Monday, 10 August 2015

Mental Health and Success in the News

Almost every week we read about the "unexpected benefits" of mental distress: people with depression are more accurate in their judgements, people with mania are more creative, people with anxiety are perfectionists. How should we interpret this literature, and is it a good thing to associate diagnostic labels to general patterns of behaviour that are viewed as positive?

Dianne Harris, Wellcome Images
This is a question I asked myself a lot recently, facing the reactions that my work on project PERFECT provokes in people with lived experience of mental distress, academics and the general public. PERFECT is about the potential benefits of imperfect cognitions (delusions, confabulations, distorted memories) and thus it often emphasises such benefits in the context of the behaviour of people with a psychiatric diagnosis.

One reaction is the Enthusiasts'. They believe it is wonderful to battle stigma by talking about people with mental distress in a more balanced way, highlighting the positives as well as acknowledging the negatives. The opposite reaction is the Sceptics'. They are wary of sweeping claims romanticising what by many is experienced as pain, distress, isolation, failure.

What should we think when we are told that anxiety makes us more successful performers and depression makes us more knowledgeable about ourselves? (Links are to popularised versions of these claims in the media, not to research articles in academic journals). I think we should first distinguish between the more and less severe form symptoms can take. A pinch of anxiety might make us more excited before an important performance, keeping us on edge and motivating us to prepare better. A depressive mood may be a powerful antidote to the overwhelming optimism we generally experience when we assess ourselves and our prospects. But crippling anxiety and major depressive episodes are no fun, and seem to deliver no benefits at all, rather than maybe develop resilience in the people who survive them.

This is a message we get clearly from the first-person accounts we publish in Imperfect Cognitions (see Emily Troscianko on anorexia): sadly, some situations have no silver-lining.

To explore these issues in the context of our interest in "striving and thriving" will help us map the relationship between mental health and success. This task will be partly empirical as it will require to collect information about how people behave and how their mental distress affects their behaviour, and partly conceptual as one will have to have a pretty good idea of what success entails in order to collect data that are relevant. Michael's last post helps with clarifying what the conceptual questions may be like: Is the successful person the one who finds meaning in what she does, or the one whose measurable achievements exceed expectations? Is there a notion of success that can capture both aspects?

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