Bezukhova tweets at @bezukhova.
Louise Mensch just doesn’t seem to get it. In fact, she seems determined not to get it.
This isn’t the first time there’s been righteous anger on Twitter over something awful that she has tweeted or blogged – from promoting plus size clothing on her blog only with the caveat that all fat women should be actively seeking to lose weight to calling all slim women sexless, she’s run the gamut of body-shaming. She also frequently uses her platform to bang on about how women should prioritise “pleasing their man” above their own health, happiness, dreams and ambitions. She told one of the co-founders of this very blog that her eating disorder made her “not normal”. I don’t have time to summarise all the awful things she’s said here – but suffice to say, she has a long track record of saying very harmful things.
Now, full disclosure: I am currently taking SSRIs. I have combined anxiety and depression disorder, and I show some symptoms of mild PTSD. There is, of course, a whole range of mental health problems out there, and no two sufferers will be exactly alike. Though I will try to speak generally, what I have to say will be largely informed by my own personal experiences.
Medical anti-depressants don’t work for everyone and they don’t work for every type of depression or mental illness – in fact, they can sometimes make the situation worse, exacerbating the existing issues, creating new ones (such as suicidal ideation or anxiety), and the side effects can be absolutely horrible, especially when starting a new course. They are definitely not a cure-all and they don’t magically make people happy or permanently fix the underlying cause of the problem. Some people with some conditions – such as bipolar disorder – are likely to be dependent on medical intervention for the rest of their lives. Others take anti-depressants as a medium-term solution in conjunction with other therapies. I am not advocating that everyone with even the slightest tendency to depression should be medicated up to the eyeballs immediately. Far from it. I would love to not be dependent on sertraline and to not have to worry about side effects and possible long-term dependency.
Similarly, I don’t want to suggest that exercise has no benefits for people suffering from depression and other mental health problems – it certainly can be very effective. For some people, suffering from some types of depression, some types of exercise can sometimes be a great help – but to claim any more than that is unhelpful, damaging rubbish. For example, I swim. There was a period of my life when I was very, very depressed and I swam very, very often. Swimming regularly really did help with my depression – but it didn’t cure it, or even really make me feel good. It just helped me, well, keep my head above the water. Looking back, I really wish I had had anti-depressants or some form of talking therapy then, as I think they would have been far more effective. Now, I don’t swim as often. I have a full-time job now, and don’t always have the time, energy, or spoons.
There was also a long period of time, after the swimming-heavy one, when I was similarly depressed and also suffering anxiety and panic attacks. I tried to go swimming and go to the gym often, having been told my partner, friends, university lecturers, and a GP I went to see feeling suicidal that all I had to do was exercise. Exercise was the best cure, they said. So I tried to force myself. I felt absolutely dire if I couldn’t face it, and sank deeper into depression, full of self-loathing because I couldn’t do the one thing that would supposedly magically cure me. I forced myself to stay in the gym when being there was triggering anxiety, panic, and self-loathing. There is absolutely no question that at that time, being told exercise was the best anti-depressant did me serious damage. Whatever Ms Mensch would have you believe. As one former uni classmate of mine put it, “the exercise made me feel better, but the pills made me able to exercise.” He simply did not feel able to exercise regularly until he had already had medical help. In addition to this, telling a patient who has not only depression but an eating disorder (which can often involve obsessive over-exercising) or a personality disorder or learning disability which can be characterised by obsessive behaviour that exercise will cure their depression could also be catastrophic. Over-exercising can be fatal, and it is very easy to push vulnerable people with obsessive tendencies over the edge.
As I said, I do still swim now – but I don’t force myself if I really can’t face it, and I leave immediately if I start to have a panic attack. I also sometimes have to cut short my swim because of my various chronic back, hip, shoulder, and leg pains. Much like my mental health problems, these can sometimes be helped and sometimes exacerbated by physical exercise. Another thing that Mensch firmly asserted in her tweets was that “anyone can do exercise”. In her blog, she admits that some people with physical disabilities cannot, but makes light of this, brushing it off and saying it should have been obvious that she wasn’t talking about those people.
Well, actually, yes, it was obvious that once more, disabled people were being ignored, erased, and silenced. Unsurprisingly, an extremely high proportion of people with physical disabilities also have mental health problems. Struggling with tasks others find easy or you once found easy, watching your condition progressively get worse, becoming disabled suddenly through a traumatic accident, being housebound, losing your sense of independence and self-sufficiency, and of course the horrible and disgusting attitudes to disabled people in our society and the appalling way the current government is cutting back benefits and promoting the image of disabled people as scroungers – in the face of all this, is it surprising that many people who really cannot exercise as easily as Mensch can struggle with serious depression? A twitter pal of mine, @halfabear, who is paraplegic and has EDS, and also lives with a variety of mental health problems, said: “Getting out of bed is a nightmare many days, moving is agony. YEAH, EXERCISE, WOO!”, and went on to describe how she used to be involved in competitive swimming at a high level, and how utterly heartbreaking it was to no longer be able to swim. “Was aiming for nationals with a masters swimming club 2 yrs ago. I had to stop after a length caused such immense pain I nearly needed a lifeguard. Now I don’t leave the house. It’s not exactly like I’m unaware of exercise. My dream was nationals with the masters. Now it’s being able to walk to the fucking car or sit up for a while.” @halfabear is now unable to leave her house as she suffers from agoraphobia, partly brought on by the horrible ableist attitudes and abuse she’s faced. For her, comments like “anyone can exercise” and “exercise is the best anti-depressant” are a cruel reminder of the life she used to have, and the limitations caused by her disabilities. It is simply not true that she could tackle her mental health problems through exercise.
Another lovely twitter pal of mine, @chloemiriam, also has to deal with the intersection of physical and mental health problems. She has been struggling with serious depression for a long time, and also has ME. She told me that she was made extremely ill by graded exercise therapy several years ago. Again, Louise’s suggestion that exercise never causes any harm is proven wrong. ME is often extremely misunderstood as a condition, and I know from the experience of having a loved one suffer from ME and depression just how devastating the intersection of the two conditions can be, and just how difficult it can be for someone with ME to muster up the energy for even moderate exercise – and just how harmful it can be for them to overexert themselves.
There is also a distinctly blinkered view evident in Mensch’s piece when it comes to accessibility to exercise. Obviously there are many different forms of exercise available, but not all of them suit everyone. Many forms of exercise are prohibitively expensive for a lot of people, especially if their mental health problems restrict their ability to work and earn money. Other people struggle to leave the house, which drastically reduces the options available to them, and their living conditions and the space available and needs of other people in their housing may restrict them even further. I am incredibly lucky to live right across the road from a really good leisure centre, so even if I have a massive panic attack due to over-crowding, the behaviour of other swimmers, or even a propos of nothing immediately obvious, I know I really don’t have to face an arduous journey home. If I had to cross town to get to the pool, I would not be able to swim so often. Mensch also claims anyone can find half an hour five times a week to exercise. This is just not true. Many people, due to working hours, commutes, childcare, responsibilities as a carer, or other commitments just do not have the time. Especially considering that people with depression often need more sleep than other people (and may not always get it – severe sleep problems and horrible nightmares are a really debilitating aspect of my MH issues, and often leave me exhausted and drained in the daytime).
There is also something really fundamentally patronising about telling people exercise will cure their depression in general, and about Mensch’s tweets and blog specifically. Mensch even goes so far as to close her blog post with the jauntily obnoxious line “Go for a jog, not a glass of wine,” as if people who use alcohol to numb the pain really aren’t aware that it’s not a long-term solution, and telling them in a sing-song voice with a sickly sweet smile (OK I may be imagining those last two) will help. The link between exercise and mental health is pretty well known at this point – it’s something that gets mentioned a lot, particularly to people with depression. It’s also not really a massive revelation to anyone who does exercise regularly and is fully aware of the endorphin rush and energy burst which often follows or accompanies exercise. People with depression are generally aware that exercise might be helpful. “Has it occurred to you that sitting around crying in bed probably isn’t going to make you feel any better?” “Really? It’s not? Wow, I’d better go outside and start skipping around with a big grin on my face then.” In a way, I can see why people are so keen to push exercise – it seems like such a nice simple solution. But it’s really only one step removed from telling people to just “snap out of it”, and it’s medical victim blaming of a particularly vile and insidious nature. Depressed? Must be your own fault for not exercising enough. Too anxious to leave the house? Go for a nice jog around the block. If you don’t, it must be because you don’t want to get well. Victim blaming, or blaming people for their own illnesses is never really helpful or productive, and when you take a group who are already vulnerable and likely to have low self-esteem, it’s just adding wood to the fire. Low self-esteem? It’s your own fault, pull your socks up. Well, now I feel much better about myself. Cheers for that. Thanks for sanesplainin’ how I should manage my issues so I can face my day-to-day life, Louise. That was super-helpful.
Essentially, it’s very easy for Louise Mensch from her rich, middle class, privileged, able-bodied, non-depressed position to claim that anyone can exercise and that it will cure their depression. The truth is that depression and other mental health problems are far, far more complicated than that. They are never easy to cure – in fact, in most people they never completely go away. The causes of my mental health problems are many and varied and partly shrouded in mystery, but I remember clearly the first time, sitting in my primary school playground, that I realised that other people were actually happy, genuinely happy. It was a huge shock. I didn’t realise that other people didn’t worry and panic the way I did until much, much later. I have lived with depression and anxiety for literally as long as I can remember – it is in many ways a fundamental part of who I am. Yes, there are ways I can mitigate its effects, and yes, there are specific traumatic events and damaging thought/behaviour patterns which I can discuss, dissect, and work through. And yes, there are things I can do to improve my general mood – eating well, drinking water, surrounding myself with loving, supporting people, practicing good self-care, developing coping strategies for difficult situations, and learning to recognise and remove myself from damaging situations, and, yes, exercising when I feel able. It’s a whole combination of strategies, and it sometimes feels like a full-time job just treading water and keeping going. It’s hard work, but I am dedicated to trying to tackle my mental health problems – in the way that suits me best, not the way that someone else tells me I should be doing it. In the long run though, for me and many others, mental health problems are not something that will ever be entirely cured, and certainly not by doing a few star jumps. To suggest otherwise is disingenuous and incredibly irresponsible.