Angela Haggerty: Why your fear of ‘going crazy’ may mean you’re the most sane person in the world

Ben Wray

Angela Haggerty, journalist and former CommonSpace editor, contributes to our special week of coverage on the mental health crisis, drawing on her own experience to question whether what is deemed mental illness can sometimes be a rational reaction to a world gone mad.

IF YOU’RE anything like me you’ll vividly remember the aftermath of Donald Trump’s US presidential election.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that for a number of weeks I really was a nervous wreck. I struggled to eat, I struggled to sleep and I could not stop my mind racing. I feared for minorities in America, and for women. I feared the repercussions on global politics and the rise of the far right. I imagined all worst case scenarios. I felt like I was on the verge of some sort of breakdown.

It wasn’t the first time matters of politics or society had put me in such a state. I’d been a worrier on these things since childhood. I remember my mum once telling me of the time I came home from school crying because I was worried about how sanctions in Iraq were affecting people there, and how she thought about throwing the television out after 9/11 because I was obsessed with every breaking detail in the weeks and months afterwards.

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But here’s the thing: people thought I was a bit crazy. It was deemed peculiar by others that I would get so worked up about things that were affecting other people and not me, things that were happening far away. Instead of viewing it as a normal, empathetic response to the plight of other people, it was concluded that I should get over it and be a bit more normal.

That’s probably where my enduring quest to understand normality began. I spent a long time thinking I was abnormal. It took a number of years to understand the impact of the structural on my mental health, and how it is so intricately woven with the personal.

I grew up in poverty, and with many of the associated problems. My family didn’t have it easy, and that had consequences for all of us. I grew up with a sense of chaos and worry. There was always a constant fear of something in the background, a fear of something bad happening. Sometimes it didn’t happen, but sometimes it did. There was never any real way to know, which created a perpetual cliffhanger.

I was in my teens when I was deemed troublesome and in need of help, and so talk of mental health problems began relatively quickly in my life. I had neither the maturity or knowledge to have any kind of worthwhile analysis of what was going on.

I genuinely had little idea that the feelings of anxiety, anger and despair I experienced were not really crazy, they were actually quite normal given the socio-economic environment I came from, and all of the problems that we know come with that. I now find myself feeling perplexed that the trusted adults seemed to overlook all of this and head for diagnostic sheets instead. But that’s how systems work – sometimes they’re designed to manage a problem, not fix it.

It’s with this in mind that I really feel for people who are suffering amid the rise in mental ill health. We’re living in a world of social media storms, Brexit, poverty, Donald Trump and a deep sense of uncertainty and uneasiness over the future. And the worst of it is, we’ve been taught to blame ourselves.

Take social media, which is regularly cited as a factor in rising mental ill health and isolation, for example. We give ourselves a tremendously hard time over it. It has triggered the worst elements of our narcissistic and combative personalities, and we’re constantly pointing the finger. We don’t stop for long enough to understand that the monetisation model of social networks actually thrives on conflict, competition and extremities.

When we watch YouTube, the suggested video lists encourage us to watch similar, but edgier, content to keep us hooked. The more we click, the more we feed the machine, and before people know it they’re watching videos from neo-nazi conspiracy theorists. It emerged a number of years ago that Facebook had carried out secret mood experiments on the network, targeting unsuspecting users, to understand more about how people could potentially be manipulated by decisions taken by the Mark Zuckerbergs of this world. When you begin to understand the bigger picture, it becomes much less of a surprise that this is damaging to mental health, and that there are people in positions of great responsibility who have acted incredibly irresponsibly and without care for the consequences.

Likewise, if you go to the doctor because you feel miserable, stressed and can’t sleep, is that really any surprise if you’re working on a zero-hours contract, terrified about the rent, taking your kids to foodbanks and you can’t see how it’ll ever get better? Is it really medication that you need or is it time we diagnosed our political, economic and social environments as the things in our lives that have really become unwell?

The responses to these things when we seek help is often to deal with the symptoms; with the best of intentions from our doctors and health professionals, people are offered psychological or medicinal therapies to help ease the pain. Ultimately, though, we think there’s something wrong with us.

But not all mental health conditions will stem from the kind of medical problem that means a person is likely to become ill regardless of external circumstances. A great many of them are presenting symptoms which are actually, I would argue, the normal responses to the horrendous circumstances people are living in.

When I was a kid and I was worrying about Iraq or 9/11, I was feeling empathy. I was consumed by it, and that was not a terrible thing. I had done nothing wrong, and it didn’t mean I wasn’t normal. Empathy is one of our most valuable human emotions, and I can’t help but wonder whether my interests in these things would have been treated differently if I was living in a middle/upper class environment instead of a working class one. Maybe then I’d have been singled out as having potential in politics, a future in foreign affairs, instead of being sent on a visit to a psychiatrist.

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The structural problems that impact our mental health are not the kinds of things that can be solved in the next five minutes, but over the years I’ve found that there are options other than therapies and doctors – or at least in conjunction with them if that is needed – that can help, like becoming involved with your communities, taking part in positive things happening around you, helping whoever you can and accepting support from others. That’s actually a very good tonic.

If we can’t change the structures by ourselves, we can at least change our part in them. Therapies and doctors can be a part of a solution, but it really is worth exploring the other things we can do – and most importantly, we need to stop beating ourselves up as if it’s all a reflection of our faults. There needs to be a balance between understanding that yes, we can make positive changes to our lives, but ultimately we didn’t cause the problem.

When you look around you and feel like you’re going crazy, you may actually just be the most sane person in the world.

Picture courtesy of Gilbert Mercier

If you are going through mental health issues of your own and want to talk to someone, Mind offers this guide to helplines and mental health listening services.