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THE ART OF COPING

CW: This article discusses topics of mental illness and suicide which could be distressing to some readers



Western culture and socialisation


Western culture is notoriously individualistic, valuing independence, autonomy, and personal choice above the wellbeing of the group. We strive so hard for personal achievement, that we put little effort into supporting ‘our group’. In fact, many of us have lost that feeling of belonging. The family unit has disintegrated, one-parent families abound and where there are still two-parent families, both parents often have to go out to work to pay the bills. This leaves children with surrogate families made up of childminders and numerous surrogate siblings, so they don’t receive the individualised attention they need. This affects socialisation. We learn to socialise by observing and imitating. This is also how we learn self-regulation and gender roles. We are now seeing masses of young people who are struggling with their identities and emotional dysregulation, which is leaving them with overwhelming mental health issues (anxiety, depression, eating disorders, substance use, psychosis, personality disorders, and ultimately suicidal ideations) because they are not equipped with skills to cope with life’s challenges. What is worse, it is becoming evident in pre-schools. As a parent, this is very worrying.


What treatments are available to help?


Often we don't reach out for help until we are at crisis point. When we do reach out, we may be looking for a quick fix. What we have to remember is that it has taken a lifetime to reach this crisis point, and it will not be fixed in the blink of an eye. But it had a beginning, and it will have an end. We are not alone on the journey.


We may initially be offered medication to help ‘keep our head above water’, but this will not solve the issues. It is only the starting point. The main thing that will help is psychological therapy, often provided in the form of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) . This teaches us to analyse our thought processes and replace negative thinking with positive alternatives. A typical skill that is taught is “catch, challenge and change”. It is all about listening to our self-talk, challenging it, and changing the stories we tell ourselves.


Some of us have learnt to cope by suppressing our emotions and locking away painful memories and we find it very difficult to articulate our thoughts and feelings. Arts therapies can help us access these memories and express them without using words.



Arts Therapies


Music is one of the oldest forms of spiritual medicine used by shamanic healers. Modern music therapy is not so much about what you can get from music, but rather what you can release through music. It connects you to your inner musicality, starting with the rhythm of your breathing and your heartbeat. It uses silence to allow us to explore the healing space of peace and quiet. However, sometimes when we stop talking, we don’t hear silence. We hear voices criticising us or telling us what to do. Sound and melody turn off the thinking mind, reducing intrusive thoughts that cause anxiety. However, making music is even more powerful, as it switches off certain genes that signal stress alerts in the body. What’s more, studies have found that when musicians improvise jazz, the areas of the brain dedicated to self-monitoring and self-criticism are turned off. In contrast, the part of the brain we use for self-reflection, self-expression and sharing our personal stories becomes activated. By telling our personal story through music instead of words, we create a spiritual connection, which increases our feeling of belonging.


Another option is dramatherapy. This is a fabulous way to boost self-esteem and confidence. It is not all about becoming a professional actor. The therapy sessions can take various forms that promote expression by movement or story-telling, and that deal with mental health issues in an indirect way, leading to surprising psychological, emotional and social changes. For me personally, it helped me learn about assertiveness and self-empowerment, which is all about taking control and responsibility for your own life choices. To do that you need to know who you are and what your core values are, and what you want to achieve in life. Another way to access your truth, is by drawing, painting or sculpting in art therapy.


Life Skills




All these forms of self-expression are priceless for our mental health, and we should make sure they remain available in schools and make them freely available for adults so that the next generations are equipped with healthy ways to explore and express their feelings and emotions. We also have to model healthy coping strategies and life skills (self-awareness, emotional intelligence, self-belief, resilience, motivation, positivity, mindfulness, stress management) to help others overcome life’s inevitable challenges. We need to work towards a kinder society, one that celebrates individuals’ strengths whilst accepting that we all have weaknesses. We have to recognise that each and every individual has their own life path to follow and support each other to find it and use it for the common good.

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