sad and another for those with medically diagnosed disorders or illnesses? Food for thought.

Sadly, I think that the existing mental health campaigns are doing a disservice to the general population. If the goal is for the population to be well, wouldn’t we be better served with programs and tools that take a more holistic view of what we are living and what we are feeling at the moment? I think a wellness approach, that would necessarily have overlap with emotional and mental issues would be more helpful. Providing individuals with the tools they need to face their feelings, understand them - without becoming them - would be a first step.

I hate to say it, but just as feelings are personal, so are the coping mechanisms and the self-care approaches that work for different people. I know so many professional working moms who keep it together with antidepressant drugs and red wine. They’re the first ones who admit that going to the gym or to a yoga class would go a long way in making them feel well. However, doing so requires time and money. Most drug plans cover antidepressants in large part or in full. What if gym or yoga memberships were subsidized because they were recognized as wellness-providing strategies? What if employers offered more flexible working arrangements that would enable employees to make more time for their wellness? What if we taught meditation in schools as a way to help children learn how to sit with their emotions, truly feel them and let them go?

I understand that it takes a long time to effect change on a large scale and I know we have come a long way in terms of opening up about mental illnesses and challenges. I also know there is no ill will or devious intention in using the umbrella term ‘mental health' to cover a whole host of issues, but I do worry that making unpleasant emotions the enemy will create a new stream of patients with mental health problems. I feel we have an opportunity at this point in time to help people develop skills that will serve them to be well, from a holistic standpoint. The way I see it, it takes energy to sit with an unpleasant feeling and to let it go. It also takes energy to stew in it, talk about it, relive it and stay there. I think we need to be reminded that we have a choice in terms of where we spend that energy. Also, we need to be reminded that nothing lasts forever.

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