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Philosophy and mental health: How we respond is a matter of choice

By Chan Lishan, Mental Health Advocate

Mental illness can rob an individual’s home or place of dwelling, study opportunities, friends and mind. However temporary it may be, mental illness can be disabling, ravaging everything a person owns and what is needed for a person to function effectively in society. At that point, life is truly difficult. It is then that the words of Seneca, the Roman Stoic philosopher, ring true, “Sometimes even to live is an act of courage.”

A person with mental illness has within, the resources and strength to cope with and to thrive inspite of his condition. It is not what happens to a person that counts as either a blessing or a disaster. It is how the person perceives and interprets what has happened, and then how that person responds to what has happened. As the philosopher Epictetus, said, “It's not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.” We have a choice about how to respond to what life throws at us.

Having nothing left does not mean that a person must be lacking. In fact, the experience of loss, material or otherwise, makes one realise what is truly essential in a life. And it fosters the recognition that it is not how much one has that makes him rich or poor, but how much he perceives he needs.

If he is content with what he has, he can be rich without having a lot. But if he feels that he needs much more, he is as a consequence poor. Being grateful for what we have can bring us happiness and the courage to continue.

Illness is a part of life, but it need not be central to our lives

It is natural to feel bad about one’s diagnosis and to ask, why me? Did I deserve to be ill? Why me and not others? This, however, is to misunderstand the nature of illness. For everyone gets ill at some point, whether mild, moderate or severe. If not early on in life, then later on.

Even if there were a person who never falls ill, such a person would still know someone who is or has been ill, and, may be indirectly affected by that person’s sickness. The point is that we are all affected by illness to some extent.

Illness is a natural phenomenon, as natural as birth, as natural as death. The sooner we grasp this idea, the quicker we will be able to accept the place of illness in our lives. While illness is a part of life, being diagnosed with illness does not mean that illness must take centre stage. Being diagnosed with illness does not mean that one cannot lead a meaningful or satisfying life.

Having said that, it is definitely possible to accept and embrace one’s condition. Recovery involves accepting and embracing one’s condition, and living life to the fullest in spite of one’s condition. It does not mean never having to take medications or the absence of symptoms.

In embracing one’s condition, we find that a mental health problem is an exceptional opportunity for us to discover the people who really care about us, the nature and character of a society faced with unfamiliar ground and about ourselves and how we respond to adversity.

It is character that counts

It is tempting to compare ourselves with others. When we see others possessing things that we do not have and when we see others achieving what we have not, we make ourselves out to be failures. But not only is this self-defeating and uncompassionate to the self, it neglects the very thing that we do have and can nurture.

According to Seneca, this thing that we possess, even if we have nothing else, is character. A person without a car, a house, or a promotion at work is not a nobody, if he has good character—possessing the virtues of doing and saying what is true, and of being just or fair. Ultimately, it is a certain greatness of spirit that all of us can nurture and develop in ourselves.

During a particularly difficult time, I didn’t have a place to stay, friends and family around me, and my scholarship was terminated. My peers were getting married and acquiring new homes and cars, and they were getting promotions at work with accompanying pay raises.

But I was eventually able to move on from my feelings of what I had lost and instead to focus on what I had gained through my experience, and to focus on how my experience had made me a more resilient and resourceful person, a person capable of making the most out of a difficult situation and, also, a more interesting person.

I currently work to enhance opportunities for persons with mental health issues… persons like me. It is immensely rewarding and fulfilling to be employed and to be of value to others.

I believe that the choices we make determine who we become. In the face of mental illness and its disabling consequences, we can choose to direct ourselves towards recovery and wellness, choose to practise self-compassion, as well as compassion for others, and choose to embrace our experience of mental illness. We can also choose to make our actions count for others.

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