on the trivialization of mental health issues

The next topic comes from my own inability to understand society’s obsession with perverting the image of the mentally ill, a topic close to my own heart who has been hospitalized for a severe eating disorder. Some illnesses, such as schizophrenia, are demonized while others, such as depression and anorexia, are glamorized. If one were to receive one’s entire education on mental illness from films, tv programmes and sensationalist news articles, one would get the impression that those with schizophrenia or multiple personality disorder were inherently dangerous, or that anorexia, anxiety or depression were trivial fashion trends, for example. From the impression I get from the public treatment of mental health, it seems as though society likes to create an image, an archetype, depending on one’s diagnosis. As previously mentioned, those with schizophrenia are ‘dangerous’ whereas those with anorexia are vain young girls ‘dying to be thin’, that those with depression are ‘mysterious’ and ‘troubled’ (particularly in regards to beautiful women who suffer), or ‘over-sensitive’ and a ‘burden’. In 2009 the BBC revealed that a poll by YouGov indicated that over one in three people perceive those with schizophrenia to be ‘violent’. In 2010, Urban Outfitters released a t-shirt with the slogan ‘Eat Less’ emblazoned on the front, only to later feature another top by the fashion brand DEPRESSION with the company name scrawled all over it.

Clearly, then, there are certain tropes, certain ways in which society stigmatizes mental health issues that are not just erroneous, but downright harmful. The film released this year on Netflix about anorexia, named To The Bone, has rightly borne the brunt of much criticism as it not only fails to portray this dangerous mental illness faithfully but also distorts it and romanticizes what it is like to suffer from this debilitating illness. Firstly, it misrepresents many of the symptoms that sufferers commonly exhibit, such as the scene where she eats and spits an entire meal while out with the film’s love interest, Luke. For a sufferer, this behaviour is common and excruciating, as not only is it shameful but also something that one tries to avoid at all for calories left of the food that remains in the mouth. These behaviours are not something to laugh about, as they both do, but rather to be treated with compassion and dignity. The casting of Lily Collins also only perpetuates the obsession with the beautiful, troubled woman, something indeed that only leads to further public misunderstanding and the fetichizing of such an illness, perhaps responsible for the pro-ana movement that causes so much damage to young, vulnerable people. Most crucially, however, it does not adequately reflect the complexity of such an illness. When I was in hospital, there was no one person whose issues could be simply chalked down to a traumatic childhood or a dissatisfaction with one’s body image; in fact, anorexia often came hand in hand with other mental illnesses such as bipolar disorder, OCD, anxiety and depression.

To The Bone, however, is only one of countless examples of the way in which mental illness is trivialized by the mainstream media which is ultimately damaging to those who are sufferers in their complex diversity. Terms such as to be ‘triggered’ or ‘depressed’, for someone to be ‘OCD’ about something only reflect how lightly mental illness is treated by those who have no experience of it. All I can hope for is that people might better educate themselves as to the true nature of these conditions and the inevitable consequences of such irresponsibility, itself not too much to ask. Indeed, it is not those with severe mental health issues who are a danger to society but rather, as the activist and writer Emma Goldman famously put it, “the most violent element in society is ignorance”.

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on empathy

Undeniably, empathy is an ingrained part of human nature that we must address with a conscientious effort; to be empathetic to those who are different from us, are Other, by no means comes naturally to us. In this way, empathy for our fellows becomes all the more valuable as it is the product of hard work, the consistent exercise of virtue, all of which serves to arguably better the self. In practicing empathy, one is able to move beyond the confines of the individual and become part of a larger, interconnected community.

Clearly, the problem of empathy is very pertinent to today, perhaps more so than ever. There have been an increasing number of news reports investigating the rise in hate crimes in the UK and US, particularly in regards to Muslim women and transgender people among others, many of whom have reported that they have modified their behaviour or dress to become less of a target. It could be argued that such hate crime has its roots in an inability to empathise with others that are different from us, from an inability to relate. Numerous news agencies, including the BBC and the Independent, have released reports detailing such crime statistics for 2016, most of which indicate that the three incentives for attack were based on race, religion and sexual orientation, unsurprising in an increasingly tense global political climate. Perhaps, when considering causes, our increasingly problematic global political dynamics might be mentioned; the rise of populism; the ongoing international conflicts or even the disconnect resulting from our increasingly digitalized age. Whatever the cause, however, the important thing is that it is addressed, my aim here being to examine the possible negative effects of social difference and potentially, tentatively offer solutions to that issue, as simplistic as they may be.

Refraining from empathising with others facilitates behaviour that would be considered morally reprehensible if committed against a fellow. That the common factor behind the spike in hate crime is difference (in race, religion or sexual orientation, as mentioned) indicates that when one considers one to be the Other, they lose the fundamental sense of fellowship that is key for a well-functioning society. In its place comes fear and resentment, eventually translating itself to hatred and compelling one to act on one’s prejudices. When man feels kinship with another and can empathize with them, he feels obliged to act towards them with consideration and loyalty, at the core of human nature there being an essential sociability. Perhaps this may seem too reductionist in implying that man is essentially an exclusionist creature that places an inordinate amount of importance on tribes, though it should be pointed out that one can learn a lot from the past. Many of the major atrocities of human history have been made possible by this dehumanization, this Othering, so to speak, of unfamiliar peoples. In a sense, however, this carries a hopeful message in that we might learn to treat others with more dignity and respect if only we train ourselves to better respond to the unfamiliar.

Perhaps, however, this proposition is too ambitious, in which case it might be better to distinguish between ‘empathy’ and ‘sympathy’. The former necessitates that there is an understanding, a shared feeling between two parties whereas the latter means that one can appreciate the suffering of another though may not have this same understanding of what they are going through. This is an important line to draw as it has serious implications for its practical application. It seems clear that it would be patronizing, even downright insulting, to assume that we might understand the experiences and struggles of others, particularly in regards to our 3 main factors: race, religion and sexual orientation. As a white female, I cannot in any way pretend to comprehend what it must be like to be a woman of colour, a transgender male or a Muslim in a society fraught with prejudice and intolerance. To do so would be to undermine and devalue the experiences of these other, different people. I might readily admit that I have lead a very privileged, sheltered life without knowing the extent of what that really means and its true implications. Perhaps, then, there are limits to the scope of empathy that rather properly belong to that of sympathy if we are to respect the variant experiences of others.

Does this mean, however, that we cannot empathise with people who are, in some respects, unlike us? Of course not. Though we may be different there remain fundamental similarities that we share which allow for empathy, for fraternity. In this sense, we might empathise with shared, common feeling but actively try to sympathise with the particular experiences of others, with the way in which they experience the world that might be inaccessible to us. By this I do not mean to insinuate that people who are different from myself require my sympathy but rather one should acknowledge that they are unable to truly understand their experiences though still seeks to establish a connection. Each member should actively work to bridge the gap of apparent unfamiliarity to relate to others, whose essential nature identical to their own, while sympathising with that which they may not understand, their form of life. In this sense, it seems as though empathy and indeed sympathy are crucial components of a functional, diverse State, perhaps never more necessary than in our modern, thoroughly divided society.

thoughts on Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse and the insightful Lily Briscoe

 

Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse has surely received much literary criticism and analysis, all of which is far more credible than mine, however what I hope to offer here is my own interpretation and thoughts on her expressive, moving work, even though there are many important themes and ideas that I neglect to cover in my analysis. These are my own personal first impressions and I know full well that they are up for debate and that I can hardly do her seminal work justice; any comments or thoughts would be welcome and appreciated.

To begin, it seems that central to the novel is the question “what is the meaning of life?”, the purpose of human existence. Woolf’s chief characters all seem to share a fundamental insecurity despite their many profound differences relating to the way in which they lead their lives. Her characters seem to be constantly looking for validation, a justification for the way they have chosen to spend their fleeting, precious time as ephemeral beings, albeit in different ways. Mr Ramsay is constantly seeking to elicit sympathy and praise from others, there being an important conflict between his need for renown (and in this way transcend time) and his love and concern for his domestic life. Mrs Ramsay is constantly encouraging others to couple up, to get married and follow her example, as she believes “people must marry, people must have children”. As Lily Briscoe observes, Mrs Ramsay is always “giving, giving, giving”, so perhaps it is out of a desire to justify such a life that she insists on the necessity of marriage. Another, similar character is Charles Tansley, the black sheep of the group. He refuses to partake in conversation, perceiving the others to be beneath his lofty intellectual pursuits, considering them to be vacuous and petty. He is disparaging towards the women, asserting “Women can’t paint, women can’t write …” all the while aspiring to academic greatness like Mr Ramsay. Tansley considers his dissertation to be of the utmost importance, focusing on it to the exclusion of almost all else, perhaps out of an insecurity relating to what he is missing (particularly in regards to the opposite sex), in an effort to justify himself, .

Another important theme of the book is the question of whether one can really and truly know another. The novel is composed of the different perspectives of the major characters, Woolf embodying each to show the ambiguity of reality and the utter isolation of individual experience. Some, however, try to escape their isolation, Mr Ramsay’s insatiable desire for sympathy only one example. Towards the end of the novel, Woolf repeats the words of the poet William Cowper through Mr Ramsay and his daughter Cam: “we perished, each alone”, a phrase that encapsulates one of the novel’s central themes. In To The Lighthouse, one’s impression of the characters shifts depending on circumstance and point of view, the characters at once priggish then sympathetic, egotistical then pitiable, a demonstration of the fluidity of human nature. Briscoe puts it well when she asks herself, as she wrestles with the common problem of the meaning of life, “why was it [life] so short, why was it so inexplicable[?]”

If one follows this interpretation, the setting of the Hebridean coast becomes significant, though my interpretation is only one of many. Each character lives by their own experience, has their own perceptions which effectively isolate them and make them unknowable to their fellows, as is clear on on the family boat trip that concludes the novel:

So it was like that, James thought, the
Lighthouse one had seen across the bay all these years; it was a stark
tower on a bare rock. It satisfied him. It confirmed some obscure
feeling of his about his own character.

Later, he remarks to himself “So that was the Lighthouse, was it? No, the other was also the Lighthouse. For nothing was one thing”. Reality here is not objective but subjective, contingent on the lived experience of the individual, particularly in relation to other people, as “Half one’s notions of other people were, after all, grotesque. They served private purposes of one’s own”. It seems reasonable to argue that Woolf seeks to undermine the idea that people, memories and experiences relate to one coherent truth but are rather inconstant and uncertain. This is only made clearer in the musings of Lily Briscoe who thinks to herself that:

“This making up scenes about them, is what we call “knowing” people,
“thinking” of them, “being fond” of them! Not a word of it was true;
she had made it up; but it was what she knew them by all the same.”

Mr Ramsay is at once familiar and a stranger much like the other characters, who each exist in their own, impenetrable bubbles of reality. Lily asks herself “Where was he, that very old man who had gone past her, holding a brown paper bag under his arm? The boat was in the middle of the bay”. All of Woolf’s characters are floating alone out at sea, each familiar to each other yet ultimately a strangers, utterly unknowable. Only the Lighthouse offers respite from this semi-total isolation, its beam offering a brief glance of hope, of community feeling, a suspended moment like those that Mrs Ramsay was set on creating. In moments of “profound stillness” such as the successful turn of the dinner party “there is a coherence in things, a stability; something, she meant, is immune from change and shines out…in the face of the fleeting, the spectral, like a ruby”. The Lighthouse arguably represents respite from loneliness, a reprieve from total isolation in an uncertain, chaotic world, contained in Lily Briscoe’s question when she asks “what was this life? – startling, unexpected, unknown?”.

It is also important to note Woolf’s presentation of the artist and her analysis of the role of art, a theme close to her own heart and manifested in the reflective character of Lily Briscoe. Throughout the novel, her character remains apart from the action, diligently trying to express herself and her perception of the present and the past – the nature of her private reality – through her art. It seems reasonable to assume that Woolf had herself in mind when drawing Lily’s character as, out of nothingness, she creates, she brings into existence, which itself transcends the changeability and decay of the world around her, best represented by the dilapidation of the old house. As she concisely puts it, “‘you’ and ‘I’ and ‘she’ pass and vanish; nothing stays; all changes; but not words, not paint”. Lily, perhaps, like Woolf, is tempted to lose herself in the lives of others though chooses to  refrain, apparent when she professes her “headlong desire to throw herself off the cliff and be drowned looking for a pearl broach”  like Paul Rayley, though she essentially scorns love, calling it “the most barbaric of human passions”.

The ending of the novel is ultimately a symbol of liberation, for more characters than one. Lily Briscoe has her “vision” that allows her to finish her long drawn out painting project free from the constraint represented by the dynamic of the Ramsay family. Mr Ramsay is finally able to praise his son, demonstrative of the way that he chooses to accept his place in the universe, to stop struggling, resisting or, in the eyes of his son, tyrannizing. Previously “shabby” he becomes “very straight and tall…like a young man” while Lily Briscoe is able to recognize the intrinsic worth of her own work regardless of the opinion of others. It might “be hung in attics…be destroyed. But what did it matter?”. With the arrival at the Lighthouse, Woolf’s characters experience a profound relief, however fleeting, a beam of light in a dark and tumultuous sea.