This was not the post I was going to write today but it is the post I want to write after checking my e-mails from work, which I hadn’t checked since last Thursday, the day I told anyone who wanted to hear that I can’t keep doing what I do (academic research) the way I am right now: mentally and physically burned out. On that same day, however, I got an e-mail asking/requesting whether I would be happy to submit and prepare an abstract for the very following day (Friday). Of course, I missed that e-mail because I gave myself a break to recover from a 24h commute without sleep and a night at Gatwick’s airport. Two working days later, I got another e-mail, reminding me of the same subject. Both e-mails were filled with careful words, but I could still feel that subjective in-built pressure I find over and over again in academia — it matters very little that you are humanly unfit to use your brain.
I used to like my research work and I used to be inspired by the idea that I could do a positive contribution to the world of work by showing, for instances, that a positive and receptive organisational culture leads to less prejudice and discrimination at work, but I became so disenchanted that today I don’t get any dose of happiness from the hypothesis of going back to conferences to present my findings. That actually saddens me — not being able to be happy about something that I once saw intrinsic value in. In fact, I ran out of joy and inspiration as a consequence of being exposed to long periods of stress, uncertainty, and social isolation, among other important variables that Johann Hari speaks about on his latest book “Lost Connections”.
Over the last couple of days and weeks, I haven’t been able to do much more than sleep, eat, and read while I recover from my ever-present exhaustion, so I am allowing myself to enjoy Johann’s book with the hope that it will inspire the next step of my journey as a wellbeing activist. This is a book about depression, anxiety, and how mental health/illness needs to be revisited, something I have been constantly talking about for the last 10 years but that no one really seemed to listen to or find reason. To be honest, this book is thus far my new “bible” because it is everything I have wished to say as a psychologist, as an employee, and as a human being. You are not mentally ill just because you are depressed, anxious, or stressed, andthe argument that such experiences are solely due to a chemically “unbalanced brain” is nothing more than a profitable lie which pharmaceutical industry and well-paid scientists keep telling us. That’s another reason why I became disenchanted about the work I do; more often than not I see money being incorrectly spent and data-driven stories being severely edited so they can lead to more and bigger research grants which, in turn, secure the employment of a few “privileged” people.
The lie about antidepressants, for instances, is just one costly example of how a lie can become a “false truth” and worldwide spread. Today many people blindly attach themselves to the story of being mentally ill when the collective is the one that is rotten. We are still fixated on the story that we only need to swallow higher and higher doses of antidepressants to make us feel better when these don’t actually solve our problem. While reading Johann’s book I remembered a quote commonly attributed to Freud. It says the following:
Before you diagnose yourself with depression or low self-esteem, first make sure you are not surrounded by idiots.
I don’t know whether Freud actually said or wrote such thing, but I find much wisdom in this sentence. We, the people, psychologists and other mental health professionals, have been trained to think about depression, anxiety and stress as an individual problem, a malfunction in the brain, a physiological imbalance, a plague to be eradicated. I never liked that approach and my soul always rebelled against it. I always felt there had to be something more about it and Johann Hari managed to bring to the surface all the dirt my fellow colleagues (and I) have been trying to dismiss or choose not to be aware of.
I feel personally empowered by Johann’s book, both as a human being and as a psychologist who never accepted the disease model and who is now struggling with depression and anxiety herself. After all, Freud might have nailed it well: more often than not, depression emerges from the fact that we have been socially programmed to think that it is not ok to think, feel, and behave differently. From a very young age, we start to assume that our dreams and aspirations are incompatible with the social standards we are raised in and thus we “must be abnormal”. We assume it is unacceptable to pursuit a career as a writer because “that doesn’t pay bills” and we assume we have to accept inhuman workplace cultures because “that’s life”. I’m here to tell you, nonetheless, that we are not abnormal. We are actually pretty functional and we are merely responding to a dysfunctional environment (e.g. political corruption, consumerism, unethical workplaces) the best we can. Stress, anxiety, and depression are just symptoms of a deeper problem that we, society as a whole, need to rethink.
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