Film and Book Reviews

Societal pressures, overwork are making us sick

BookHappy Never After: why the happiness fairytale is driving us mad (and how I flipped the script), by Jill Stark (Scribe, 2018)

By Marjorie Lewis-Jones

February 7 2019Jill Stark was rebuilding herself from a major struggle with depression and anxiety when she noticed something disturbing. Even people who were not living with clinical depression or anxiety were worn out, battling unmanageable stress and finding it almost impossible to switch off.

Striving for success or satisfaction was making them listless, their brains were wired, and they felt “trapped in a constant feedback loop of digital distraction and white noise … Everything was just too damn fast and impossibly loud”.

Stark’s breakdown happened precisely when she was meant to be living the dream. Her first book, High Sobriety, was a bestseller and she was a senior journalist. She had her own home, a partner and some great friends and family. “I was the living embodiment of #firstworldproblems. What right did I have to be so maudlin?”

Her guilt at her privilege only served to exacerbate her distress as the “happiness fairytale” came crashing down.

Debilitating panic attacks and painful bouts of depression led her to find a psychotherapist. From there, she turned her investigative eye on why mental health issues have been rising in developed nations: What was making so many people sick?

An estimated 350 million people in the world suffer depression – and many more seem to be flying just under the radar, barely managing to stave it off.

Why, Stark asks, and how can we flip the script?

Through extensive research, cultural analysis and intimate self-reflection Stark seeks to answer these questions, and the result is a compelling memoir and informative treatise.

Drawing on her own lifelong battles with mental health problems, she illuminates the wider societal pressures and market forces that can spark depression and anxiety and exacerbate them – ultimately making them harder to fix.

Stark cites former Google product manager Tristan Harris who says the technology sector is engaged in a “race to the bottom of the brainstem”, where products are developed to drive behaviour that fuels anxiety, loneliness and fear.

In short: our dependence on technological devices is being driven by powerful corporations whose profit margins depend on keeping us plugged in.

Workplace wellness programs and a “McMindfulness” approach can also obscure the deeper issues that are causing us stress. Many of us work too much to be well, says psychotherapist Zoe Krupka: “Nothing can alleviate the stress of overwork except … working less.”

It is saddening (though not surprising) to hear that people who disclose their mental health problems at work are often risking their careers. Beyond Blue CEO Georgie Harman advises against it: “Don’t [disclose], because you might not get that promotion, you might get the sack, there might be repercussions.”

Stark says rising mental health problems among younger Australians can be attributed to “a daily barrage of bad news and crushing social comparison”, the ease of cyber-bullying, the increasing casualisation and instability of the workforce, the brokenness of the planet, and property-related tax incentives that have benefited older people but diminished young people’s chances of owning a home.

The decline of religion, volunteering, and youth groups such as the Scouts and Girl Guides has also cut young people off from their local communities and left them struggling to find purpose.

In 2016, she says, youth suicide rates were at their highest level in a decade.

More positively, Stark applauds the introduction of programs that are teaching Australian children to be emotionally literate and resilient. These programs are helping our children to critique the destructive mythologies that surround them, to understand and express their feelings, and to act in ways that preserve their mental health and assist them to bounce back.

Stark is also grateful for a haven she found in Melbourne’s CBD – a spiritual space called Mingary – that welcomes unbelievers like herself. Mingary is a room in St Michael’s Uniting Church in Collins Street, which was conceived by Dr Francis McNab to offer a sense of healing and tranquillity for all who visit – and especially for those who’ve suffered trauma or tragedy.

Her gratitude got me thinking about other ways churches and Christians might help foster people’s mental health (see table, below).

If you or someone you know is struggling with depression or anxiety seek help from Beyond Blue, Lifeline or your GP.

Marjorie Lewis-Jones is the Arts Editor of the South Sydney Herald, and an award-winning writer and poet. She runs the literary blog www.abiggerbrighterworld.

How Christians can help promote mental health

  • Read Happy Never After to augment your understanding of the issues.
  • Assure people who are suffering that they’re not alone and don’t need to manage their distress single-handedly, and that you will respect their privacy.
  • Ask people what practical things will help: A cooked meal? Dropping their kids off at school? Doing a load of washing? Taking them out for a walk or a coffee? Subsidising their treatment? If people can’t articulate what they need, do something nice for them anyway. It will show you care, which matters a lot.
  • Encourage people to work with their hands and to stay in touch with nature as these activities have been shown to be therapeutic. Even if people don’t “join” churches as they used to, they may appreciate being involved in your knitting and quilting circles, community gardens, arts groups, men’s sheds or bushwalking groups.
  • Avoid pressuring people to say they’ve recovered or improved. Regaining mental health can be a long haul and a person may not “get better”
    even if you have prayed for their wellbeing – so be sensitive and stay the distance.
  • Model an alternative way of being that prioritises love and service over self-centred acquisitiveness.
  • Lobby for better workplace conditions to ensure people have time to connect with the people and things that matter.
  • Fight for governments to allocate resources to mental health programs to ensure people can access effective treatment. Good therapy is expensive. As Stark says, she is extremely lucky to have been able to afford it.