A Way Forward: Rising Above the Noise
Bianca Isaac - Drama Therapist
Artwork: Anri Terblanche
If you are South African reading this, you have survived a global pandemic, multiple electricity and water cuts, an economic dip and the looming necessity of keeping safe against criminal activity.
This is in an addition to the layers of the personal trauma daily life may bring. However, the term ‘mental health’ often becomes a buzz phrase instead of an extreme reality – something we post about intermittently or hone in on when we hear of a celebrity suicide. The paradox of mental health desensitization is a dangerous phenomenon, one that may lead to marketing campaigns and efforts on awareness becoming counterproductive. So how do we cut through the noise and start to make genuine head-way in improving mental health? How do we educate the naysayers who believe that the past has taught us more about resilience despite archaic and damaging belief systems?
We can start right there. We have been raised in a society which was often silent about real, untainted emotions and one which framed success predominantly in reference to academic and financial success. In addition, physical images were often linked to perfect notions of slim bodies and perfectly contrived appearances. Many of these ideological giants still exist as strong threads in media representation and parenting approaches.
Our answer is not just to learn, but also, at times, to unlearn. I often tell parents that the answer is neither solely one approach or another. We can draw on the past for lessons on strong family values, eating together at a dinner table and learning through play devoid of screen time (for both adults and children alike). However, we need to shatter the notion of children and teenagers becoming robotic beings without choice. The aim of discipline should not be instant parental gratification. If a child adheres, it does not necessarily mean the discipline is effective. Discipline has a strong psychological impact and the preferred method should always be aimed at the child’s long-term understanding of the rationale. Harsh, unfounded methods of discipline can have negative long-term effects.
The understanding that archaic methods worked because the mental health crisis didn’t formally exist in previous eras is a precarious understanding. Research and consequent knowledge has increased significantly over the years. The effects of harsh parenting unfortunately live in many adults struggling today. It may not be understood or even visible to people in their circles, but the effects are not absent. Stamina, problem solving abilities, emotional regulation, decision making, creating healthy connections, accepting loss and healthy role flexibility are all critical factors to success which may strongly be hindered by childhood trauma.
The extent of the effects are largely dependent on the individual’s capacity for resilience and external factors which form part of their raising. Whilst some individuals may find methods to overcome and heal their emotional scars, other’s may not. We cannot assume that our children will become the former, so our job as parents and caregivers is to choose methods that are founded on safe positive parenting principles. The answer is not to raise spoilt children with no boundaries, but rather emotionally stable, thinking individuals who are able to learn from adversity, form healthy connections, accept loss and contribute meaningfully to the world. The onus is not only on primary caregivers. The term “it takes a village” is a fitting term for humanity as a whole; children and adults require healthy input from their community to thrive.
Another detrimental giant is the understanding that ‘boys don’t cry’. Changing the narrative to ‘humans cry’ is a crucial step towards developing healthy emotional vocabulary. We cannot establish gender equality solely by trying to advocate for women to be identified as brave, strong and forthright. We also have to create a culture in which men are accepted as emotional beings. The idea of equality informs thinking towards seeing all individuals as emotional beings who have the capacity to brave.
We read countless articles on ‘self-care’ as a regime which includes pamper sessions and a push toward putting ourselves first. Whilst this may have merit, we need to ascertain what’s really at the root of the downward mental health spiral and choose what we need to change in our own, unique capacities. Part of the root cause is a society which breeds attaining perfection over solidifying relationships, valuing form over substance and output over process. Good results will always be the cornerstone of what makes the world work, but scientific formulas, a thirst for an aesthetically pleasing appearance, over-working without margin and lack of physical, face-to-face connection may deplete our capacity to enjoy the results. Self-care should include an unlearning of the above and a re-learning of how individuals need to think and make healthy choices.
Self-care should also include creative output. “In 2015, psychologist and art therapist Dr. Cathy Malchiodi cited multiple studies confirming that being creative can increase positive emotions, lessen depressive symptoms, reduce stress, decrease anxiety, and even improve immune system functioning. A 2016 study in The Journal of Positive Psychology supported these earlier findings, concluding that “spending time on creative goals during a day is associated with higher activated positive affect (PA) on that day”. (Brenner,2019.).
Access to mental health care is and has always been crucial. This should not be limited to a symptomatic approach – i.e.: seeking mental health care when emotions are extremely volatile. Mental health care should include a holistic educational model in which individuals are equipped with healthy parenting skills, accurate, tailored career guidance (as opposed to a cookie-cutter approach), a healthy workplace culture, community spaces for connection and an understanding that we are all evolving.
Part of the JPCCC model includes courses which equip individuals with crucial skills to cope with life and a comprehensive school counselling programme. In addition, therapy services are offered at accessible rates.
As we embrace another month of zooming in on the mental health front, let’s not forget the hope we have in turning our proposed ‘crisis’ around. We don’t have to live within the dichotomies of functioning people and misfunctioning people. We can evolve and allow for change. Carol Dweck (Lewis and Virginia Eaton Professor of Psychology at Stanford University) coined the growth mindset theory. She “built on the theory of neuroplasticity, which is the brain's ability to continue to form new connections into adulthood, after it has been damaged or when it is stimulated by new experiences. This supports the idea that you can adopt a growth mindset at any time of life. You may not become another Thomas Edison, but a growth mindset can help you to realize your own potential through learning and practice” (Dweck cited in Mindtools.com).
The Mind Tools Team. Dweck's Fixed and Growth Mindsets Overcoming Obstacles and Recognizing Effort. Available at: www.mindtools.com [Accessed 5 October 2022].
Brenner, Brad. (2019). Creativity is Your Secret Advantage for Mental Health and Well-Being. (online). Available at: www.nyctherapy.com [Accessed 5 October 2022].
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