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Mental health is a lucrative business Our nauseating obsession with feelings forgets some things are best bottled up

Meghan appeared in Prince Harry's documentary about mental health (Photo by Joe Maher/BFC/Getty Images)

Meghan appeared in Prince Harry's documentary about mental health (Photo by Joe Maher/BFC/Getty Images)


June 28, 2021   5 mins

At the end of 2017, finding it hard to deal with my newly-acquired tinnitus, I attempted suicide twice — one week before Christmas and one week after, waking up both times marvelling afresh at my ability to consume vast amounts of drugs unharmed. I don’t recognise that person now. These days, nothing gets me down; and it means so much to me that I came through that wilderness of pain all by myself.

I once saw a television debate between the philosophers Ernest Gellner and Charles Taylor in which they suggested that humankind could be divided into the Tough and the Tender; I think I probably score high on the Tough side of the spectrum. I know that mental illness is real; it killed my son and has blighted the life of my best friend. But I do believe that many people could make themselves better. Resilience is like a muscle which grows weak with lack of use; human beings are born tough, but the fussing of an over-cautious society weakens them.

Mental illness has gone from being an ailment that we dare not speak of to one that we cannot escape; whenever I turn on Radio 4, I guarantee that the words “mental health” will be spoken within ten minutes.

But it’s not just a media problem; Ulrika Jonsson recently stripped off “to highlight the importance of men’s mental health” and to urge fans to donate to the charity StrongMen. What did her naked body have to do with it? I suppose 30 years ago it might have cheered some sad men up. But as it was, it was hard to define exactly who benefited.

Meanwhile, criminals are being spared jail for the sake of their mental health, the most recent example being when a cocaine-crazed driver left a nursery nurse with a fractured skull after running her over while talking on the phone and doing 63mph in a 30mph zone. Yasmin Jenkins was left in a coma and she is unable to return to work. But when sentencing her attacker, Clare Cassidy, earlier this month, Recorder Robert Lazarus noted: “You have a history of long-term mental health problems and I accept you are genuinely remorseful. I also note your mental health problems may deteriorate if sent to prison.” So that’s alright then!

F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote that he “avoided writers very carefully because they can perpetuate trouble as no one else can”. I thought of him as I picked up the latest book by Matt Haig, who has perpetuated his own troubles very successfully indeed. The Comfort Book is the latest in Haig’s canon of woe, preceded by Reasons To Stay Alive (2015) and Notes From A Nervous Planet (2018). It is, we’re told, “a collection of consolations learned in hard times and suggestions for making the bad days better”.

One of the signs of serious depression is the inability to be creative, but Mr Haig, who attempted to commit suicide aged 24, has been a veritable one-man library-stuffer, writing eleven children’s books and seven novels since he started out in 2004. He has, since then, also been signed up to something called The Mental Health Speakers Agency, along with Love Island’s Dr Alex and Blair Island’s Alastair Campbell. According to his profile, “Matt’s refreshingly honest and composed approach to a heavy topic makes him a hit time and time again” — which made me laugh as it sounds like an escort agency. Still, I’m sure it’s a lovely little earner; singing the blues will soon have you rolling in the greens.

Which brings us back to The Comfort Book. It’s very much what I think of as an UnBook, the sort of thing people who don’t like reading give to fellow illiterates at Christmas. If it were a garment, it would be a onesie. If it were food, it would be mashed potato. If it could speak, it would say “I’m here for you”. Keen not to startle us, Haig soothes us with an almost tangible hush: “You can place it beside your bed or keep it next to the toilet. You can throw it out of the window.” Option three, please!

He also reassures us that “You can tear out the pages”. But where to start? There’s so much to loathe: “We are all things. And we connect to all things. Human to human. Moment to moment. Pain to pleasure. Despair to hope.” “You were born worthy of love and you remain worthy of love. Be kind to yourself.” “Walking one foot in front of the other, in the same direction, will always get you further than running around in circles.” “It’s okay to be the teacup with a chip in it. That’s the one with a story.” It’s like that all the way through.

But do we really need encouragement to be any soppier than we are? We are already a society in which dealing with one’s emotions privately is equated with “bottling it up”, which must surely lead to mayhem in the future. Indeed, this is the central argument of the current war between the Windsors and Sussexes; that processing and mastering one’s feelings alone is some sort of sham. But seeing the photographs of the Queen having a laugh at Royal Ascot last week, and comparing her resilience to the Sussexes’ ceaseless whining, this seems a spectacular own goal. All we see in the wars of the Windsors is an attempt by the Sussexes to “strength-shame” anyone who won’t put their personal problems in the shop window for all the world to pick over.

Of course, the mentally ill have always been with us, and always will be. But surely every other person didn’t have issues until they realised that it would get them attention? Rather like what one does in bed, a person’s neuroses are generally the least interesting thing about them, unless they are profoundly dull. Look at Churchill; a lifelong sufferer from severe manic depression, frequently suicidal — “I don’t like standing near the edge of a platform when an express train is passing through
 I don’t like to stand by the side of a ship and look down into the water” — but he never let it get in the way of leading a tiny nation into battle against the might of the Nazi war machine.

When I was a girl, I couldn’t wait to be a grown-up. I imagined that adult life was dangerous and exciting, and I was eager to get out into the fray. But now the craze for over-protecting children (as I write, doctors have just begged parents to stop bringing record levels of children suffering from colds to A&E!) has spread to the adult world with its endless waffle about pampering, self-care and me-time — and “journaling”, of course, so we can all have a chance of producing our very own Comfort Book.

Talking of which, I must admit that I suffered a touch of “low mood” myself — quickly mutating to high dudgeon — on seeing my adored Stoics quoted in this quivering blancmange of a book. Far from feeling the need to cosset and baby ourselves, Marcus Aurelius said that the strong — which most of us are and which just a few, like my poor son, are not — should positively give thanks for misfortunes: “It’s unfortunate that this has happened? No. It’s fortunate that this has happened and I’ve remained unharmed by it — not shattered by the present or frightened of the future. It could have happened to anyone. But not everyone could have remained unharmed by it.”

Indeed, if you must seek advice on how to live life, have a look at The Daily Stoic website; just ten minutes of study a day will turn your attitude around, as it did mine. There are even a few good self-help books — The Power Of Now, Feel The Fear And Do it Anyway — which see the world clearly as the big bad beautiful thing it is, and advise extreme boldness in engagement with it.

If you want to live your one and only life in a self-soothing fashion, go ahead. But don’t be surprised when you’re on your deathbed with only half a life to look back on. Because fortune favours the tough — and has a habit of swerving the tender.


Julie Burchill is a journalist, playwright and author of Welcome to the Woke Trials, available now. Her latest play, Awful People, co-written with Daniel Raven, comes to Brighton Pier in September 2023.

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Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
2 years ago

I am glad that mental illness has become less stigmatised in the past few years. Saying you’ve had a bout of depression should not be any different than saying “I had a throat infection” or “I broke my wrist”. The fact that depression is less obvious outwardly than physical maladies should not be a source of fear or judgment.
The wrong turn is when someone truly identifies with the illness and it becomes part of them. I cannot see how this helps to overcome the problem, as once you have accepted that it is part of you – you are in effect saying “I want this to stay”.
By referred to his episodes of mental illness as “the black dog”, Churchill externalised the issue. It wasn’t part of him, rather a familiar figure that would occasionally turn up and cause pain, but then go away again. I’m absolutely sure that this formed part of his extraordinary resilience – he overcame it in the past, he would do again. The black dog would eventually leave.
A world that doesn’t stop at de-stigmatising mental illness but goes on to positively fetishise it and present it as a possibility for earning some serious dosh is encouraging that kind of identification.

Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
2 years ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

In the past there must have been the same issues with mental health but nobody said anything about it because of the associated stigma. This alone must have helped people to fight their problems by just going through the everyday rhythms of life. Was this a good thing?

The answer must be in the numbers. If <1% of people have such problems it might be just manageable. If 50% of people have the problems our whole civilisation will just stop. You will need every other person to be a psychiatrist and even they will need psychiatrists. We will be swamped.

So, here is the real issue. If <1% have problems, perhaps they can be treated but if a further 10% jump on the bandwagon because they can't be bothered to tough it out, then the 1% will not get proper treatment. (The queues in A&E get longer for heart attack patients because the doctors are working on childrens' colds).

Last edited 2 years ago by Chris Wheatley
Julie Burchill
Julie Burchill
2 years ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

Chris, yes, this was what prompted me. This was edited: ‘ If we discover that we’ve all got mental health issues – as seems likely, such is the velocity of this epidemic – who’s going to look after us? Not so much the blind leading the blind as the sad leading the mad.’

Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
2 years ago
Reply to  Julie Burchill

Why was it edited?

D Ward
D Ward
2 years ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

Do you even need to ask? To spare the feelings of those who are “genuinely mentally ill”. Lol!

Disclosure: i’ve had my own moments (proper ones) so no, i’m not being callous.

Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
2 years ago
Reply to  D Ward

No, I don’t think for a moment that you are being callous. But have you noticed that we are sparing a lot of feelings nowadays? Who decides which feelings should be spared and which shouldn’t? Is there an omnipotent Mr UnHerd sitting above us? What colour is he? Or is it Ms UnHerd?

Julie Burchill
Julie Burchill
2 years ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

Too long – 500 words over.

Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
2 years ago
Reply to  Julie Burchill

Thanks for that.

Eddie Johnson
Eddie Johnson
2 years ago

Great to see you back in print, Julie.

Julie Burchill
Julie Burchill
2 years ago
Reply to  Eddie Johnson

Thank you – I love it here!

Dustin Needle
Dustin Needle
2 years ago
Reply to  Eddie Johnson

Seconded – a huge fan despite you winding me up weekly at the NME in the good old days. Never, ever, change.

Julie Burchill
Julie Burchill
2 years ago
Reply to  Dustin Needle

Thank you, Dustin – I like your name!

Saul D
Saul D
2 years ago

Major trauma was much more frequent for previous generations – child mortality, war, untreatable disease, industrial accidents, ‘pawning-shoes-for-food’ level poverty, physical hardship.
So when I see modern reports of one third of the population having some form of mental problem in a 12 month period, I wonder how now can really be so much worse than the past? Have we over medicalised and industrialised mental health as an issue? Are we too comfortable, and too focused on feelings and the need to feel good, instead of building resilience and emotional strength?

Judy Johnson
Judy Johnson
2 years ago
Reply to  Saul D

I think we are certainly too focused on feelings; hence the increasing view that no-one should offend us. That when no offence is intended, we can choose to take offence or not, is no longer recognised.

Tony Buck
Tony Buck
2 years ago
Reply to  Saul D

We are too comfortable physically – but because of loneliness and family breakdown, too uncomfortable nervously.

Stable family life creates stable characters, family breakdowns create unstable characters.

“Man does not live by bread alone” – telling people that they must be cheerful because they’re physically well and well-fed, is crass.

And the large-scale disappearance of religious faith hasn’t helped.

Martin Smith
Martin Smith
2 years ago
Reply to  Saul D

Maybe routine life threatening situations are good for mental health. Perhaps they keep things in perspective or, as Johnson said, concentrate the mind wonderfully.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
2 years ago

As in other things, society over-corrects and goes far too far. (Think Wokeism as an example). It is a fact that previously people with mental problems were regarded in kind of two sets of people – a) the mad people and then b) the people with no bottle and resilience. Obviously this was far too facile. We know that people can suffer from definable mental illnesses that need to be acknowledged and treated. Also depression and anxiety can have physical manifestations that can be debilitating. But now we have millions of young people who seem to be mentally fragile because they almost want to be? Help me here!

Laura Creighton
Laura Creighton
2 years ago

We have millions of young people who cannot tell the difference between things that hurt them and things that hurt their feelings, and things that hurt their egos. As a direct consequence of this, ‘getting over’ bad things is pretty much permanently off the menu, because they have no distinct separation between their feelings and their selves.
And, unfortunately, they can end up in the feedback loop from hell — in an effort to be happier, they try being more caring, and more compassionate, and find more and more and more things to feel anxious and unhappy about. The notion that the ideal amount of caring and compassion might be at some level they have overshot a long time ago does not occur to them.

Hilary Easton
Hilary Easton
2 years ago

cannot tell the difference between things that hurt their feelings and things that hurt their egos‘ – this is a very insightful comment.

Tony Buck
Tony Buck
2 years ago

You forget just how many of them come from defective families.

Which includes one-child families.

We have given young people a rat-race hell to grow up in, where only personal success counts – we then complain about their fragility and anxiousness !

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
2 years ago

Sympathy about the tinnitus. I’ve had mine for 22 years; it sounds like a whistling kettle. There’s no cure, and none of the advertised quack remedies works, but certain things help.
One is to have constant background music or sound. You focus through and past the ringing in your ears, and on to the music, much as when you wear glasses, you don’t notice the glasses. Caffeine makes some people’s tinnitus worse; alcohol makes some people’s tinnitus worse; try cutting this kind of stimulant out for a week to see if it makes a difference for you.
Spicy food, the hotter the better, makes mine quieter. Nobody can explain to me why this works, but the thing that makes chillies hot is an agent called capsaicin. As well as suppressing the cough reflex, capsaicin is also an anti-depressant; it’s why you feel cheerier after a curry. It may be a factor here, or it may not. Other natural anti-depressants (St John’s Wort notably) have no effect on tinnitus at all because they are actually stimulants.
Good luck. You have to train yourself gradually to stop noticing. You can’t make it go away completely, but you can make it matter less.

Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

For me, self-hypnosis works on almost everything. You have to believe in hypnosis first so that you take it seriously.

Richard Sutton
Richard Sutton
2 years ago

What a beautiful, and beautifully written, article.

Julie Burchill
Julie Burchill
2 years ago
Reply to  Richard Sutton

Thank you, Richard!

Tony Buck
Tony Buck
2 years ago

Mental illness has always been around, but there are three reasons why it’s such a pestilence here in today’s West

-. The disappearance of the extended family; there’s no longer a cousin or whoever to buoy you up when you’re going through a rough patch
-. The semi-disappearance of social and civic organisations that bring people out of themselves and enable them to forget their troubles
-. The fact that our modern world is so depressing and depressed, so lonely and atomised, to start off with: in other words, is a very low base to start off from.

Caroline Watson
Caroline Watson
2 years ago

What annoys me most is the people who say, ‘I suffer from mental health’ or, simply, ‘I have mental health’.
My reaction is, ‘We all have mental health. ‘Health’ is a neutral or positive term. If you are suffering, you must have a mental illness. Which one is it?’ They never know.
My other reaction is, ‘You are also illiterate’.

Richard Riheed
Richard Riheed
2 years ago

Brilliant article, Julie. You are a breath of fresh air. One of the best writers on mental health and, in particular, depression, is the late Dr Dorothy Rowe. She’s clear eyed, down to earth and the very opposite of (judging from the brief quotes you gave) The Comfort Book – yuk!

Julie Burchill
Julie Burchill
2 years ago
Reply to  Richard Riheed

Thank you, Richard!

Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
2 years ago

“Mental Health” (current usage) entered the vocab at least couple of years ago.
E.g in 2019: A man at the bus stop was shouting abuse at the driver who had stopped and was slow to put the ramp down, and the woman with him was shouting, in explanation, I guess: “Mental Health! He’s Mental Health!”

Margaret Tudeau-Clayton
Margaret Tudeau-Clayton
2 years ago

Living abroad as I do I notice when words or phrases come into vogue in English. ‘Mental health’ was one of them. I noticed how people gradually realised that this was a phrase that could get them what they wanted in the way of attention and perhaps more tanglible benefits.
But much more worrying is: ‘criminals are being spared jail for the sake of their mental health’. There has been a case of France of a young Muslim who threw an elderly Jewish woman out her window but who was judged incapable of criminal responsibility because of his mental state (he was also under the influence of drugs). This is terrifying.

Howard Gleave
Howard Gleave
2 years ago

Nice to read you again, Julie. My mother committed suicide when I was 11 but my father, who must have been devastated, kept the show on the road, brought up 3 children on his own, and taught me a lifelong lesson in getting back on your feet and turning tragedy into positive energy. Do I think about that day often. Yes. But I refuse to let it define me.

Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
2 years ago

I thought something might might be coming when I saw Mental Health acquiring capitals and becoming a buzz-phrase about 2018. Something like the HSE establishment and the psych lobby expanding their remit and demanding more funding and powers to intrude.
I didn’t expect it would get this bad.
I have to ask: Did you really read to the end of that book? It looks unreadable.

Julie Burchill
Julie Burchill
2 years ago

NO WAY!

Val Colic-Peisker
Val Colic-Peisker
2 years ago

Just like with the Wokeism and MeToo-ism, the grievances were real, but the pendulum swung too far the other way. The veneration of the victim is common to all, making victimhood attractive, and easier than facing one’s own issues. At the end of the day, not easier, of course. Plus, as you say Julie, one can follow the money too. The book you quoted from is so bad it’s funny. A gravy train of anxiety and depression! What madness (and pun was not intended)!

Tony Buck
Tony Buck
2 years ago

Resilience – Toughness – is largely a matter of genetics. It can’t be taught, still less self-taught.

Nor is it clear-cut; some Tough people are brittle, some Tender people enduring.

Val Colic-Peisker
Val Colic-Peisker
2 years ago

Well said Julie! As a non-native of Australia and knowing a bit about non-Anglospheric parts of the world, I’ll just add that the Anglosphere is way in front of everyone else with the phenomenon of fetishising mental illness and a decreasing resilience, especially in young people. Outside the Anglophere, people have a more sensible approach to all this, even in those countries who can afford this kind mollycoddling, let alone those who cannot.

Tony Taylor
Tony Taylor
2 years ago

Prior to the 18th of June I had never heard of Charles Taylor. That’s now three times I’ve read an article in which he’s mentioned.

Judy Johnson
Judy Johnson
2 years ago

I agree that some have mental health issues and some do not and am in complete agreement with what Julie writes about the Sussexes and the Windsors. However, I do not feel competent to asses who can and should be helping themselves and who genuinely needs help.

Tony Buck
Tony Buck
2 years ago

Humanity is divided between those whose craziness takes an emotional form (“mental illness”) and those whose craziness takes a behavioural form – smoking, drink, drugs, shopping, dangerous driving, sexual addiction etc etc.

Mark Gourley
Mark Gourley
2 years ago

Well said as always, Julie. And as for Mr Haig’s book, I am sure it will soon be for sale on Amazon at 17p a copy like much else of its kind.

Cheryl Jones
Cheryl Jones
2 years ago

Most of the time in our narcissistic modern world, talk about mental health problems seems either a. attention seeking b. an excuse not to take responsibility c. an expression of perpetual infantilism. Harsh perhaps, but I think it’s the truth.

Tony Buck
Tony Buck
2 years ago

Mental illness assumes different forms in different eras.

E.g. the heavy drinking-to-oblivion in Victorian Britain.

E.g, all the political lunatics in the 1930’s who went round in coloured shirts attacking other gangs of political lunatics.

Alka Hughes-Hallett
Alka Hughes-Hallett
2 years ago

I DO think that today’s world is much more complex & complicated compared to previous generations. I DO think mental illness is to do with LACK of physical illness or suffering of the past. In the past lack of consumer goods & services & lack of physical pleasures was the way to remain strong in the mind too. A STRONG STRIVING BODY FED A STRONG MIND . There was less time to woe and weep.

So, in some ways I agree with the author that we will need to strengthen our resolve and to force our way out of our descend into mental illness but I disagree that it was harder then. It’s MUCH harder now. The wealth ( dole, the belief that has been put into us that we can do ANYTHING, millions are made out of thin air ), health on tap ( the likes of NHS & the belief that life can go on forever without pain, ease of life (consumerism, instant satisfaction with ever cheaper goods, the social media) . Our past did not have ANY of this. The wealth was mostly physical & tangible and came after MUCH striving. The health was hugely dependent on wealth. Our forefathers just died when illnesses could not be cured easily or your body was not up for fighting the illness . Today we refuse to be ill & to live with physical pain. We have even found ways to cheat death.
I think mental suffering will take the place of physical suffering of the past. Our minds are tortured by the stuff , more stuff & endless searching for pleasure. Physical suffering is in our biology, failing which, the mind will start to become ill. Also there have never been a time like this before. 7b people to become 9b. How to make sense of that ? I can see why our children will have to worry about mental health in the future. Only in the last 100 yrs the world has changed a 10000 fold both in quantum & in quality.
It’s wrong to say that the younger generation today is spoilt. It’s fair to say that WE have spoiled our young without thinking of what it means to give our young a good life.
Don’t point the finger at the Sussexes or any one else. Point it towards yourself for this is what WE have done to them.

chris sullivan
chris sullivan
2 years ago

I agree – it is a two pronged attack on especially the young. Firstly they are not TAUGHT the skill of resilience. Secondly they are bombarded within anxiety- provoking info from an innappropriately young age-when they do not have the internal resources to integrate it -and maybe thirdly they are grossly manipulated by social and advertising media in a manner tha would do Jo Goebbels proud. I am a lifetime sufferer of depression and there is no way i would have survived contemporary adolescence. My 29 year old son has an ongoing “dialogue’ with suicide – and i cannot argue with the negatives of his ‘to be or not to be’ conversation. The ‘sensitives’ of the human genome are the ‘canaries in the coalmine” and the coalmine is in a poor state of repair in terms of being a nurturing vs oppressive environment for especially the young. Even the ‘tough’ are starting to struggle – so you are right in that it may well fall back on the strength of the extended family to provide security and resliience – probably just as it has always until recently been…..

Martin Smith
Martin Smith
2 years ago

.

Last edited 2 years ago by Martin Smith
Mick Gee
Mick Gee
2 years ago

Nice article, Julie. Yes, Julie, there are too many (celebs, actors, comedians, ex-politicians, top sportspersons etc) who try to bolster their fame by writing or talking about their mental health difficulties. But hey they seem to do alright and function OK (no social phobia or depression then) when they need to: on chat shows, etc.. Their gripe is the pressure of fame and success: it’s the association of narcissism, self-pity and victimhood. Too many now consciously seek or contrive ways to get publicity or ways to find content or narratives for books about themselves. Those people with mental health issues (exacerbated or caused by their circumstances or by other people) dealing with drudgery and everyday pressures (like awful jobs and low pay) have to do so anonymously and are unable to articulate their problems.

Last edited 2 years ago by Mick Gee
Tony Buck
Tony Buck
2 years ago

Some of the comments below boil down to saying: “Why can’t these mentally-ill so-and-so’s be wonderful, resilient people like wonderful me ?”

The people who complain about too much attention being paid to mental illness and the mentally ill, are the nasty individuals who cause it – not least by having created a society in their own foul image.