Mental Health in a Time of Crisis: An Interview with Your Mind Matters

In some earlier blog posts I have written about the rising concern of the mental health crisis in modern societies. In particular, I argued that the malaise and discontent we experience in our culture can be partially attributed to the individualism and consumerism that is promoted and admired in the West.

On a broad level, our sense ‘common purpose’ has fractured, as we have become more polarized and divided by our politics and individual differences. The social glue that once held us together has begun to fade.

Modern societies are facing a set of interwoven crises which Professor John Vervaeke says are symptoms of our loss of meaning and connection to the world, and to others. We’ve seen the following mental health issues scattered through the news headlines over the past few years. [1]

These existing issues of course will be compounded by the current COVID-19 pandemic.

So, how can we cope during this difficult time? What insights can we learn from ancient wisdom and modern psychology?

I asked Vanessa from the mental health-based organization Your Mind Matters for some clarity. Part 1 of the interview is recorded below.  

 1. Tell me a bit about your organization and how you got started.

Your Mind Matters is a non-profit organization and mental health platform for mental health awareness, education and support. We provide information and resources to educate people about mental illness and provide peer support to individuals struggling, particularly youth.

I started it when I was in my undergrad at the University of Toronto and I was really struggling with mental illness and my own mental health problems and saw that so many others around me were as well. I then decided to start a student group on campus to raise awareness, inform students about mental illness and the prevalence for youth especially in a university setting, and provide resources on campus relating to mental health.

In doing this, I realized how important this work is and decided to practice mental health advocacy beyond university, so I turned Your Mind Matters from a student mental health awareness club into a non-profit organization.

It goes without saying, but my own struggles with mental illness fueled my passion for mental health advocacy and pushed me to start this organization.

Although mental illness sometimes knocks me down and pushes me around, it inspires me to make a change and keep pushing forward despite it all. It also keeps me going knowing how many people out there are struggling, and my own experiences have made me realize how hard it is and I never want people to feel that way, so I’ve decided to do what I can to help others.


2. In my personal experience, a lot of internal tension comes when you act in a way that does not align with your core values. What does the concept of authenticity mean for you, and how can we live a life that is congruent with our deepest belief?

Authenticity is so important to me and something I value very deeply on a personal level. To me, authenticity is stripping yourself down and taking off the mask and all those external layers and getting to the root and true essence of who you are, unapologetically and without shame or fear.

Think of it like an onion: you peel the layers one at a time and it makes you cry. But, when you strip all those layers and get to the root of who you are, you’ll find our who you are at its core and hopefully learn to accept and love that person underneath all the layers.

Authenticity and to be fully yourself is the most vulnerable form of bravery, but to me it’s the only option. It means knowing who you are and what you stand for and not straying from it or compromising yourself or your values. It’s having a clear sense of what your values are and upholding them however and whenever you can. To live a life that is congruent with our deepest belief, we first need to dig deep and learn about ourselves.

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We need to fully understand what these beliefs are and why we have them. We need to discover our intentions and our deeply rooted core beliefs about ourselves, others and the world. And then we need to decide how we’re going to live a life that is congruent with our beliefs. It means doing things for yourself and not fearing judgment or ridicule and letting go of shame and guilt. Some people will not agree with us or like us for who we are, but that is okay. It is better to be who we are than to transform into someone we’re not just to satisfy someone else.

This means getting to know yourself and liking the person you are and then it’s being that person as much as you possibly can. It requires not really caring what anyone else thinks because your foundation is so strong and your values are so clear and concrete that no one can shake the core of who you are.

Authenticity is doing things because we’re intrinsically motivated, not extrinsically motivated. It’s not having ulterior motives except being who we are and doing what we believe in on a fundamental level. It’s saying, “this is me, take it or leave it” and not caring if they “leave it” because you know that it’s their loss and that decision is more about them than it’s about you.

Being authentic is so hard these days and not easy to come across, but being an authentic person is such a valuable and coveted feat. There’s something so empowering, so powerful and so attractive about someone who knows who they are and sticks to it at all costs. We do this by learning to love ourselves and the person we see in the mirror and then being as much of that person as we can no matter what.

To use another metaphor: it’s like a tree with roots that run so deep and that are extensively intricate and no matter how hard you try and shake the tree, it will not move. It is so strongly rooted and firmly planted in the ground that no external factors can shake it. That’s authenticity to me.

Having such a strong foundation that no one and nothing can shake. When you have roots that strong, it’s hard to be inauthentic. I think it’s important that we start appreciating authenticity as being the strength that it is, because it’s not seen often but it is needed so badly to create a world of more honesty, compassion and deeply rooted and upheld values.

There’s something so empowering, so powerful and so attractive about someone who knows who they are and sticks to it at all costs. We do this by learning to love ourselves and the person we see in the mirror and then being as much of that person as we can no matter what.


3. Social media has us constantly comparing ourselves to others. It is easy to fall into the trap of judging our lives and our accomplishments in comparison with our peers. Do you have any advice on how we can be more accepting and kinder to ourselves?

As a disclaimer, I’d like to state that I should not be the authority on this topic because I absolutely am one to fall into the trap of comparison via social media. However, it’s something I am trying to unlearn. Self-compassion and acceptance are two big focal points of most of my therapy sessions and have probably become the overarching theme in most of them.

One thing I learned and have implemented that’s pretty life changing is talking to myself the same way I’d talk to a friend. It’s not easy, but if you think of it I’m pretty sure you’ve said some pretty mean things to yourself that you’d almost never say to a friend or someone you love. So then the question is, why do we say these things to ourselves? We need to start holding ourselves up to the same standard and treating ourselves with the same love and respect as we treat those we love.

I also think learning to forgive ourselves is an important part of this equation. We tend to be really hard on ourselves and are our own worst critics. It’s important to remind ourselves that we’re doing the best we can with what we have and know and that’s enough. We’re bound to make mistakes and be imperfect. What matters is that we learn from them and move on. Let yourself let go of the idea that you are inferior or less-than for whatever made up reason you’ve concocted in your head.

Photo by Cristian Dina on Pexels.com

Also, a note about social media: it’s all fake and nothing is at is seems. Trust me, I used to post nicely filtered pictures of me travelling and eating and acting all happy and like I was “living my best life” (a myth that I will not get into right now because then I’d never stop talking) when really on the inside I was hurting so deeply. It’s important to note that what’s on social media doesn’t actually represent people’s real lives at all and it’s harmful to think it does. The grass isn’t greener on the other side, it’s a filter. And one last thing while we’re on this topic: comparison is the thief of joy. Don’t do it.

You can compare yourself today to who you were yesterday and that’s it. Comparing yourself not only to someone you’re not but someone you’re only seeing little curated and filtered snippets of through a screen is a recipe for unhappiness and low self-esteem. Look in the mirror often and learn to like what you see (and I’m not just talking about looks). Look inward. That’s where you find love and acceptance and self-compassion. Don’t expect anyone else to do this work for you.

I also think learning to forgive ourselves is an important part of this equation. We tend to be really hard on ourselves and are our own worst critics. It’s important to remind ourselves that we’re doing the best we can with what we have and know and that’s enough.


[1] Of note, I won’t get into the statistics here, but I will link to the relevant studies if your interested that show these trends.

The Road Ahead

Before moving on I want to briefly summarize the argument that has been put forth in the first three blog posts. I will then discuss what the next portion of this blog will focus on.

The key aspects of the argument are as follows:

  • There has been a secularization and decline in traditional frameworks for morality and meaning in the West throughout the past few centuries.
  • This can be partially attributed to the role technology and science has had in explaining the world around us. No longer are we convinced that a storm or hurricane was caused by a higher power or ‘the gods’ seeking retribution for our actions. We now turn to scientific explanations to explain the natural word.
  • The decline of these traditional frameworks for meaning in the West, such as religion, has had a twofold impact:
    • On the level of the individual it has resulted in a sort of existential angst. We have lost a comprehensive framework that provided us truth and purpose. To quote Charles Taylor again, “People no longer have a sense of a higher purpose, of something worth dying for.” Consequently, it is up for us to make sense of the world. This can either be daunting or liberating.
    • On the community level, we have lost the moral underpinning, the ‘glue’ that has held society together for so long. Furthermore, there has been a shift in the 20th and 21st century from community to individual values. This has allowed us to exercise freedom and self-expression, but this can often get taken too far when it leads into narcissism and the disregard for the wellbeing of others.
  • What has resulted from this is the rise of moral relativism and post modernism. An attack on any sort of objective values or truth that can be derived through rational methods such as science or reasoning. This is evident in ‘identity politics’, polarization and degree of confirmation bias we now see in our society.[1]

Within the next ten articles or so I want to discuss practical philosophical approaches to the meaning crisis , a term used by John Vervaeke to describe the issues we face as a modern society.

I will focus on three approaches that have personally resonated with me. By no means will this be a comprehensive or systematic framework. Nonetheless, I will demonstrate what evidence we have from modern science to validate these ideas. These philosophies/ideas include:

  1. Stoicism
  2. Buddhism and Mindfulness
  3. Nietzsche’s idea of Amor Fati and the Eternal Reoccurrence

Again my focus going forward is to search for what practical wisdom can be taken from these three philosophical approaches. In addition, I want to point out how philosophy is not a discipline that focuses on abstract thinking or concepts that have no relevance to our day to day lives. Philosophy can be seen as a tool we can use to navigate through life. Philosophy is a way of life.

Hope you enjoyed this week’s article!

AA


[1] I recognize that this is a complex issue, and warrants a more thorough analysis. I will consider coming back to this topic and providing my critique of post modernism and relativism in later blog posts.

Walking the Tightrope

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Before moving onto solutions to address the issues of modernity posed in my previous post, I want to further reflect on the impact that the decline of traditional frameworks for meaning and morality has had in our society. The secularization of the West has freed us from the necessity to conform to dominant belief systems. It has liberated us from dogmatic thinking.

We are now free to pursue our own interests, create our own meaning and purpose in our lives. This emancipation, the opportunity to openly pursue self-expression and strive towards authenticity is one of the greatest achievements of modernity. To quote existentialist philosopher Jean Paul Sartre, “Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does.” Unlike previous eras, such as the medieval period, your lot in life is no longer predetermined. That is, you are not born in a rigid class system destined to be a king, aristocrat or peasant. You can strive to be true to your authentic self.

Yet this newfound freedom can be deeply unsettling for some. It is far easier to live a life of mindless conformity or follow a road map that has been already set out for you. Few of us concern our selves with exercising this new found liberty. We quickly resort to our old ways of conforming to the masses. In the mid 20th century, before the advent of computers or social media, writer Aldous Huxley concisely summarized this modern sentiment “Give me television and hamburgers, but don’t bother me with the responsibilities of liberty.”  

Why have we so easily dismissed this great opportunity to exercise our freedom, to search for truth and to be connected to something transcendent – something greater than ourselves. The answer is simple. Our society excels in providing us with two things, distraction and pleasure. We can indulge on almost anything through the tap of a button on our smart phones. Likewise, we spend many hours each week scrolling though our social media pages comparing ourselves to others rather than focusing on improving ourselves. In essence, all these technologies and platforms are like a springboard for our egos.

For those who are up for the task of living authentically, and living with purpose, the path forward is one that requires walking the tight rope between self-expression and narcissism. It requires finding the middle way between community and individual values.

In the Malaise of Modernity Charles Taylor reflects upon this idea further. He claims that the “the worry has been repeatedly expressed that the individual lost something important along with the larger social and cosmic horizons of action. Some have written of this as the loss of a heroic dimension to life.  People no longer have a sense of a higher purpose, of something worth dying for.” Meaning and purpose is found at the middle of these extremes.

The implications of these ideas and way forward I think is two-fold:

  1.  We can pursue self-expression and self-interest, but we must not allow this to turn into a selfish egotism. Furthermore, we can pursue our goals only insofar that these are true to ourselves. We must resist the temptation to boast and brag.
  2. We have to find the right balance between the needs of the individual and community. We can not abandon our efforts to better the lives of others or our communities. In fact, most of our problems we face now from climate change, terrorism and large-scale migrations all require us to cooperate with the global community to find viable solutions.

The solution is a balancing act between two extremes. Going forward – walk the tightrope.

Hope you enjoyed this week’s article, feel free to comment, provide feedback or discuss these issues.

AA