Michael Dexter of Call For Testing, OpenZFS, and bhyvecon fame retweeted a story on the state of mental health in select countries. I responded that Singapore was struggling in a similar way, which lead him to ask what we can do:
My question is: How can communities prepare for welcoming the mentally needed, and for incidents related to them? It is clear that one community was not prepared and there are limited advisory resources available.
There’s a lot to unpack here, and I feel overwhelmingly unqualified to give an answer. But I have thoughts I’m going to rapid-fire here without backspacing.
The biggest issue I see, from Scientologists to those less malicious, is that mental health still isn’t widely acknowledged as being a thing. Telling someone with a broken leg to just walk it off should be just as preposterous as telling someone with dark thoughts to just get over it. Currently, society has decided they’re not equivalent.
I concede it’s a simplistic, perhaps reductionist take, but it’s true. The British are still grappling with the Stiff Upper Lip. Australia has been making progress of late, but still has ingrained blokey culture that makes it difficult to open up. And Singaporeans are working themselves to death, or moving to Perth to escape the pressure cooker.
My concern is this is a symptom of disconnect. Not to say our ancestors in close-knit communities didn’t have difficult thoughts, but our communities today are more complex than we were evolved to handle. We also have the perverse irony of living in cities of millions, and having fewer close friends than at any point in history.
So much like my overly simplistic take above, I have a simplistic response. We’re not going to resolve this issue of mental health until we all figure out how to reconnect. I’m not sure how or what that would look like in the twenty-first century, but we’ll all continue to suffer until we do.
Okay sure, but how do we get there?
All of that is fine armchair pontification so well personified by a recent Winnie the Pooh meme, but Michael is asking the reasonable and far more important question of what we do about it.
One point he raised was advisory resources to prepare people in communities. This to me would be the first baby step towards addressing the disconnect above. I’d see them helping in two capacities: as a resource for those having problems, and to provide others in the community with a way to help.
I don’t think anyone is arguing we don’t need mental health services. But if we acknowledge they’re important—I would say necessary—we need to fund them.
Compassionate charity is important, but taxes are the only effective way at scale for those with the financial means to pool resources and contribute to something society needs. This can’t be up to the whims of philanthropists with hearts in the right place or otherwise, it must be a pillar like the fire department.
Unlike mental health, this is a black and white issue. Fund it properly, or concede you don’t think it’s a problem and live with the consequences.
(It also bears repeating that a significant enough number of the aforementioned philanthropists made their fortunes through ruthless business practices and ethically questionable behavior that exacerbated the very mental health issues they later had an epipahny on. When I’ve argued on this blog that society needs to shift its thinking, I mean it literally: there wouldn’t be any aspect of our lives untouched, including business).
People with context
When my mum suddenly lost her battle with the big C and I felt as though I didn’t do enough to save her, I went to dark places for a couple of years. I still haven’t forgiven myself; it’s something I’ll likely live with for the rest of my life. But it was nerds in remote newsgroups and Twitter that did more to help me in those first few years than anyone else.
By the same token, you and I can’t relate to someone who sees a gun rampage and other forms of terrorism as a rational means to cope with an issue. Mental health organisations need to recruit and perhaps even be run by those who escaped that mental prison. It wouldn’t scale to the number of these centres we’d need, but perhaps they could train others.
By no means am I saying there isn’t a place for psychologists or psychiatrists, but people respond very differently to different treatments, as physical ailments and different people do physiologically to medicines.
This doesn’t negate the stigma of seeking mental help; the only feasible way forward on that front that I can see is making mental health discussion fucking ubiquitous. People can still dismiss it now because they see sufferers only existing on the periphery, so they feel a sense of plausible deniability. Everyone has their own demons and trauma, even self-described snarky meme shitposters.
People need to feel comfortable opening up without fear of judgement, from strangers and friends, to impacting on their job prospects. My own dark places appeared hopelessly intractable because I felt alone; I’m sure I’m not the only one. To that end, I’ve decided to tweet and blog about it more. The diffusion of responsibility is a fallacy we need to fight.
No good answer
This is all pretty window dressing, and will help communities be more inclusive and healthy. But the festering, underlying cause of our ills I mentioned at the beginning, and how we ultimately restructure society, are both issues I don’t have an answer for. But it doesn’t meant we can’t at least start.