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"He was bad with his nerves, you know."
I've always been slightly suspicious of the tendency to try to stick a diagnostic label that's the size of the launch pad at Cape Canaveral on every variant of human behaviour. We humans are a diverse bunch, and history offers proof of the depth and freakish ingenuity of Homo Sapiens as a species. It also demonstrates our endless capacity for self-delusion, particularly when it comes to the workings of our own psyche. The goal to define and categorise these *wonderful* divergences is laudable, but sometimes putting someone in a box means that you throw them away.
However, gingerly referring to nerves means that is not one of those occasions and here’s why this phrase really grinds my gears.
It's a euphemism, it's mealy mouthed, it's mimsy, it's the words chosen by the slightly drunk relative in the kitchen at a family party who's not had the chance to talk about something *this big* in front of the children. They are lost for a way to describe what they are experiencing, particularly when they’ve not been challenged by these things themselves, so they fall back on the old tropes and platitudes to get their point across. This is complicated by the fact that, thanks to the miracle of family politics, when they do tell people, there’ll always be someone who thinks that they’re making it up.
It's a phrase that's generally accompanied by the "quotes" sign being made in the air. The person making the gesture isn't doing it out of malice (though let's be honest, sometimes they are) but the conversation around mental health problems is so emotionally stunted that collectively, we have to pretend that it isn't happening and that it's some vague spiritual malaise that no-one is willing to admit to or acknowledge. Okay, I agree it's for the best to avoid telling 5-year-olds that "Uncle Gordon thinks he's a duck and he had to go the hospital because he kept wanking next to the duck pond" as that falls under the textbook definition of Too. Much. Information. But you can say "Uncle Gordon had a poorly mind and needed to see a doctor to make him better again. He was very sad and worried and needed time to get better."
It's the phrase that you hear elderly relatives use when they're trying to be sensitive about the fact that someone has (usually temporarily) lost their mind. It doesn't address why the person is ill. It doesn't address that the person was lonely, or traumatised, or overworked, or underappreciated. It doesn't consider "shit life syndrome" where the cumulative pressures of being an adult in the modern world that could drive a banana around the bend. Because we glue on our best game face and hope that no-one notices the cracks.
Your workmates use it in group situations when they don't want to give away too much. Most people want to be kind but don’t have the vocabulary to talk about the subject in a measured or sensible way, cross-cut with the attitude of some that put forward that being mentally unwell is due to a lack of moral fortitude. Some companies support the taking of Mental Health days, but for most, this falls under the auspices of “things that we would much rather not talk about, lest they become awkward.” The net result is that people have “migraines” and nebulous “stomach ailments” to buy themselves some time to care for and protect their soul. Continuous Improvement and the mantra of perpetual growth doesn’t leave a lot of room for people to take care of themselves.
After all, mental health problems are Health problems, as real as a broken leg or Tuberculosis and we need to move society forward so that it's treated exactly that way. That said, I used to know a chap who did neurological research at University College London who said that our knowledge of the human brain and its workings was so immature that often it felt like he spent his time poking rat brains with a stick and seeing what twitched. Let’s face facts, we don’t know a lot, but we can improve how we react with and treat people to help them back to health, through a little honesty and empathy.
*may contain sarcasm