“Not for the likes of you”: How The Self-Improvement Industry is Failing People with Mental Ill Health

You are probably here because, among other reasons, you are, like me, ever so slightly obsessed by self-improvement books, articles, and videos. I devour self-improvement books, and I can usually pick up something from pretty much each one I read. But I also have a big problem. And with the self-improvement, how-to-succeed, be-a-successful-entrepreneur industry as a whole. A good half of what I read makes no sense to me. And that’s on a good day. On a bad day, it leaves me with a very simple message – success is not for you.

If I tell you that one in four people will share something with me this year, you will get an idea of what I mean. I have a mental health disability. Specifically, I have bipolar, though like many I have several co-morbid issues. Not all of the 1 in 4 who experience mental ill health every year will have a disability. A lot will, though. And that’s the thing. For a condition to constitute a disability in law, it has to have a long term impact on your day to day functioning.

Talking at the launch of the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute's report "Seeing Through The Fog"

Talking at the launch of the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute’s report “Seeing Through The Fog”

For those of us with mental health disabilities the impairments we experience are manifold, but a significant number of the areas where we struggle just so happen to be those areas where self-improvement books point us. And that’s a really big problem.

First, let me give some examples. A condition like autism can severely affect the ability to communicate. The up phase of bipolar can impair concentration and judgement while the down phase, like depression, can create an inertia that affects the ability to start tasks.

The problem should be becoming clear. These are problems “everybody has.” And they are things that get in most people’s way when they are trying to start a business or get an idea out of their head and into the world. And self-improvement books are really good at giving people ways to get around them. I am reading one now that begins by explaining the most essential step of all is developing a “do it now” mindset. Struggling with getting things done? Always distracted by what you have to do in the day ahead? Do it now!

Well yay, go you, slap me round the face and call me Tony I never thought of that one! The thing is, people I’ll call, for want of a better word (and I know it’s imperfect because only a small subset of conditions are neurological rather than, say, chemical) “neurotypical” use the same vocabulary as those of us who are disabled use. So it appears to everyone concerned that we have the same problems and, therefore, the same solutions.

on the panel for the same event

on the panel for the same event, at Barclays HQ in Canary Wharf

But we don’t. When someone who has depression talks about inertia, they don’t mean they’re “feeling tired”. They don’t mean they’d rather be sitting on the sofa. In fact, most people I know with depression would rather be out there changing the world. But they can’t. As in, they might as well be sitting with a 3 ton weight on their legs having every trace of caffeine that’s ever passed their lips slowly withdrawn from their physiological history. And when an autistic person says they can’t make a phone call, they don’t mean they “get nervous” or “would rather watch TV.” They mean if they pick up the receiver you might as well be screaming white noise at 120 decibels as talking their language.

So when we read the language we use of ourselves for our problems with the world, and see “handy hints” about how to overcome them, we take home one or more of the following messages

  • I am not trying hard enough. In fact the books, classes, videos are telling everyone that people with mental health disabilities aren’t trying hard enough.
  • Running your own business and being a success isn’t for the likes of you.

I used to challenge people regularly. I’d say “you do realise if you said that to someone with depression, it could be really damaging.” In fairness, once people had realised that a similar vocabulary can mask greatly differing realities (not everyone does – some will always prefer the “you’re not trying hard enough” explanation, or will unable to get their head round anything else even if they try), they would agree.

And then they’d say “but I wasn’t talking about people with depression.”

And that’s nice. They get it.

But, HANG ON A MINUTE. We’re back on message again. And that message is that being an entrepreneur, or a creative, or simply successful, isn’t for you if you have a mental health disability.

Which brings me full circle, because the book I was reading was something about “finding your big idea” and the rant it sent me off on made me realise that among other things to do with creativity and empowerment, my big idea is providing the tools for people who have those difficulties in life to achieve the things they dream of. By understanding exactly what the impairments and barriers they deal with are – and where I don’t understand directly, talking to people who do, so that as well as giving people the skills to be creative, which is mission number 1 here, I can give people the strategies to use that creativity fruitfully in the face of the obstacles they need to tackle.

Which means not telling you to “do it now” but being somewhat, er, more creative than that. The self-improvement industry is letting people down, and it’s letting organizations down. And that’s a challenge I want to pick up and run with.

Questions:

  • Do you run a self-improvement business? What do you do for people who have mental health difficulties?
  • Do you experience difficulties because of mental ill health that make the advice you read seem as though it doesn’t work for you? What problems in particular?

 

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3 comments

  1. Being mildly autistic (and by that I mean that I am the mildest of my family who are pretty much all on the spectrum) I find that the ones I have the most problem with are the ones to do with people –

    I find it incredibly hard to make friends. When I’m in a group of people, I either clam up and just listen, or I over share about anything and everything in an attempt to make myself sound interesting. So people either think I’m a sour, angry bitch (I have a very serious resting face) or they think I’m a bragging, arrogant, attention seeker.

    There is no middle ground for me. I only do the latter when I feel comfortable in the group (either the people, the place or the activity), the former happens most of the time when I am in a new situation.

    Texting or emailing? Not a problem? Need me to call you? Forget it – I get so anxious when the phone rings, I shake when I try to pick it up. Calling out is something I have to build myself up for.

    It took me six months longer than the rest of my course to be able to teach confidently – and having lost my job (and been unable to regain it) two years after qualifying, it will take me twice as long to regain that confidence. Going through a teachers job interview is going to be hell!

    All of this affects my ability to get and hold down a job. The self help books tell me to “fake it until I make it”, “Get out and meet people”, “look people in the eye” – the amount of anxiety these things cause me is enough for me to want to hide away for days…

    Like

  2. Reblogged this on How to bring up an Aspergers Child without going crazy… and commented:
    Being mildly autistic (and by that I mean that I am the mildest of my family who are pretty much all on the spectrum) I find that the ones I have the most problem with are the ones to do with people –

    I find it incredibly hard to make friends. When I’m in a group of people, I either clam up and just listen, or I over share about anything and everything in an attempt to make myself sound interesting. So people either think I’m a sour, angry bitch (I have a very serious resting face) or they think I’m a bragging, arrogant, attention seeker.

    There is no middle ground for me. I only do the latter when I feel comfortable in the group (either the people, the place or the activity), the former happens most of the time when I am in a new situation.

    Texting or emailing? Not a problem? Need me to call you? Forget it – I get so anxious when the phone rings, I shake when I try to pick it up. Calling out is something I have to build myself up for.

    It took me six months longer than the rest of my course to be able to teach confidently – and having lost my job (and been unable to regain it) two years after qualifying, it will take me twice as long to regain that confidence. Going through a teachers job interview is going to be hell!

    All of this affects my ability to get and hold down a job. The self help books tell me to “fake it until I make it”, “Get out and meet people”, “look people in the eye” – the amount of anxiety these things cause me is enough for me to want to hide away for days…

    Liked by 1 person

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