Time for our conversation to move on

Oct 15 2012
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Mind Moves: I leave you now to allow other voices to be heard, writes Tony Bates

I have been thinking out loud in these columns for over eight years and now it seems like the right time to stop. I hope that this exploration of how our minds move has given you some insight and pleasure.

Conversations about our inner world are critical. They are always privileged and personal. Understanding what makes us tick, how difficulties arise and how healing happens is liberating. When we stretch ourselves to pay attention to what opens our heart and what shuts us down, we discover who we really are.

When I first began to write these columns, back in February 2004, I appreciated the opportunity but genuinely believed that I would not last beyond six months. I felt afraid. I didn’t think that I had enough in me to sustain a bi-weekly column that would be of interest. I consoled myself with the thought that I definitely had two readers – my mother and my brother – who would cheer me on regardless of what I wrote. But having accepted the invitation and settled in, I found there was no end to where we could go.

So much of the time our attention is drawn outwards to what is disturbing. Daily reports of economic upheavals, war, the pervasiveness of crime, and the fragility of our planet, keep us on the edge of our seats. We can feel helpless in the face of the sheer unpredictability of the world around us.

We need to take time to look inside ourselves, not to avoid these difficult realities, but to find our own quiet courage to face them. We can’t control the ways some things are – no matter how much we may regret having allowed them to happen – but we can choose how we respond. To find that confidence and clarity we need to go quiet and to learn to trust the still small voice within.

There has hardly been a week in the past eight years where I knew what I wanted to say. I thought of subscribing to some learned journal, or buying some cutting edge book, so that at the very least I would have some content worth sharing. No doubt there would have been some value to the reader in such information, but that wasn’t the approach that felt right for me. It lacked an honesty and immediacy that I wanted to bring to this column. So I learned to sit with uncertainty, to open myself up to what was most real and compelling in any given week.

Sometimes I wrote about experiences that challenged or delighted me personally; sometimes I responded to tragedies such as suicide that touched and frightened all of us. Looking back on my writing, I see that I have frequently revisited one or two themes: it is only by moving towards rather than away from what troubles us that we grow; it is only by finding a way to sit with the messiness of our pain that it changes; none of us can go it alone; people in distress need someone who can be real with them, someone who can engage with them and hold their dreams when they have lost faith in themselves.

We all need that “One Good Adult” in our lives who accepts us as we are and who believes in the person we can become. This person may be a relative, a doctor, a neighbour, a therapist, a teacher or a mentor. Someone who does not give up on us when all hope seems lost. And sometimes we ourselves play that role in the lives of others, even though we may not realise it at the time.

I am surprised and heartened by the way we have all grown up and can now speak about mental health in Ireland. I am old enough to remember a time when many of the articles we now read regularly in this supplement would never have seen the light of day.

We have come a long way in overcoming shame and stigma about experiences of mental and emotional distress. Our conversations are more widespread and inclusive than ever before. We need our politicians and service providers, people who have come through dark times and people who have been poorly served by our services – people who may feel hurt and angry – at the table, even if that feels uncomfortable.

What we are all looking for is a map that does justice to the complexity of this field we broadly call mental health. And then we need to stand together to protect and grow the resources required to meet the needs we are now facing.

I leave you now to allow other voices to be heard, to allow our collective conversation to move on and deepen. Keep talking. Don’t ever stop. These are the conversations that keep us alive.

Series concludes.

Tony Bates is founding director of Headstrong – the National Centre for Youth Mental Health ( headstrong.ie)