Saturday, 22 June 2013

Icarus's Tale

"A person who never made a mistake never tried anything new." Albert Einstein

The story of Icarus was about a very clever man who wanted to fly, so he built himself some wings out of feathers. He glued them together with wax and then he tried them out. Encouraged immediately by the fact that they worked he flew higher and higher... and higher until... he flew too close to the sun so that the wax melted and he crashed back down to earth and died. 

"Man is what he believes." Anton Pavlovich Chekhov

None of us are Icarus and yet according to the latest thinking about mental health, we all have the same susceptibility for enthusiasm and obsessive behaviour. Some of this obsessive behaviour though is to our advantage for without it people would simply not be dedicated enough to undertake highly pressurised and responsible roles in their working lives. From health care itself to education, from business (including finance) to security, the list goes on. We admire those who display such commitment in their working lives and very often reward it even within seemingly less vital roles such as acting, sport and research.

At least we do if we approve of the person and don’t see them as a threat to our own status. Icarus was a smart fella to come up with his design for his wings. He must have studied birds, the feathers, aerodynamics and how a bird wing is put together, as well as how it actually worked in order to fly at all. In some versions of the story he is warned not to use wax, in others the warning is simply not to fly too high, lest he fall. Who of us though think about the consequences of a great idea when we’re that excited by it? Who could stop us if we are that determined to continue regardless? 

“A known mistake is better than an unknown truth.” Arabic proverb

This is precisely why people can get sectioned (or committed) under the various versions of the mental health act where the safety of individuals is uppermost. Sadly mental health has a dark history where anyone could be locked away for a single thought, deed or feeling that did not conform to what others wanted. From oppressive regimes to people being subjected to horrendous and barbaric treatment for such things as not paying a debt, having sex with the ‘wrong’ person or even being related to someone who has been in trouble by some means or another.

It is therefore not very surprising that people now fear mental health treatment even now – but here’s some good news. In the UK it takes three people to put a person in hospital. You can refuse to be assessed unless you are a risk to yourself or others and treatments no longer include lobotomies or electric shock treatment (ECT – which stands for Electro Compulsive Therapy) without your consent. In addition you should never be prescribed medications that merely suppress your symptoms for the convenience of the rest of the population because it is now fully recognised that you are distressed for a reason and the aim is to help you cope and overcome whatever it is that has caused the difficulty. Most importantly of all, patients these days are encouraged to talk and discuss their treatment and are asked what things they would like to try to help them get better. 

"A closed mind is like a closed book; just a block of wood." Chinese Proverb

This can only happen though if people are willing to take part in that dialogue and some people, such as those with learning difficulties may not be able to fully understand what is being asked. Fortunately in the UK we have people who are fully trained to even help with that. Why, with all that good news about mental health care stigma persists can seem like a mystery. 

Icarus would not hear good advice and as a consequence he ended up dead due to a tragic accident, he also was not well enough informed to realise what the properties of wax were, even though he must have melted it himself in order to join all those feathers together. It could be argued that he was also arrogant, complacent and conceited, but who of us can ever avoid those traits if we are never prepared to listen to others?

An analogy

A metaphor, or analogy, for Icarus might also be that this is how we can all end up with a mental collapse due to an overload of one set of facts and a shortage of another with which to temper and balance things out. We, in the developed world are in many ways, all at high risk of that with the sheer amount of information buzzing around on the internet and very little in the way of guidance about what is genuine and what is not by way of facts. The same is true of the entire media and that presents a problem with regard to safeguarding our most vulnerable members of our societies.

We are also at high risk from the sheer speed at which things happen, leaving very little time to even hear the warnings over the melting point of wax.  The percentage of people who go to see their doctors complaining of stress are increasing all the time, and depression due to feeling more and more as if we are merely becoming plug-ins to the working machine is also increasing. 

“He who controls others may be powerful, but he who has mastered himself is mightier still.” Lau Tzu

The solution is simple... slow down, set your boundaries and take control by taking your time to be able to hear those warnings about the melting point of wax and why one should never fly too high too soon.

Those at the top of their professions are at as high a risk of mental collapse as those who are the most deprived because no one can endure high levels of pressure (be it from levels of responsibility or lack of support) indefinitely without becoming ill. FACT. Work and rest time are important things for all to get the balance that suits them just right. Enjoy relaxing and switching off... it is as vital to your mental well being as contributing and engaging with the world, sleeping and eating well and getting regular exercise. Put your health first always. 

"It isn't enough to talk about peace. One must believe in it. And it isn't enough to believe in it. One must work at it." Eleanor Roosevelt

The true story

Icarus in the original story was locked up in prison with his father, and it was from prison that he escaped. His father told him to not fly too high or too low. If we relate that to anyone suffering from prejudice we soon realise that once subjected to stigma of any kind, it becomes extremely difficult for find the balance between asserting one’s rights and not saying enough to be able to do so.

It is all too easy to assume that because Icarus was a convicted criminal he deserved to fall to his death, but that presupposes his accusers were right to convict him. If his only crime was to be ill, from whatever cause, can a person be blamed for wanting to escape and take to the sky?

Much depends upon what a person does in their quest for that freedom to take to the skies. That is a freedom that many take for granted – millions crave to have respect and acknowledgement for who they are and what they have experienced for a multitude of reasons and yet they are denied it. If any person was never a danger to anyone but themselves, should they not be forgiven? Should they not merit and deserve consideration, forgiveness, kindness and above all acknowledgement for all their sufferings?

“Only a wise person can solve a difficult problem.”  Akan proverb

If we know our limitations and tell others of them, should that not earn respect rather than ridicule, dismissal and a wariness that can and does result in a lack of trust for their courage to just be honest? We all have our limitations; our faults and errors. As human beings we also all have the habit of allowing our feelings to rule our behaviours, often regretting them only with hindsight. To deny what we feel is to deny being human.

How mentally ill a person is sometimes gauged upon how quickly they can switch from one behaviour (or emotion) to another when asked to do so. Yet all things are relative. If a person has been silenced by society for years, is it reasonable to expect them to suddenly stop once they have found their voice? A sufferer may be extremely proficient at listening when asked to in the appropriate (i.e. respectful) way. Such has been proven through the many and diverse forms of talking therapies. Eventually the hope is that no one ‘flies too high or too low’ for any great length of time as both can result in enduring psychological damage without appropriate and sustained support. Extremes of any kind, including fame and fortune as well as emotional excesses, always need that support.

To be allowed just to be ourselves is difficult for everyone when we all contribute to being judgemental.  The cure for that is to try not to judge others wherever possible and to understand when, how and why we do. We are at our best when we are honest with ourselves and those around us and at our worst when we decide others are ‘bad’ when we know little or nothing about them. If we do not like being treated that way, it’s wise not to respond to others that way too.

Be true to yourselves, but thoughtful of others in the process. That is the road toward the best of riches... inner peace and happiness. 

Compassion is not religious business, it is human business, it is not luxury, it is essential for our own peace and mental stability, it is essential for human survival.” Dalai Lama XIV


Three of the team here at Mindwalking have been veering toward mental collapse in the last month alone. The team consists of a mix of people who have suffered from mental illness and medical professionals in the field, notably a couple of up-to-date psychologists which came on board soon after it was launched. Luckily all are being supported and are regaining their health now.

Above all the biggest contributor seems to be loneliness when it comes to people suffering and from that comes isolation which can devastate the chances of recovery and lead to suicide from the simplest of causes. From friends, neighbours, colleagues, employers to  even family members who just watch and do nothing (either out of fear of getting it wrong, or because they don’t want to get involved) the result is the same. No one likes others meddling, but what is so awful or dangerous about asking? You might just find you know where guide that person to get the professional help they need, be a solicitor, a removal company, a financial advisor or indeed medical services who DO understand. The world really doesn’t need to suffer this way.

Finally... note the latest news on how to beat the stigma at the top right hand side of this blog. It can be hard to trust others, it can be hard to speak of painful things, but it really is the only way to ever hope to recover. If one method fails, try another and another, and another for it is only by communicating and finding the right people to do that with that we can ever hope to be happy and well.

Hope is better than the alternative isn’t it? Take good care of yourselves first, but try never to forget the needs of others too.