Acceptance and Mental Health – Free Ebook

One of the great contributing factors to mental
illness is the idea that we should at all

costs and at all times be well. We suffer
far more than we should because of how long

it can take many of us until we allow ourselves
to fall properly and usefully ill.

In a crisis, our chances of getting better
rely to a significant extent on having the

right relationship to our illness; an attitude
which is relatively unfrightened by our distress,

which isn’t overly in love with the idea
of seeming at all times ‘normal’, which

can allow us to be deranged for a while in
order one day to reach a more authentic kind

of sanity.

It will help us immensely in this quest if
the images of mental illness we can draw on

at this time do not narrowly imply that our
ailment is merely a freakish and pitiable

possibility, if we can appeal to images that
tease out the universal and dignified themes

of our state, so that we do not – on top of
everything else – have to fear and hate ourselves

for being unwell. We stand to heal a great
deal faster if there are fewer associations

like those created by Goya (of madness as
the seventh circle of hell) and more of men

and women a little like you and me, sitting
on the sofa, able to combine our inner wretchedness

with other, more temperate and attractive
qualities – so that we remain every bit human,

despite our terrifying convulsions, absences
of mind, catastrophic forebodings and sense

of despair.

The best philosophical background against
which to wrestle with mental unwellness would

be one that conceived of the human animal
as intrinsically rather than accidentally

flawed, a philosophy that would resolutely
reject the notion that we could ever be perfect

and would instead welcome our griefs and our
errors, our stumbles and our follies as no

less a part of us than our triumphs and our
intelligence. It is Japan’s Zen Buddhism

that has historically perhaps best put forward
such notions, with its bold declaration that

life itself is suffering, and its veneration
in the visual arts – and by extension in its

psychology – of what is imperfect and un-glossy:
rainy autumn evenings, sadness, moss covered

roofs, stained wooden panels, tears and, most
famously, misshapen and irregular pieces of

Against such a background, it becomes a great

deal easier for us to accept ourselves in
our unwell state. We feel less guilty that

we are not at work and are not playing up
to the roles demanded of us by responsible

others. We can be less defensive and frightened,
more inclined to seek out proper care – and

more likely to recover properly in time.

With a philosophy of acceptance in mind, we
can recognise that whatever the particularities

of our crisis (which will naturally need to
be investigated in due course), our pains

fit into a broad picture of a crisis-prone
human condition. No one is spared. No life

can escape significant troubles. Everything
is imperfect. We don’t have to know the

details of someone’s life to be able to
guess at the scale of the difficulties they

too will have encountered. We have all been
born to inadequate parents, our desires will

always exceed reality, we will all make some
appalling errors, we will hurt those we love

and anger those with power over us, we will
be anxious and confused, woeful and lost.

We should accept both that we are profoundly
unwell – and that our ailments are entirely


Japanese philosophy has another lesson for
us at this point: we will probably one day

be fixed but there are likely to be substantial
and ineradicable marks. And yet, these marks

can be worn with pride and self-respect. According
to Zen Buddhism’s tradition of kintsugi,

an accidentally smashed bowl isn’t to be
thrown away in embarrassment, its pieces can

be carefully collected and reassembled with
glue inflected with gold. The traces of repair

are made obvious, celebrated and cherished,
as if to suggest to us – as we bring a cup

to our lips – that we do not have to give
up on ourselves or be ashamed of our own brokenness.

We can confront our illness without panic
or fear, with a quiet intelligent sadness

perhaps best captured by the word melancholy.
If we were searching for a patron saint of

such a melancholy relationship to mental difficulty,
we could do worse than pick the Welsh artist

Gwen John, who combined a brilliant career
as a painter with moments of harrowing mental

collapse – but remained all the while fundamentally
on the side of life. From her self-portrait,

John implies that she would understand whatever
we might be going through, her eyes hint that

she has been there too, that she could be
our guide to the underworld of our minds – and

that, however much we might hate ourselves
at this moment, we deserve gentleness, patience

and respect as we feel our way towards repair.

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