I’d just been to a talk and was trying to decide whether to stay for drinks. I noticed a missed call from a withheld number. Tried ringing the likely caller, but no answer. I decided to go home and wait for them to call again. Later the call came: my dad had died; it was peaceful. I booked a flight and sent emails into work. Next morning, I bought a black tie. I clearly remember arriving at the funeral, walking down the aisle, smiling at cousins and others I hadn’t seen in some time. They looked back with concern, uncertainty. I remembered that this was a funeral. The closed coffin was sitting a little in front me. There’s dad. He’s gone. I could feel the sadness slowly build. The minister described conversations he’d had with dad in the weeks leading up to his death. Dad had requested that we sing his favourite hymn. I felt my face twitching. Floods of tears came in waves. An auntie I hadn’t seen for ages came over to me; we hugged and cried and then said simultaneously, word-for-word, “It’s really good to see you again.” Those few minutes of silence and empathy comforted most.
We each differ in terms of how much stress or trauma we can endure before we fall to pieces. If you are fortunate enough to have close friends you trust or you are wealthy, then you can endure more. Even though individuals cope to varying degrees, it does not follow that research should focus on individual characteristics. Too many studies investigate genes, brain chemicals, and personality traits and too few examine social stressors and support. Although twin studies model how much variance is “explained” by the environment, they typically do not uncover exactly what it is in the environment that matters. The very word “environment” obscures what is going on; your family are in there as well as how close you are to a park. There could be more brain imaging studies investigating the neural correlates of, say, solidarity, or receiving adequate welfare support, rather than obsessing over mindfulness training and psychoactive pills. However, it is unclear how brain studies would help improve people’s lives. Allowing that brains and genes play an important role in distress does not imply an individualistic approach. Nor does it imply that psychiatry – or indeed professional psychology – supply the most effective ways to help people.
(Thanks to the wonderful user-led group for mental health survivors and supporters, Recovery in the Bin, for inspiring this post.)