Saturday, 15 May 2021

Mental Health Awareness Week 2021

It's been Mental Health Awareness Week this week. We're all now more aware of mental health, this week and every week, and certainly more respectful than when I was a boy and the name of the local lunatic asylum (as it was officially known) was banded about as a playground taunt. And that's undoubtedly a good thing.

What many people may be less aware of is the link between physical and mental health. I suffer from chronic secondary pain, thanks to early-onset arthritis among other things. In what Susan Sontag describes as the dual citizenship of health and illness, some of us have seem to have been deported: put on a plane and flown to a land of permanent pain. No wonder depression is four times more common in people with persistent pain; no wonder studies show that ‘individuals with chronic pain are at least twice as likely to report suicidal behaviours or to complete suicide.’

No wonder. And yet our piecemeal medical treatment still fails to recognise the impact that one thing (like inflamed and painful joints) has on another (like mental health). Chronic pain patients are passed from one specialist to another like broken down machines on a (re)assembly line where no-one standing on the factory floor knows (or cares) what the finished (or, if you're lucky, repaired) product looks like. Or should look like. As long as they've done their "bit" then it's on to the next stage and on to fiddling with another patient.

When I was at university, studying philosophy, the problem of personal identity never seemed as if it would ever have a satisfactory solution. "If the brain (or spirit) of a cobbler were transplanted to the body of a Prince" ran the question, "who wakes up?" At the time, many people suspected that the cobbler would be the one coming round from the anaesthetic, so sure were we that the brain was the big be-all and end-all of our personalities. 

The problem is almost as old as philosophy itself, and the brain-body dichotomy comes down to medicine through the works of Descartes, by way (perhaps) of John Locke's socks. But scientifically we now seem to know much more that makes such blithe assumptions insecure. The notion of neurons (basically, brain cells) in our guts, for instance, which certainly gives a whole new meaning to the phrase "gut instinct"! 

Whatever we are, it seems certain that we're not now centred in one bodily area; we aren't (just) our minds - in fact, what our minds are (whatever that may be) may be inextricably linked to our bodies. We're a unity, a whole. And yet most medics still want to take us to pieces and deal with their "bit" of the problem of our ill-health. No wonder some of us don't ever get better!

In other news this week I was again asked to sound off about something on local radio. They seem to ring me whenever they want to get a phone in going, as if an anecdote of mine will somehow kick things off for them. I've no idea if it does. But I'm usually happy to help. After all, they've been very helpful to me. If you want to know what it's all about it remains available on BBC Sounds for a few days, and if you'd rather not listen to the entire four hour programme, fast forward to about 1 hour 40 mins and you should here your truly after just a little bit of context.

And just watch out if you're wearing headphones!

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