The pointlessness of life sometimes smacks us all in the face.
All it takes is forgetting your headphones on a one-hour bus trip and boom: existential crisis.
Of course, there’s a difference between being clinically depressed, and thinking: “should I really be getting Uber Eats every night?”, but the point is, we all go through periods where we feel bleak.
Two of the big messages we hear from mental health organisations in response to this are “you’re not alone” and “these feelings are normal.”
The idea being? Reduce the stigma around opening up about mental health, and more people will speak up and get help, ultimately saving lives.
However, a recent experience New York based comedian and co-host of Oops The Podcast Francis Ellis recently shared shows the “you’re not alone” message is not the only one that can help pull someone out of a spiralling moment.
Ellis shared how, while he was not “clinically depressed” but “marinating in bleakness” earlier this year (not enjoying things he usually enjoys and generally feeling like shit), his girlfriend snapped him out of it with a simple phrase.
“You’re too fucking smart to let these thoughts win.”
“In this moment we sat at the counter, she grabbed my hands, and she said to me, ‘you are too fucking smart to lose to these thoughts. You’re too smart to let whatever’s happening in your brain beat you.'”
Ellis likened it to a softer version of Michael Jordan pretending someone said something in a press conference “to get angry and psyched up” and be able to play better.
“I had never heard that before, from a psychologist or otherwise,” Ellis said of the experience on a later date, speaking to DMARGE. “It really struck a chord with me and played upon my competitive instincts, allowing me to conceptualise my feelings as a sporting event, in a way.”
“It turned my negative thoughts into just another opponent, and made me think I’ve got a very good chance of beating them, and that I should stop giving them more credit than they are due.”
He also said (during the podcast) this proved in stark contrast to an email from his dad. Though he said talking to his dad and sharing his feelings felt good, there was a certain comment in the email that didn’t do much for him.
“What I hear a lot and what I heard from my dad was ‘everyone is feeling this way right now, you’re not alone, you’re not unusual.’ That doesn’t really help me.”
“Knowing that other people are [going through the same] may help a lot of people, and I’m sure it does… but I’m looking more for tangible ways – tactics – for how to pull myself out of feeling like shit.”
“So what my girlfriend said is the most helpful thing I’ve heard.”
“Hopefully that will strike a chord out there with some people.”
Speaking to DMARGE, Ellis added, “I definitely think there is room for more nuanced messaging in the mental health space. Unfortunately it’s just not a case of one size fits all. I don’t know that what my girlfriend said to me would work for everyone. But I also know that the message of ‘a lot of people have these thoughts… you’re not alone’ didn’t work for me at all.”
“It was never comforting to know that what I was feeling wasn’t some aberration. I feel for the many people who have had similar dark times, but it didn’t exactly comfort me or provide any source of attack plan.”
Associate Prof Samuel Harvey, Chief Psychiatrist at Black Dog Institute, told DMARGE when we put Ellis’ situation to him: “We need to change the way we talk about mental health in our society.”
“I think for many years there was so much stigma that we needed to get everyone talking about mental health and we needed to normalise the experience of people suffering from things like depression and anxiety because they are so common.”
“I think there is a risk we have shifted the pendulum too far in that discussion and that now there is so much talk about depression and anxiety that there’s a risk you almost feel unusual if you’re not suffering from it. The danger of this is it chips away our resilience. One of the things we know is that people are able to cope with things and that part of our role is to help people find their strength and utilise that to help them cope.”
Ellis told DMARGE something similar: “We went from nobody talking about [mental health] at all to EVERYBODY talking about it, and now it almost feels like people are tuning it out because the rhetoric is everywhere. From not sharing enough to oversharing? I hate to say that, and I don’t believe it myself, but I think a lot of people feel that way. ‘Everyone’s depressed, get over it’ and that sort of thing.”
“I think the way to combat this is to encourage people to have REAL conversations about it. Don’t just write a blog and send it out, or get on stage and joke around about it. Talk to your friends about it in earnest conversations. See a therapist. When people provide real details and talk about what their day is like, instead of just saying broadly ‘I’m depressed,’ that can help too.”
Prof Harvey told DMARGE the “you’re too smart to let these thoughts win” approach is “not the answer for everyone and different people have different strengths that they call upon in different situations.”
That said, “encouraging people to focus on their strengths as they recover from these things can be a really useful therapeutic strategy.”
Dr Lars Madsen, a forensic and clinical Psychologist, who is also the Lead clinical advisor for the mental health charity The Mindshift Foundation, told DMARGE, “when you’re close to someone, and you think about their strengths and weaknesses, your judgement can be ok.”
Dr Madsen told DMARGE statements like this – ones that challenge a friend or loved one’s negative thinking – are essentially “cognitive therapy.”
“It helps people understand what they’re thinking.”
“The core principle across interventions is the same; what it looks like (or what works) for each individual is different.”
“The message I give to clients is: ‘figure out what works best for you, based on your history.'”
As for Ellis? Dr Madsen said – in his opinion – the “you’re too smart” intervention could feel “callous” for some people, but what’s happened in Ellis’ case is great.
“He’s had interaction with someone who has assisted him to reframe his experience with his thoughts.”
In terms of advice, Prof Harvey, for his part, said we should treat depression and anxiety as any other disorder – “it’s just part of our narrative that if you know someone suffering from a serious physical health problem like cancer you talk about them battling it and help them line up the best medical help for them to do that – it [should be] exactly the same with depression and anxiety.”
“I think the most important message to get out there for depression is that we’ve got really good treatments for these conditions now, so the idea of just empathising with somebody and not being able to actively do something about it is not the case anymore.”
“If you know someone who’s having trouble with depression and anxiety link them up with a good quality health [provider] because these are treatable conditions and it’s so frustrating when as a clinician I see people who have delayed getting good quality help for years, sometimes decades, and then we can simply treat these problems once we’ve got them in front of us.”
“Sadly the mental health system is still a bit complicated for people to negotiate so sometimes they have to try at a couple of different places or with a couple of different people, but the simple message is these things are treatable and you just find the right treatment for you.”
Another important message worth keeping in mind is breaking out of your typical “introvert” mould (if you’re an introvert), when you’re stuck in a bad mental place, can pay dividends.
Mark Mathews, a big wave surfer who had to put his career on ice after snapping every ligament in (and severing the artery of) his knee during a catastrophic injury in the 2015/2016 season, spoke to DMARGE about this last week.
“I’m hyper introverted, so I often avoid social situations and being alone is usually better for me. But in those times [when I’m in a dark place], having people around and having enough social interaction is kind of a must, just in that it breaks up your thinking pattern because you’re constantly dwelling – but if you have to talk to people [that stops you].”
Other key factors, according to Mathews, “that are radically overlooked when it comes to mental health, are diet and exercise.”
“Stop eating junk food and drinking alcohol. Go out into nature and do some exercise… What consists of a healthy diet is very misunderstood in this country and probably causing a lot of psychological distress because people are metabolically sick.”
Humour can also be a way of dealing with dark, sad thoughts. As Ellis told DMARGE: “something as simple as turning on The Office on a night when you’re feeling really down, or alone, can serve as a gentle cushion and maybe take the venom out of your own brain, just a bit.”