Content warning – the following post includes a discussion of suicide and self-harm.
As the US and Canada have been marking Mental Health Awareness month, and the UK begins to mark Mental Health Awareness week, there have been many tweets and posts and articles of various kinds. This post is about a specific kind of Mental Health Awareness post. You know the ones. The posts that tell us mental health awareness is about taking care of ourselves. To be kind to ourselves. To make some time for us. Take a bath. Meditate. Smell the roses.
Self-care is fine. Self-care is good. But this is not what Mental Health Awareness should be about. Mental illnesses are a serious reality for many people, the level of ignorance surrounding these topics is massive, and the avoidance of certain issues is engrained because of the stigma that surrounds them.
That stigma regarding mental illness, and mental health, harms people. It harms people by making them feel that the pain they go through is shameful. It harms people because they feel they cannot ask for the help and support that they need. It harms people because they left with the feeling that what they are going through is a judgement on who they are as a person, rather than an issue that can be dealt with through treatment and support.
This stigma needs to end, and it will not end by making lists of our top-ten most relaxing bubble-bath ideas.
This is not an article about self-care, it is not a post designed to make you feel better, about yourself, or anything else. This is a post about the hard conversations that need to be had around mental health.
We need to talk about suicide.
A recent death by suicide that attracted attention was the death of an ER doctor who had been treating coronavirus cases. That death was one of many. Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the US. Worldwide, around 800,000 people lose their lives to suicide every year. There are also many people who live day-to-day with suicidal ideation, not necessarily making a plan to end their lives, but rather living with thoughts that they might.
Talking about suicide can be hard. What is an appropriate way to discuss suicide? When and how do you raise this issue with someone you are concerned about? How do we walk a line between avoiding the topic entirely, and constantly, intrusively, monitoring people we are concerned about? There are guides out there for how to do this, and more of us should familiarise ourselves with them.
We need to talk about self-harm.
Self-harm is a common symptom of distress. It is also a symptom that is heavily stigmatised. People who self-harm are too often labelled “attention seekers,” rather than people suffering distress. Survivors with visible scars commonly have to deal with other people’s reactions to and discomfort with those scars. One mental health advocate has said that this is like her own body being considered a trigger.
Here, too, there are guides for how to talk about self-harm. Most importantly, sufferers have said that being spoken to and about with respect and empathy is key.
Suicide and self-harm are just two topics from a long list of things that need more attention in discussions of mental health awareness. There are other important subjects that should be tackled this month, like how mental health services are failing people of colour.
Mental Health Awareness Month is not a time for putting soothing quotes about self-care over a photo of the beach at sunset. It’s a time for hard conversations about serious issues.
For Mental Health Awareness month, and Mental Health Awareness week, don’t take a relaxing bath, or take up flower arranging, or go for a calming walk. Instead, commit to reading articles and listening to podcasts by disability and mental health advocates that tackle difficult subjects.
Mental health awareness isn’t easy, but it can save lives. So make yourself aware.
Finding the vladimirka
One of my favourite things to do in the world is to go to Moscow’s Tretyakov Gallery. I go every time I am in Moscow, and every time I go, I visit the same paintings. The paintings that I love, I love for themselves, but sometimes also for the stories attached to them.
One such story is the creation of Isaak Levitan’s famous Vladimirka.
In the summer of 1892, so the story goes, Levitan and his wife were walking in the Russian countryside, wondering at the natural beauty around them. They came across a peaceful road, and walked along it, taking no particular note of it. It took a little time for the significance of the road to dawn upon them. This road that they had so casually happened across was the infamous Vladimirka, the road along which those sentenced to penal servitude would walk at the start of their long, hard journey to the labor camps in Siberia.
Siberian labor camps might now be more popularly associated with the Soviet regime, but the Russian Empire had been sending convicts East since the seventeenth century. In 1865, Nikolai Leskov published his novella Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, which ends with the main character, Katerina, making that journey as part of a train of convicts. The long walk to Siberia, and the road along which convicts walked, was already well known by the time Levitan and his wife came across it.
Their realisation entirely rewrote the scene for them, and would inform Levitan’s eventual painting of the road. What initially seemed to be a picturesque corner of sleepy rural Russia transformed in the instance of their revelation into something much darker.
Isaak Levitan, Vladimirka, 1892. A landscape painting of an unpaved road stretching to the horizon through flat, green, countryside, with a cloudy sky above. Image source: Wiki Commons
I have always loved this story, in part because of its acknowledgement of how the violence of Imperial Russia was woven into the fabric of the land, but also for its metaphorical richness.
Just because you can see a thing does not mean that you understand its significance.
I was reminded of Levitan and his road because of recent articles and comments about reactions to the pandemic. There has been much judgement of other people’s actions, reactions, and inactions. Is it better to talk about the situation, or avoid the topic? To continue a normal schedule, or reject normality as past its time? Is it better, is it possible, is it right, to rest, or to work? What does it mean when someone reacts differently to this situation than we do?
There are many things that could be said on this topic. But I think Levitan and his road have something to tell us here.
Right now, we are all Isaak Levitan. We all experience other people’s reactions to the present situation as artefacts external to ourselves, that we come across by chance as we follow our own path. Our initial reading of those reactions may then be like that of Levitan’s initial reaction, of seeing the Vladimirka, but not immediately grasping what he had found.
Levitan was able to go beyond his initial impression of the road, and commit to a painting that both expresses the natural beauty of the scene and strives to convey the melancholy of that place of violence.
Levitan saw a beautiful landscape, and came to grasp that it was also a scene of horror. As we come across other people’s reactions to the pandemic, we come across reactions that might be totally other to our way of processing the situation, reactions that might immediately strike us as meaning one specific thing. Yet how they may seem to us from the outside is not necessarily how they feel to the person experiencing them. Sometimes what looks like a beautiful scene can, from another perspective, be revealed as a convict road.
Can we accept that others’ lives may not be what we initially perceive them to be? Can we acknowledge that we all begin as the Levitan calmly walking in the country, and aim to become the Levitan who created the Vladimirka?
Historian of science, medicine, and global connections in the early modern world