Mental Illness and Communication
Having been both a student of and a teacher of language (teaching English, learning Mandarin and studying a smattering of Japanese (1) when I lived and traveled in Asia and spent much time within those communities in my native Vancouver, BC) then becoming and being a writer and now as I prepare myself to become more of a speaker in communicating the ideas, concepts and methods that make up Taming the Polar Bears for different audiences, I feel I have a strong understanding of the power of communication - and its difficulties.
I've long wanted to present my ideas and methods in live formats or settings but for a wide variety of reasons, factors and life circumstances, writing and communicating through blog form was what I could manage. Four years after the genesis of all that we now understand to be Taming the Polar Bears, I not only felt the time was right for finally working towards doing what I do "live", it was becoming necessary.
It is very different to communicate one's ideas to live audiences rather than writing as I have done for the blog (and the book form I've also long had in mind and have been slowly working towards (painfully slowly)) so as I've prepared to do webinars online and speak to "real world" live audiences (however small), this has forced a total rethink of how I communicate. I have to both "hear" differently and think more carefully how I'm going to be heard and received as this works between written communication and oral communication is quite different.
As a writer I've tried to communicate to as wide an audience as possible (while at the same time realizing the limitations of how many different types of audiences or individuals I could reach). I could take my time visualizing my possible readers and work out how I wanted to lay out a post, the word selection, flow of ideas and so on then edit them, rework them, etc. This kind of information is received passively and at the reader's leisure and discretion. I could put my ideas out there and leave it up to whomever came across them to either read them or not or how they received them. Though I could imagine my various audiences, there was no real direct connection between me the communicator and whomever the reader happened to be. I kind of had to put faith in the reader's desire and ability to gain and take away value. As well, time - the immediacy of the communication - was fluid; I could take my time creating, the audience could take their time reading, absorbing and creating their own value from it.
But live audiences work quite differently. The connection is much more direct. The communication is much more immediate. Verbalizing ideas and responses becomes a different process requiring different skills. Verbalizing ideas comes more naturally to me than most (in great part because of my decade and a half of teaching experience) but as I've been preparing the last several months to do both online and live lectures and workshops, I had to think more on how my potential audiences could communicate their experiences, difficulties and questions to me and then my on the spot responses.
As well, Taming the Polar Bears has ended up reaching audiences in lands and cultures I'd never imagined back when I started. This too I had to think through and try to prepare myself for.
Working through all this the past several months I began to think of the whole world of communication in a different light and in different ways. I began to pay more attention to both how I communicate and how followers of Taming the Polar Bears communicate (once I know someone is a reader and follower of the blog, I will always pay careful attention to how they are posting and communicating) in order to try to imagine how we might connect "live". As well, I began experimenting with recording webinar like presentations and analyzing my speaking and communication skills in order to hone them.
It was in the midst of all this new approach to thinking about the power of communication that an epiphany struck me this morning - the roles communication play in various forms of mental illness (a term those who are familiar with my approach know I don't like but for the sake of using it in a commonly understood manner for the time being, we'll let it stand).
Communication is extremely important in the human mind and social interaction - it is, after all, what sets human social structure, cooperation and achievement apart from any other species (which is not to say that other species do not use different types of communication in order to cooperate on some level - they absolutely do - just not on the same scale as the human species). Our thoughts are the brain's way of communicating with "us" and how "we" communicate with it (as weird as this sounds, this is in fact what goes on). Verbal and written communication is how we connect with and form bonds - or not - with others in order to exchange our ideas, thoughts, feelings, desires, needs and so on. How we are able to do that - or not - is going to have massive effects on the courses of our lives and all the numerous degrees of successful outcomes we achieve or not. Examining this whole big business called "life", I think we can see that powerful or persuasive or effective communicators tend to be more successful than those less proficient or confident in it.
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It has long been at least partially understood that what happens in or the circumstances of an individual's social life will be a factor in various cases of mental illness. Four years ago as I started all my research and study into all the major mental health disorders (depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia), I quickly identified it as not only a major factor, but as perhaps the central and defining factor.
In this light, I think we can imagine how communication thus becomes an important part to consider as part of the picture in any one case or your situation.
So for now, I'm going to put forward the importance of the roles communication play in mental illnesses.
Let's briefly examine how this might work.
One obvious way is how difficult it is for us to communicate to others what's going on when we are experiencing mental health difficulties and we need either understanding or help. I can tell you from enormous amounts of personal experience and from listening to or working with dozens of people over the years (more the former than the latter, I must add), that it is not only tremendously difficult, it is acutely and chronically frustrating (and I've written before how I feel frustration is a great underlying aspect of and contributor to short and long term moods, mental states and disorders).
For many people, they lack the words and very basis of language to understand what's going on in their own minds, let alone communicating that to someone else.
But perhaps even before the mental health problems begin, what if we haven't learned to or are unable to communicate our very basic needs? This again may start in our own minds but more so with those who we need to hear us. Imagine not being able to communicate feelings of love, affection and desire. Imagine not being able to communicate other basic emotions that may strike us - anger, irritation, frustration or annoyance, disappointment, shame or guilt, fear, anxiety or dread, sorrow, hurt or pain. The list is long.
The difficulty in conveying mental states, moods, emotions and so on and having them heard, acknowledged and understood may result in either silence or maybe worse, inappropriate outbursts that damage relationships. I strongly believe it's quite demonstrable that for many people being unable to communicate core needs or emotions could well be a major factor in starting the cycle of isolation and the pain of loneliness.
So I'm going to propose that various difficulties with basic communication alone is not only going to greatly affect the course of a case of, for example, depression, it's going to play a great role in creating it. For it is this great gulf of communication with not only ourselves as we try to work out what's going on in our minds but even more so with others that is going to lead to a great deal of the anger, frustration, sadness, hopelessness, confusion and so on then the isolation and loneliness that drives us down and down, lower and lower.
As our moods decline, we feel more isolated, as we feel more isolated we feel the pain of loneliness and thus our moods and mental states will become even worse, the worse we feel the less we even want to be around or talk to people, this furthers the isolation and the pain of loneliness (and thus isolation stress), the isolation contributes to worse feelings, inner pain, moods and mental states and we become ensnared in this downward cycle (to some degree of awareness or another).
Think now of how it feels when we "hit gold" and find someone we feel can hear us in an understanding way - that "aaaaaaaaaahhhhhh" feeling, that feeling of being heard and understood (however fleeting). To understand how powerful and potentially life altering this can be, there are considerable bodies of evidence of how this can positively affect one who is considering taking their life and change their course of thoughts and action.
But it's more than that, I believe. What if an inability to or difficulty with communicating with and thus forming connections with others is the very cause of the mental health disorder in the first place?
Let me briefly try state what I mean.
Very early in my studies, as I alluded to above, I identified social isolation and the resultant isolation stress and deep and damaging pain of loneliness as a major factor (the factor I'd argue, but not today) in both triggering the start of and the short and long term course of virtually any mental health disorder. I would also argue strongly and vehemently (though again, not today) that social isolation and isolation stress is one of the major factors that will define and alter the course of any given case of one who is on the autism spectrum or perhaps anyone who is simply "different" (there is a concept and term called neurodiversity which has somewhat recently emerged that I believe is very useful here).
Having looked into dozens of cases and/or heard their stories, I can now look back and see how communication difficulties or barriers (and there would be a very large scale along with many aspects and circumstances to the degree of this) would have absolutely played a significant role in both creating the social isolation and then greatly exacerbating it. There are, of course, many other important factors but if we look at communication - the lack or difficulty thereof - and imagine how this would impact socialization and thus create isolation, I think we can see how this greatly influences not only the individual's sense of self but also how they connect with the world around them and thus the very course of their given disorder (not the best term, I know, but for lack of a better one right now) and their very lives.
Now, I'm going to have to further establish the role isolation stress plays in mental health disorders or in the lives of those who are neurodivergent but for now I'd like to ask you to spend some time thinking through and imaging how communication difficulties would contribute to that.
There is obviously much more to get to on this and several fronts on which to further develop this idea but for today I'm just putting this out there for consideration and to plant some seeds in your mind. I'll add to this in time, but for now I'd like to ask:
What if it were something as simple (2) as improving communication skills or lines of communication that could greatly improve the chances of one overcoming a mental illness or to live a better, more satisfying life? Or even to greatly avoiding the onset of a mood disorder or poor mental state - long term or short term - in the first place?
Now as regular readers or followers know, I very strongly believe that our own thoughts and how we communicate with ourselves are huge elements in not only what creates moods or mental states but will greatly affect their course for better or worse (and we've discussed to a fairly great degree how we must work on this).
What I haven't discussed, however, or even really thought of enough until now, is how we communicate with each other (though I have touched on this a bit in the essay Let's Talk - to Whom?). This might include a complete lack of communication, difficulty in relaying our thoughts and feelings, the very language and words we use, the tones we use and so on. As I think back on some of the cases I've worked with or studied, I can see that communication difficulties were or could have been a significant facet of instigating and determining the manifestation of their mental health problems (and I realize I'm going to have to lay this argument out much more clearly than I am doing here today).
Communication is of course a two way street. This means both the listener and the speaker have to improve - ultimately there has to be attempts from both sides to meet in middle. This means that family or friends dealing with someone with a mental health disorder have to become better listeners and those with the disorder have to become better at communicating. This is a process - and possibly an onerous one for many - but I believe it is a necessary part of the overall strategies we must learn and employ to either defeat or learn to better live with any mental health condition.
This is or can be as you all know, or are beginning to realize, enormously difficult and frustrating. We're not going to solve that right now but again, I just want to put this idea here and - hehe - communicate it to you for future reference (and I'll work on expanding on these ideas in the future).
(1) While I don't want to give the impression that I became fluent in either, I became greatly more conversant (and was able to read and write to some degree) in Mandarin than Japanese. But though I retained no ability at all in Japanese, the learning process I went through was important in the long run.
(2) Simple of course does not mean easy.
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