I am admittedly not a great fan of many contemporary musical artists. However, one exception is a British singer and songwriter by the name of James Morrison (not to be confused with the late Jimmy Morrison of the “Doors”). I first heard him sing one night when I was driving my car and listening to the radio. I thought at the time that his music and voice were alternately haunting and captivating.
Those who recognize his name will probably associate him with a duet he performed with Canadian singer Nelly Furtado entitled “Broken Strings”. However, the song that resonates with me most profoundly is one he recorded called “I Won’t Let You Go”.
The song is dramatic, and so too is the video. While I wouldn’t describe Morrison’s voice as melodious, he nevertheless has an earthiness and timbre the likes of which I haven’t heard since Van Morrison or Joe Cocker. However, what strikes a chord with me are the lyrics, one of which is as follows:
If your sky is falling
Just take my hand and hold it
You don’t have to be alone, alone yeah
I won’t let you go
A Crisis That Keeps Getting Worse
We are in the midst of a worsening mental health crisis. The situation was bad prior to the pandemic, but the events of the last three years have only increased the magnitude of this problem.
I see it every day in my work. I deal with students who confide in me that they have problems balancing work, family and employment commitments. I have coaching clients who suffer from anxiety, and fear they are failing themselves, their families, and their employers. I have friends who tell me they can no longer cope with increasing pressures, and can’t find balance in their home life or careers.
We spend millions on mental health counselling and support. Institutions are hiring more and more personnel, and devoting increasing time, money, energy and resources to counselling services. Despite this, the crisis keeps getting worse and worse. We are falling farther and farther behind, and more people seem to be “slipping through the cracks” of our over-burdened and ineffective health care system.
What’s Behind the Numbers
How did it get so bad? Was it always like this? Why is it suddenly more acute and widespread?
I make no claim to being a mental health expert, counsellor or researcher. However, I’ll hazard some guesses as to what may be behind a staggering increase in the number of instances of anxiety and mental health problems:
1) Technology: Technology is a two-edged sword. On one hand, it has greatly improved our lives and promoted better connectivity. That said, it has greatly accelerated the speed and pace of life. With faster processing time people are expected to work harder, respond more quickly, and produce better work.
About twenty years ago I attended a Labour Law seminar in Toronto. During the break I asked one of the speakers, a prominent labour lawyer, what had been the biggest change he had experienced in the past ten years in the legal system. I thought he would reference a particular piece of legislation or evolution in a certain area of arbitral justice. To my surprise he said “The fax machine”. When I asked for clarification, he told me that previously, his clients would expect him to review a document and give him an evaluation within ten days. Instead, he was now expected to turn around an assessment in a day or two. If we had been having that conversation today, I suspect the same counsel would tell me his clients expected an answer in a matter of hours.
2) Social Media: Like technology, social media is both a god-send and a curse. It has permitted people to connect with others who share similar interests or opinions. On the other hand, the medium has created unrealistic expectations in a forum where people are routinely compared, subject to constant scrutiny, and alternately critiqued, harassed or ridiculed.
One of the biggest problems with social media is the tendency of many to compare themselves unfavourably with the lives and achievements of bloggers and so-called “influencers”. The pressure to live up to an unattainable standard of excellence is so great that many become dispirited. That sense of failure is pervasive, and leads many to believe they are failures.
3) Heightened Social Awareness: Simply, people are more aware of mental health issues than before. The stigma that was once associated with mental health or anxiety has been lessened. We can, in part, attribute some of this to greater societal tolerance, but I suspect much of it has to do with a number of high-profile celebrities and personalities admitting to the mental health challenges they face.
4) Transparency: With greater social acceptance comes a desire on the part of those suffering from anxiety or mental health problems to be forthcoming about their concerns. That openness and candour did not exist thirty or forty years ago. If someone admitted to mental health distress, they faced a less tolerant and understanding audience than they do today.
5) Work and Family Pressures: Simply, people today are doing more, and are expected to accomplish more, than they ever did. Despite the advent of new technologies and measures such as telework the demands on people are enormous. Many are balancing raising a family while working outside the home and attending to the myriad of personal chores, commitments and obligations associated with being not just an employee, but also, a husband, wife, son or daughter. There is a limit to how much any one individual can reasonably achieve.
Some Practical Suggestions
Devoting more time and resources to mental health counselling and awareness will obviously help. However, that is a separate and more complex and far-reaching discussion. On a personal, individual level, what can people do to improve their own mental health?
1) Prioritize & Be Strategic: The first step in reducing stress and anxiety is in identifying what the sources of it are, and what is driving it. In every situation there are four basic ingredients: time, money, technology and process. None of these is infinite. Understanding the limitations, re-calibrating and re-evaluating, and learning that sometimes the best that can be achieved may fall far short of perfection, can be both comforting and liberating.
2) Turn Off and Dial Out: Social media has its place, but it can be both insidious and addictive. Turning it out, dialing out, or simply limiting the time you are on it, can be liberating.
3) De-compress: Every one of us needs an outlet. For some, it may lie in exercise or taking a leisurely walk. For others, it may be reading a book, or watching a favourite television show.
4) Give in order to Get: Being a support to others, and taking time to think of how to support those in need, can be both comforting and awakening.
5) The Value of Self-Talk: That little voice insie your head can sometimes be a source of inspiration as much as an annoyance. Having a conversation with that little voice, and talking through a situation or predicament out loud, can be tremendously insightful. Sometimes, hearing ourselves vocalize our thoughts or interpretation can help in clarifying our thoughts and direction.
A Final Thought….
Part of the reason I like and admire James Morrison so much is that he himself has battled more than a few demons and challenges throughout his life. He has seen poverty, alcoholism, childhood illness, parental divorce, and, maybe not surprisingly, his own mental health challenges. Throughout it all he has endured.
Above all, what resonates most poignantly about his song is the fact that connection is important. I believe a big part of mental health is a sense of loneliness and isolation that breeds desperation and despair. Many people feel they have no way out. The expectation is that those of us who see it, or know someone who is personally experiencing it, have an onus to reach out and support them as best we can. Sometimes that may be as simple as listening or offering a reassuring smile or word of kindness. Maybe it’s refraining from offering advice, or withholding criticism. Or, on the most basic of levels, maybe it is just being physically present.
Perhaps that’s what Morrison meant in the last stanza in his song:
And if you feel the fading of the light
And you’re too weak to carry on the fight
And all your friends that you care for have disappeared
I’ll be here not gone, forever holding on
If there’s love just feel it
And if there’s life will see it
This ain’t no time to be alone, alone yeah
I won’t let you go