I’ve been thinking an awful lot about what makes us happy or not.  Why are some people happy and others aren’t.  During my interview with The Green School, I was asked what struck me the most in my travels and I said it was how people seem happier in developing countries.  

I’ve been reading, writing, thinking, conversing and all sorts of other -ings about mental health.  
My own mental health has improved markedly.  For a number of reasons.  Including:
  • starting to understand and apply Brene Brown’s ideas about shame and shame resilience;
  • moving to a better place for me, a place where I have social interaction;
  • removing alcohol (mostly) from my life;
  • meditating and studying Buddhism;
  • seeking out support; 


But this post is not about me.  It’s about the idea that thinking positively can make us happy.  That has been said in many places.  And I do agree – to a point.  Those of us who have basically good mental health can do it.  It might take work, but it’s possible.  
Those of us who suffer from mental illness are another story.  Especially more severe mental illnesses.  People who are suffer from clinical depression, bi-polar disorder, schizophrenia, post traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, OCD, etc., have a much more difficult time turning their thinking around.  And, many people with these illnesses also have addictions to deal with as self-medication offers some relief.  
We all know people who need help pulling themselves out of depression and/or addiction.  People who have mental illnesses lack the impetus to help themselves and are caught in Catch 22 – one needs to help herself to heal, but the very illness she has prevents her from seeking help.  
The anniversary of my Dad’s death (May 31) is what brings this to mind.  Lately every day I’ve been reminded of him in small ways.  A Beatles’ song comes on the radio, singing lullabies to the girls, and so many little things in my daily life.  
Our culture attaches a stigma to all mental illnesses.  Every.  Single.  One.  This stigma is one thing that prevents people from getting help.  Also, we don’t know how to help.  How do we help people who often don’t know there is something wrong with them.  Or who are flattened by severe depression and/or anxiety.  My heart breaks when I read or hear stories of families dealing with mental illness.  People who are trying so hard to help their loved ones but can’t find or afford what they need.  Young people who cannot get control of their lives.  I’ve seen this first hand with my own brother.  People who never get the help they need and die young – like my father and many, many other.  The heartbreak of suicide.  A ten year old in my community committed suicide a few weeks ago.  
Every year one in five people in Canada experiences a mental health problem or illness.  The yearly cost to the health care system is $50 billion.  We currently underfund our mental health programmes – by quite a bit.  If you want more details of costs and solutions check out the Mental Health Commission of Canada’s Strategy.
We seem to be forever stuck in the raising awareness phase of making change.  With articles like the Toronto Star’s  special series on mental illness, blog posts, CAMH campaigns.  
I’m going to start with being compassionate.  Building connections with my community and students.  I’m going to think more about how to build empathy and compassion within the school system.  
I couldn’t help my Dad.  But maybe I can help someone else.  And I’m not going to place the blame on people suffering by saying if only they could think positively they would be happy.  I don’t know why that bothers me so much – I think it is the blaming aspect – I’ll ponder that some more.  I’ll have to write another post about how I think our culture creates some of our mental health issues – milders ones of course.
  • Nancy

    Erin- great post and i love the self reflection. We all battle the difference between telling ourselves and each other to “snap out of it” and “stiff upper lip” etc when we or another feels down OR the notion of indulging someone/ourselves our sadness. I want to have grit and be resilient/positive but there is so much involved in that. Some days/ months I am better at it than others
    Mental Illness has huge stigma and I believe a part of it is we believe as a society as a sign of weakness if we cant overcome anxiety, sadness/depression and if we all aren’t ‘living the dream’.
    I thank you often for turning me onto Brene Brown’s work. LOVE IT. I am trying to be vilnerable more and more. I am trying to face my ‘shame’.Scares me sometimes but it is good.
    Today is the anniversary of your Dad’s death. Sending you a squeeze. xx

  • Tracey

    I look forward to reading it too, Erin! Lots to think about here… really good.

  • Jen

    Looking forward to hearing your thoughts on that, Er!

  • Erin Little

    I need to explain the shame thing more – I will in a post. I’m basing it on Brene Brown’s work on shame. We all have shame triggers – one of my shame trigger is someone saying all the stuff about being responsible for our own happiness etc., etc. Although I agree with that I get triggered. I feel shame because I was depressed and did not do that. Therefore I feel “less than” or “not enough”. And yes, I need to recognize the trigger and the feeling, deal with it and move on. And I have been. But it’s still a trigger. And it’s hard work to find my triggers, get to the route of them. It’s hard work to not react to triggers also. That is a specific example of one of mine. One that many women share is the “perfect mom” syndrome. We feel less than when we mess up somehow. Yell at our kids, forget to bring cookies for a class event, not keep the house picture perfect while whipping up gourmet organic meals. Hearing of others doing this may trigger us – or reading that post by that g**&d&^m f&^^ing super mom who manages all that and writes witty blog posts every day. 🙂
    So I agree with you. I think I’m stuck in empathy right now. It’s fucking hard. And so many people are suffering. And it’s cultural – so we could maybe do something about it more generally. More on that later.

  • Sara

    It’s a great post Erin – lots to think about. I agree with you totally about the stigma and it leading to people not getting help. And I think I agree with you on the positive thinking part and how it can work for people who are just ‘down’. I suffer from depression, I’m medicated, and there has to be a few times a week where I think ‘what the hell do you have to be so sad about’ . I recognize that I have an illness but I find for me – that it does help to remind myself what a great life I do have.
    A content, fulfilling life.
    I’m rereading Jen’s comments and your responses etc about shame and feeling ‘less than’….i need to think on that one for a bit…

  • Jen

    Interesting, Erin. But I don’t really know what you mean. If you are talking about depression from mental illness then I agree that it is not that simple. But if you are talking about being down, like what I meant, then I see it from a different angle. It is not about “blame” or “shame” it is about “power”. When I say that I have made a conscious decision to focus on the positive it means I am in control, I decide. Of course, the pull of the blame and shame is still there but I try to turn away from it and focus on what I can control and what I do know about myself. The positive.
    When you say “yet another reason to feel “less than”” it is like that is what you are expecting, to feel that way. If I feel “less than” I need to look at why. I need to consider my reaction. Because anyone who is intentionally (or unintentionally) trying to make me feel that way is not someone I want in my life anyway. This is a hard thing to do but anything worth doing is hard.
    I was just at my daughter’s soccer game and there is a mom on the team who oozes a strong dislike for me. She is very negative with the girls and puts tons of pressure on her daughter. I am not fond of her and feel that it is mutual. After tonight’s game she made some comment to me which was obviously intended to make me feel small and bad about myself. And it worked. I was embarrassed and my initial reaction was to feel “less than”. But I spent some time thinking about it and I reminded myself – I don’t like or respect her anyway. Plus, I am not less than. I have just as much right to be me as she has to be her.
    So, I guess, my point is that these feelings are still there sometimes but the greatest gift you can give yourself is to remind yourself that you are not “less than” and you will start to believe it!

  • Erin Little

    Tracey I think it is the journey – unfortunately our culture offers it up as a destination.
    This probably should have been two posts – I have another one in me more related to what you’re talking about Jen.
    It’s just complicated, mental illness or no.
    I think I have a shame & an anger trigger with the positive thinking idea. The phrase “When I wake up in the morning I decide to be happy” was sprung on John and me just prior to someone trying to justify some pretty irresponsible and reprehensible (to most people) actions. Also, I feel like it points the finger of blame at me for being depressed. Sometimes there are external circumstances that lead to depression. And yes, it is up to us to overcome them, but in the meantime that whole concept is yet another reason to feel “less than”, if you know what I mean.

  • Jen

    I love your words, Tracey – Happiness is not the destination, it is the journey.
    I really think this could have been two separate posts. The quest for happiness as one and the stigma of mental illness as another.
    For years I felt “down”. Was I depressed? I don’t think so. I think I suffered from a lack of understanding of my own personal power. Once I realized that I (and I alone) decided how I felt/lived/loved etc I was at peace, content and even happy (mostly). As long as I looked externally for answers (or blame) I was not.
    Being accountable, taking responsibility and being empowered are the keys to a contended existence which allows you to truly appreciate the happy and accept the sorrow when it comes.
    Suffering from mental illness needs a different approach. It may not be possible to will yourself to feel differently if you have mental illness. But I do think that healthy individuals can actively make a shift once they discover they have the power to change things for themselves.

  • Tracey

    You know, I’ve been thinking about “happiness” a lot too, lately. And I’m thinking of it as the journey, not the destination one arrives at. And actually, I’m that “contentment” has got to be the goal – that “happiness” is just one of the places we can find ourselves at, but we may not stay there all the time.
    Whenever I feel hard done by, I try really hard to see the brighter side of things.. to feel grateful for what I have… and then I usually feel more content. Even if not completely happy.
    I would say I’m a pretty happy person though, all told. I don’t have reason to complain – not really. But I love to, anyway… 😉
    Mental health is a whole other ball of wax though, you’re right. I wish there was less stigma around it all – talking about it helps, I think. Good post, Erin!

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