Empowerment, Not Punishment

Some lessons must be learnt over and over again. Repetition is the only way to make them stick. One lesson I have had to learn many times is that when it comes to mental illness, punishment doesn’t work. Beating yourself up just makes everything worse. The key to improving your mental health is empowerment: doing whatever you can to enable yourself to take action.

I have been through a difficult patch over the past month or two. My depression has worsened, just as the anxiety is better than it has been for ages. My reflex was to beat myself up for feeling worse — to blame myself, criticise everything I do and insult every aspect of my being. Needless to say, this did not lead to a speedy recovery! Instead, it left me feeling more depressed, unmotivated and unable to help myself.

My mood improved only after I stopped berating myself for being depressed. I bought an SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) lamp because I believe that lack of sunlight was having a negative impact on my mood. There was a blip when I received the lamp and it didn’t work, but I was sent a replacement 4 (hellish) days later and I certainly feel better. Using the lamp improves my mood a little — it is not a miracle cure — so that I can do more to help myself.

Empowerment often involves a chain of actions: using an SAD lamp empowers me to walk the dogs, which empowers me to cook a healthy dinner, which empowers me to write a little more… Of course, the chain of empowerment isn’t always clearly delineated. Sometimes an action fails to empower you to do more; sometimes an action empowers you to do a lot more. The point is to do what you can, rather than getting caught up in disappointment and self-hatred when you can’t do everything you want.

I think this is a lesson many people need to learn, including politicians. When you punish people who are suffering, you diminish them further. When you reduce benefits for the poorest people in society, you remove their means of improving their lives. When you are struggling to afford food and heating, you are in no position to take a course, find work experience or even plan your future. Your focus is on the wretchedness of your current situation. On the other hand, when you empower people they gain confidence and can begin to change their lives.

Sorry to be cynical, but I don’t think the government is going to help empower you anytime soon. In my experience, receiving benefits causes a lot of stress and puts vulnerable people under pressure. Likewise, not everyone can rely on friends and family to empower them — I’m lucky enough to get a lot of support from my parents and close friends, but there is always a limit to how much other people can help you when they have their own lives to lead. However, you can empower yourself. You can focus on doing what you can, when you can.

Sometimes, empowering yourself is about little actions that seem insignificant: taking a shower or reading a few pages of a self-help book. You might feel frustrated that these actions are so small, but it’s vital that you take action when you can. When you keep chipping away at your depression, anxiety or any other health problem, you will make progress. It might be slow progress, but that doesn’t matter because it’s not a race! One day, you will notice that you have improved immensely in a particular area — you will make a phone call without panicking or wake up with enough energy to go for a walk. Progress probably won’t be lunear, but it will happen as long as you keep empowering yourself.