Advancements in technology and medicine means that, when it comes to your physical health, there’s never been a better time to be alive. People living in the West don’t have to give a second thought to ailments that could easily have killed our ancestors. What may have spelled doom for our relatives in the past can often now be easily sorted by a trip to the pharmacy. Whilst we may still have our work cut out for us when it comes to the likes of cancer, AIDs, and dementia, it’s fair to say that we generally have it pretty cushy, certainly when you look back across history.
Our physical health may be better than ever, but what about our mental health? The truth is that mental health doesn’t get as much attention as physical ailments, and yet it’s far more common than you may realise. In the UK alone, one in four adults will suffer from some kind of mental health related issue. 26% of adults in the US suffer with mental health issues and over 800,000 people take their own lives every year. Suicide is the 15th leading cause of death and more people take their own lives than the combined total of people who are murdered, die in traffic accidents, or are killed by animals. Despite the overwhelming evidence that mental health is affecting large numbers of the population, it still seems more taboo to talk about mental ailments than physical ones.
It’s certainly true that mental health has come a long way over the years, but the awkward fact remains that it is far easier to empathise with someone with a broken leg than someone suffering from an ailment like depression or OCD. We constantly see adverts advising us to quit smoking or eat well, but where are the adverts encouraging us to seek help when our minds are troubled? We may still have a ways to go before mental health is tackled as well as our physical health but, as Matt Haig’s Reason’s to Stay Alive proves, we’re going in the right direction.
Reasons to Stay Alive could be described as a self help book, but I think it is a lot more than that. Unlike self help books which promise to help you quit smoking or lose weight within a month, Reasons to Stay Alive makes no such bold claims (wisely so), and instead offers insight into mental illness and the author’s own experience suffering from anxiety and depression.
A quick Google search of the book will show that it has become a huge hit since its publication in 2015. The book features praise from many high profile names such as Stephen Fry who says:“Matt Haig is astounding.” Joanna Lumley who calls it “A small masterpiece that might even save lives,” and Rev. Richard Coles writes “Brilliant…it should be on prescription.” Opening the first page reveals more praise from people on Twitter such as @sarabran who says of the book “Thanks @matthaig1 for this beauty of a book. A book I wish I’d had at 15, 29, 40, and next week.”
Despite the books critical acclaim, I have to admit that I was a little apprehensive about this book. One of the reasons mental health issues can be difficult to treat is that they differ from person to person. One’s own experience with OCD or anxiety may be quite different to another’s. Having had personal experience with these issues, I was on guard and concerned that this book might promise something it couldn’t deliver on to people who may be vulnerable or desperate. I am pleased to report that I found Haig’s book to be both very helpful and inspiring.
The book begins with Haig recalling the day that, for seemingly no apparent reason, he became very depressed and anxious whilst on holiday with his girlfriend in the late 90’s. After several days of acute anxiety and depression, Matt took a short walk to a nearby cliff edge and spent the next few moments considering suicide. Fortunately, Matt didn’t go through with his plans and he returned to England where he spent the next few years recovering with the help of his loved ones.
The book then follows Matt’s recovery, its highs and its lows, and offers advice and insights that may help other people who are going through a similar journey through hell. Perhaps the books main message is that, as hopeless as things may seem, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. This is highlighted by Matt via short conversations he has with his current self and the past Matt who felt life would never get better. In my opinion, hope is the books most important message.
Not only do I feel that this book is very helpful to those struggling with mental illness, but I also think it is a must read for anyone who knows someone with such a disorder. Reason’s to Stay Alive doesn’t shy away from the fact that being around someone struggling with such issues can be tough. It sounds harsh to say but it’s hard to be caring and patient with someone who appears to be physically fine. The pain of mental illness can often cause the sufferer to become unpleasant to be around and it can be hard for those around them to remain sympathetic when they can’t see what’s wrong. I’d highly recommend this book to anyone who has a loved one suffering from mental illness. There’s even an entire chapter called: “How to be there for someone with depression or anxiety.”
A scary side effect of mental illness is that it often causes physical symptoms. Anxiety often causes feeling of needing the toilet, feeling sick, excessive sweating, or shakiness. Depression can include side effects such as insomnia, over or under eating, lack of sex drive, and even warped perceptions of time. These symptoms can often feel alarming and add extra stress to those dealing with already stressful illnesses like depression. Haig’s book highlights these side effects, many of which he suffered from, and assures readers that, whilst unpleasant, they are harmless and common.
Mental illnesses can often leave the sufferer feeling isolated and utterly alone, even when you’re in a room full of people who love you. Sufferers may also feel as though their illness will dominate the rest of their lives and that it will prevent them from achieving any of the goals they may have had. Haig’s book shows this is not the case by presenting the reader with a long list of notable names who have dealt with mental illness and still lead full lives. With names like like Buzz Aldrin, Winston Churchill, Zach Braff, Halle Berry, Stephen Fry, Anna Hathaway, Stephen King, Abraham Lincoln, Mozart, Teddy Roosevelt, Emma Thompson, you’re in good company and far from alone.
For some, like Matt, mental health issues can be a long term thing. Towards the end of his book, Matt acknowledges that he hasn’t “cured” his mental health, but has learned to manage them in a way that means he can live a fulfilling and happy life. Some days may be better than others, but Matt has figured out a list of things which help him, and perhaps you, as well as a list of things to avoid.
Since his horrible experience whilst on holiday, Matt has gone on to get married, have children, publish several books (unrelated to mental health issues), and published this excellent book that I think could really be of use to those going through rough times. At the least I think it will offer a glimmer of hope to those dealing with mental illness and, as Joanna Lumley said, I think it really could save lives.