The 21 Day Mental Health Challenge, Day 11: 3 books that have helped me understand the human mind a little better

I am a voracious consumer of books and I particularly enjoy those that explore human psychology using evidence-backed data, culture, and a healthy dose of fascinating storytelling. Here are some of my favorites:

  1. The man who mistook his wife for a hat-Dr. Oliver Sacks tells the stories of his patients who suffer from neurological illnesses- some with memories gone and cognitive functions disfigured- and how they survive in the face of adversity.           “If a man has lost a leg or an eye, he knows he has lost a leg or an eye; but if he has lost a self—himself—he cannot know it, because he is no longer there to know it.” 
  2. Mind change-Dr. Susan Greene describes the effect of modern technology on our brains and how we can harness the power of technology to make our brains, and therefore our lives, better. A particularly riveting chapter for me was “How the brain becomes a mind”.
  3. Think fast, think slow-This award wining book by Nobel winner Daniel Kahnemann and Amos Tversky explores the human irrationality or what they call ‘the systematic errors of thinking of normal people’.                                                           “The world in our heads is not a precise replica of reality; our expectations about the frequency of events are distorted by the prevalence and emotional intensity of the messages to which we are exposed.” 
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The 21 Day Mental Health Challenge, Day 9: Ground yourself in NOW

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“All negativity is caused by an accumulation of psychological time and denial of the present. Unease, anxiety, tension, stress, worry – all forms of fear – are caused by too much future, and not enough presence. Guilt, regret, resentment, grievances, sadness, bitterness, and all forms of nonforgiveness are caused by too much past, and not enough presence…..Realize deeply that the present moment is all you have. Make the NOW the primary focus of your life”
― Eckhart TolleThe Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment

The 21 Day Mental Health Challenge, Day 8: Hope

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This is one of my favourite verses in the Quran in which God reassures us  that even during our most difficult times, hope is still alive. Many Muslims read this verse as “AFTER every hardship, is relief’ but a sermon that I listened to years back argued an alternative interpretation:
WITH every hardship, there is relief.

This means that even as we go through the trails of life, God is constantly throwing us a life jacket to stop us from drowning. We prevail, not after the storm, but inspite of it.

What does this relief look like? Friends and family who support you through a crisis, prayers, hugs from your children, charity from strangers, an inspiring quote, a cup of tea.

Hardships have a way of bringing us closer to grace and closer to our divine selves.

May God grant us relief as we fight the trials of our lives and may He give us all strength to bear our burdens.

The 21 Day Mental Health Challenge, Day 6: Dad’s anger fed my brother’s mental illness (Guest post from Mombasa, Kenya)

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I have a 30 year old brother who is often overcome by fits of rage when he is angry. There’s this time, when we were younger, he got so enraged with my other brother that he almost slashed his neck (yeah that bad!). Abbas is a grown man but his anger isn’t a grown-up problem. I’m convinced that the seed of anger was planted much earlier.

When Mum was pregnant with Abbas, Dad was a terror! He used to shout at Mum and angrily remark that the unborn baby was not his! (….plus lots of stuff which i would rather forget).

There’s a time, when Abbas was in Standard 5 or 6,  one of my sisters dared to disobey my Dad. She went against his rule of not to taking part in a popular inter-school theatrical arts competition. According to Dad, it was immoral for Muslim girls to ‘parade’ themselves in public. She went participated in the competition anyway….without Dad’s permission.

Dad hit the roof. He issued a divorce to Mum on a piece of paper. His logic was that she was to blame because she supposedly was unable to control ‘her’ daughter. Mum shredded the divorce note. She did not leave but she stayed in absolute terror, always hiding behind closed doors when Dad got back home from work.

“Are you still here?” he would shout in contempt, addressing my panic-stricken mother as if she was a ghost suspended in air. He tirade against my mother continued, often dragging Abbas, the alleged bastard child, into it. My brother, 10 or 11 years, was witness to all this abuse. All he could do was watch.

During the divorce fiasco, Mum went up and down trying to seek a resolution to this domestic nightmare . She went to our local mosque to plead with the Maalim to intervene on her behalf. Maalim came home to try to reason with Dad but all Dad said he was that he had had a dream where he saw all his children lined up excluding Abbas. “The dream is enough to prove,”he adamantly insisted, “that Abbas is not my child.” Maalim told Dad that dreams can be interpreted differently, but Dad wasn’t having any of it. Maalim lectured Dad on the parent-child relationship, citing the story of Noah’s son who went against his father’s guidance and perished in the end. Each human, child included, is responsible for their own actions.

“In short,”Maalim said, “you cannot punish a parent for a child’s faults. You cannot blame your daughter’s faults on your wife.” Only then did Dad calm down…

When I went to university, I took a child psychology course and I learned that the unborn child hears (e.g dad shouting) and feels the mum’s psychological state. So therefore Abbas must have already been psychology disturbed before he was born! Many years later, I tried to tell Abbas that he needed counseling to deal with his anger issues but he brushed the suggestion off, saying that he was ok. Sadly, people are not even aware that they have mental health issues and so they will never get the help that they need.

How you bring up a child (the first 5 years of his/her life) will determine his/her mental health in the future. Mistreating a child-, ignoring, shouting, hitting, making decisions for him/her- all these things have an impact on children.

Anger is a mental health issue. Personality disorder is a mental health issue. Self esteem, loneliness, OCD are all mental health issues and in my opinion, they all have roots in childhood. A few mental health issues are random and related to particular environmental issues or genetics. Some women suffer from disorders after giving birth. Some suffer disorders during their menses (lots of anger and depression),others suffer during menopause. Some mental health issues are related to the burden of responsibility at home or at work. Others are brought on by drug abuse. Of course, there are other related to the spirit world (sihr/magic). Food can also mentally affect us and can affect the unborn baby too.

All these are factors that play into our mental health. These are my own personal experiences and therefore, my opinions, of mental illness.

Guest post by Rehema, from Mombasa, Kenya.

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21 Day Mental Health Challenge, Day 5: What to say (and what not to say) to someone who is depressed

Have you ever found yourself in situations where you want to support someone who is depressed but you just don’t know how to do it?

I know I do. Sometimes I get scared of saying anything wrong, so I don’t say anything (painfully awkward) or I get so desperate to make the problem go away that I end up saying the wrong things which makes the person feel worse.

Depression is different from sadness* (as a good friend of mine recently pointed out to me), so blaming the depressed person for lacking willpower, the attitude,or for not being spiritual enough only serves to make him/her feel more guilty or ashamed for being depressed.

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So what should we say to someone who is depressed?

I asked this question on a Facebook group whose focus is on mental wellness and these were some of the responses that I got:

-That sucks! Is there anything I can do to help?

-I’m here for you

-You are not your depression

-Can I hug you?

-I love you

Some answers came from people who suffer from depression and they pointed out that sometimes the doing is even more important than the saying:

“My best friend invites me to coffee at a coffee shop. It gets me up and showered and out of the house. I’ve lived with depression for so long now I don’t need words of encouragement, I need someone to show me they care. I have another friend who calls and ask me if I want to take our dogs for a walk. It’s those little things that mean so much to me.”

“Honestly, I need someone to remind me to take my meds. I’m SO much better with them but when I’m struggling, I find that I forget (which is when I need them most).”

“Bring me flowers, bring me food, take a movie over and watch it with me, ask me to do things even if I say no. It’s hard to take care of yourself when you live with depression and nice when someone lends a hand.”

“How about connecting?… talk to me about connecting with my inner being and with others… OR just connect with me.. don’t necessarily say anything. Just be and feel the connection and in feeling that togetherness, there’s a feeling of oneness… no words are necessary.”

Here are some of the things that you should NOT say:

-Just get over it

-Smile even f you don’t feel like it

-It’s all in your head

-Suck it up

-Think about all you have to be thankful for (makes them guilty for being depressed) 

-Just pull yourself up

-Anything related to ‘just do it’, for example, go to the gym, eat better, change your lifestyle. You can gently suggest but do not prescribe. 

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*Sadness is a normal human emotion. We’ve all experienced it and we all will again. Sadness is usually triggered by a difficult, hurtful, challenging, or disappointing event, experience, or situation. In other words, we tend to feel sad about something. This also means that when that something changes, when our emotional hurt fades, when we’ve adjusted or gotten over the loss or disappointment, our sadness remits.

Depression is an abnormal emotional state, a mental illness that affects our thinking, emotions, perceptions, and behaviors in pervasive and chronic ways. When we’re depressed we feel sad about everything. Depression does not necessarily require a difficult event or situation, a loss, or a change of circumstance as a trigger. In fact, it often occurs in the absence of any such triggers. People’s lives on paper might be totally fine—they would even admit this is true—and yet they still feel horrible. (Psychology Today)

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Are there any other things that you think are helpful in supporting someone with depression? If you are depressed, what does support look like to you?

The 21 Day Mental Health Challenge, Day 4: The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single act of honesty

When you are in a thick cloud of depression, it’s hard to see hope.

What do you do when you are overcome by feelings of intense sadness and pain? How can you claw yourself out of a labyrinth of emotions that seem to just circle in around themselves? What can you do to feel more yourself?

Depression is messy and scary and the only way I’ve managed to find my own way out is by being honest: first with myself, then with others around me.

In an Instagram world where everyone seemingly has their sh** together, it’s easy to think that your struggle is yours alone. It’s easy to think that perfection is real when in fact, it’s just a mirage in the desert of our social landscape. No one has their sh** together, not even those whose instagram profiles may profess otherwise. We all struggle with one thing or another and the sooner we can let go of the idolisation of perfection, the sooner we can accept and love our imperfections. Real joy lies in being honest about our struggles and in embracing our beautiful mess.

I hope you are having a nice day but if you are not, reach out to someone you trust to share your pain with. There are mental health professionals who can help you cope with mental health issues and depending on where you live around the world, one may be just a phone call away. Finally, there are valuable resources online that help support mental health and wellness. In the UK, the NHS has a dedicated website that deals with all things mental health.

The point is, you don’t have to go at it alone. Forgive the cliche but it is true: a problem shared is a problem halved.

“He told me about his monster. His sounded just like mine without quite so much mascara. When people shine a little light on their monster, we find out how similar most of our monsters are.”
― Anne LamottBird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

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21 Day Mental Health Challenge Day 3: Is the solution actually part of the problem?

The popular clinical model for psychiatric illnesses in many developed countries is institutionalization. For years its been thought that is the gold standard to treatment: isolating patients in special ‘homes’ and medicating them in order to fix whatever biological imbalances they present. Maybe we are wrong.
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One day a few years back, I listened to a podcast episode that changed the way I thought of mental illnesses. The episode begins with a narration of a man’s quest to fix his bathroom plumbing and gently superimposes his journey-the journey to finding a solution-onto the standard mental illness model in the US. Lulu, the show’s host, argues that our obsession with ‘fixing’ problems, is actually part of the problem.  We give labels to people who have been diagnosed with psychiatric illnesses, burdening them with apparent fragility and low societal expectations. She offers instead, an alternative thousands of miles away from the US in Geel, Belgium.
Geel is a city that is home to hundreds of psychiatric patients although in this city, they called ‘boarders’ instead. The locals of Geel have opened their homes to mentally ill people from all over the world and treat their guests as any other lodging would.
“Do you find it a burden to live with someone with a mental illness?” the shows asks numerous Geel hosts.
“No” they all answer back at various points of the research, “It’s just normal life.”
Normal life. 
Unless you are new to the city, no one blinks an eyelid when people talk to themselves out loud or when they walk from side to side in a zig zag manner.
The podcast is fascinating.
Towards the end of the show, the podcast host interviews a woman who attempted to recreate the Geel model in New York city, starting a housing community of residents hosting mentally ill boarders. It was a success, to some degree. A resident host, Tony, had had a string of boarders in her home who went on to get successfully treated.  All, that is, except the one person whom she loved the most-her son. Apparently, the more you care about a mentally ill person, the more you set them up for failure. Tony’s son had more relapse episodes living with his mother than he had anywhere else. This is precisely the paradox of fixing the mental illness issue: if you care too much and you try to hard, you are making the problem worse.
Crazy as it sounds, sometimes the best way to fix the problem is to actually focusing on it less. For families dealing with mental illness, this means being more careful about expressing our own emotions towards our loved ones with mental illnesses. They don’t need to hear our frustration about them or instructions on how to ‘be better’. What they need is for us to treat them with compassion and empathy no matter where they are on their mental health journey.
Couldn’t we all use less fixing and more acceptance?