Mental Health Awareness Week: Why are we still not able to understand human behaviour?

Conversations have increased around emotional wellness, and there has been a concerted effort to whittle down the stigma associated with mental health. And yet, now, more than ever, is the time when we need to reevaluate its constantly evolving matrix


Sushmita Bose

Published: Thu 6 Oct 2022, 11:12 PM

Last updated: Thu 6 Oct 2022, 11:26 PM

This week — from October 2 to October 8 — has been Mental Health Awareness Week… culminating in World Mental Health Day on October 10. That’s a fair amount of buy in… it means mental health is being discussed, talked about, it’s become a conversation starter. So, yes, a lot is happening in the space. And yet, we are none the wiser because we always seem to be clutching at straws when it comes to demystifying human behaviour.

Sometime back, I was with a group of friends. One of them — let’s call her A — said something that I thought was salient.

“[These days] I prefer listening to podcasts because I cannot bear listen to people talk, they get on my nerves,” is what she said. “I’m perfectly content not having conversations.”

Am I missing something? Or am I overreacting?

At this juncture, another friend — let’s call her B — chimed in with “There’s something wrong with you… are you alright?”

Now, here’s the funny thing. I didn’t know whose side I was on. At times, like A, even I feel like not engaging with people; I seek gratification in technology — that has a faceless anonymity to it.

And like B, I also realised there may be something wrong about this behavioural pattern.

Wrapping your head around mental health ain’t easy. Which is why we decided to get a panel of experts to narrow it down to subject and predicate.

We spoke with:

Christine Kritzas, counselling psychologist at The LightHouse Arabia

Rahaf Kobeissi, mindset and mental health coach, trainer and speaker

Hiba Mehanna, general manager at Miracles Wellness Center

Nerry Toledo, mental health advocate, wellbeing specialist and yoga teacher

And we tried to figure out why “How are you?” doesn’t mean what it used to a couple of decades ago.

The behavioural ‘breakdown’ of mental health today

HIBA: “When we say ‘someone has lost it’, we are coming from our own perspective of what ‘it’ is. This can be very insightful to the person’s mental health that is casting the judgement, as in most cases we can only identify what we ourselves have experienced. In recent times, this term has been used more often than before because we are seeing a substantial increase of people under pressure and feeling highly anxious due to financial stress, relationship issues, toxic work environments and health issues — both physical and mental — which have been highlighted due to the pandemic.”

RAHAF: “Things are fortunately changing with all the awareness [on mental health] and experts doing their best to break that stigma but we still have those who, unfortunately, rather than putting some effort to understand the signs and symptoms of someone’s mental health issues, often refer to others who are suffering as just ‘crazy’ or ‘psychotic’ or ‘attention seeking’.

We should collectively stop all these stereotypes by educating ourselves more on mental health and its symptoms so that when we come across someone who needs help, we know how to read the signs. I’ve worked with many clients who are less likely to go to a family member or a friend for help because of a sense of shame and embarrassment.”

CHRISTINE: “It’s interesting to see that even in 2022, where ‘cancel culture’ is rife, people’s mental health is still something which is being mocked. This is largely due to the stigma which surrounds conversations about mental health. Being called ‘psychotic’ can be especially troublesome when society uses it as a catch-all term for describing an individual’s mental health difficulties — or behaviour in general. All of these uses of ‘psychotic’ can perpetuate stigma around mental illness, as the two have often become linked in many people’s minds.”

NERRY: “We all experience anxiety and fear at times, these are normal human emotions that assist us in dealing with danger. Panic attacks, for instance, do not necessarily indicate that a person has an anxiety disorder. There are, however, some people who suffer from ongoing and distressing anxiety and worry, which contributes to their inability to carry out their daily activities. There may be an anxiety disorder present here.

It is important to note that mental health and mental illness are both states of being on a spectrum. We can sometimes overlook signs that someone needs help due to this misunderstanding. Many individuals with poor mental health have not been formally diagnosed with a mental illness. In addition, many people with mental illness can experience periods of physical, mental, and social wellbeing.”

Social media and FOMO

RAHAF: “Though social media has helped to bridge global gaps both, professionally and personally, it has also largely created a larger disconnect between people. Instead of physically experiencing the emotions of another, it has become easier to show ‘empathy’ behind a screen and just hit the Like or Sad button. This has often resulted in increased isolation, lower self-esteem, reduced human-to-human interaction, and a great reduction in intimacy which directly affects the way people operate.

Whether people realise it or not, when they turn to social media to make themselves feel better, it actually makes them feel worse. The issue with people with FOMO is that it makes them look for happiness outward instead of inward, giving their full attention to social media for their happiness cure rather than their life and chances of growth, and that’s always a losing case. Social media is not the villain; it’s a tool that is used by humans. It’s our choice to either put it to good use or not. Don’t scroll and compare… rather, invite and connect…

I am a big fan of JOMO — the joy of missing out on fake happiness. And I turn my attention to self-care activities like drawing, reading, and catching up with friends.”

HIBA: “Social media has — without a doubt — caused a sense of desensitisation to the way we look at life. We see this particularly on social platforms that are images-heavy and that show uncensored traumatic pictures that we will perhaps feel the initial shock of and then simply scroll past as if we had never seen it.”

CHRISTINE: “People are more desensitised than ever before. Social media is one of the main causes of desensitisation towards emotional events. It makes us realise just how flooded we are by information that is being shared with us on these platforms, and can also allude to the fact that our attention spans are indeed as long as an Instagram story.

Another angle on this may suggest that people are less empathetic these days. A research study conducted by the University of Michigan found that college students are 40 per cent less empathetic than students 30 years ago. This change in empathy seemed to happen in the 2000s with the rise of social media. Many may refer to this generation of students as Generation Me…

However, there may be another explanation for this ability to switch from a condolence message to posting a picture of oneself at a party, and that is that these

individuals are making use of a defense mechanism

known as compartmentalisation. We may make use of this defense mechanism when we want to avoid experiencing difficult feelings about something tragic [like a death].

By immediately switching to lighter content [e.g., a food picture] we are able to distract ourselves from these

uncomfortable feelings and rather bring forth positive emotion.

Yet another school of thought may suggest that we can feel two or more emotions simultaneously…that grief and gratitude can co-exist: ‘a part of me feels deep empathy for your loss and a part of me feels gratitude for being invited to that party’.”

NERRY: “I often find it deeply saddening to see how we detach from our emotions. On social media, we lack inner awareness and are disconnected from ourselves and others, therefore unable to maintain meaningful relationships.”

The expat experience

CHRISTINE: “Expat life can be an emotional journey which includes a range of both positive and negative experiences. The challenges expats face will vary from person to person and can be very culture specific… however, there are some stressors that are often prevalent across all cultures — like homesickness, loneliness, lack of social support etc. However, the one stressor which has the most impact on an expat’s mental health is that moving from a country can often make a person feel a sense of ‘rootlessness’… Another common narrative amongst expats is that ‘I won’t make effort to invest in any relationships here because I am planning to leave in two years’ time anyways’. This narrative can make it harder for expats to meet others, as well as prevent them from creating deep, meaningful connections with these people.”

HIBA: “Expats in the UAE are not only dealing with more transactional types of relationships, they may also be facing relationships that can lack in depth, trust and connection. Being far from home, deficient in family support and dealing with cultural differences requires a relationship that has a solid foundation to help relieve any mental health matters that may arise… when this is not present, it can result in feelings of anxiety, depression, loneliness, confusion, lack of trust and emotional inner conflict.”

RAHAF: “We, the expats, rarely talk about the dark

side of moving abroad… While moving to and living in another country is one of the most courageous life decisions one can make, it also comes with a long list of stressors;

the loss of a support network can be considered one of the top stressors.

Given the nature of lifestyle here where people are more career focused than relationships, transactions in any

kind of relationship can be quite practical and reciprocal. It’s like having an unspoken agreement to exchange services in all aspects of life as ‘I do this for you, you do this for

me in return’. This makes it harder to build authentic friendships and relationships, and that leaves many feeling lonely and isolated, putting our overall well-being in jeopardy. Luckily, UAE provides many opportunities to meet like-minded people who have common interests outside of work, like fitness, art, music, movies, etc... One has to just find the right groups and put in some extra effort to get outside their comfort zone and meet those people.”

NERRY: “The quality of our relationships can significantly impact our mental health… It is imperative to remember that what matters most is not the number of friends we have and whether or not we are in a committed relationship but the quality of our close relationships.”

Being in denial

HIBA: “Often when we are going through a difficult time,

we will project our issue as being separate from us as a way of protecting ourselves from the truth of the situation; thus,

we will blame our environment and circumstances for how we are feeling. In order to get to a level where we decide we

should go down the path of looking inward to resolve issues presenting in our lives, we need to have a level of self-awareness… Without self-awareness, we will continuously look outside of ourselves for answers and resolution, and this in itself is a form of denial as it shows we don’t believe we are the problem.

Once we understand this, we can begin to make the necessary changes and alleviate the denial and change circumstances we are facing.”

CHRISTINE: “It often feels uncomfortable to face our own issues and accept our current reality as it is. Hence, denial takes over as a defense mechanism for having to deal with our issues. It is an avoidance coping strategy which involves avoiding the stressful issue than having to face it head on. Denial is not a healthy way of coping with our issues because we know that what we resist will persist. When you start noticing that you are engaging in denial over a prolonged period of time, it may be helpful to try out avenues like journaling or confiding in a friend or a family member who can give you an objective perspective… or try a talk therapy session with a licensed mental health practitioner…”

RAHAF: “Denial is a type of defence mechanism that people use to cope with distressing feelings. When we are in denial, it often means that we are struggling to accept something that seems overwhelming or stressful. Often, people fear that their emotional security will be threatened or that they will lose control over their lives if they express their emotions and struggles. Yet, what happens is the opposite, and their suppressed feelings can slowly take over their life.

Usually, it’s someone outside our life who can point out that we are in a place of denial. There are plenty of ways to work through denial like journaling, mindfulness activities, self-reflection, etc.. But it can be a bit difficult to go it alone, and it’s advisable to seek the help of loved ones or a mental health expert to understand and work through your denial before it’s too late.”

NERRY: “The first step towards a solution is acknowledging that there is a problem. If we want to get our life back on track, we must be willing to seek help and talk about it, as sometimes we cannot do it alone, but the first step must be taken by us.

The social isolation of the pandemic

HIBA: “To some degree I believe that is true... however, I also believe it somehow brought people back together. The pandemic, in the beginning, was very confusing for a lot of us, it changed how we looked at life in many ways and for many of us it felt incredibly isolating and alienating. This definitely created a space of mental chaos as we were no longer able to interact as we always have.

This feeling was then amplified when people were able to go back to interacting, as for some it almost didn’t feel ‘normal’ to be out and social with others anymore.

However, as we neared the end of being divided and separated in terms of work, family, social gatherings and travel, I feel people became more appreciative of the little things in life and this brought about an awareness that perhaps was not as present before.

It also allowed for mental health to be more openly addressed and hopefully this encouraged people to reach out and resolve any mental health issues they may have been facing under the cloak of Covid without the taboo of judgement which they may have encountered previously.”

NERRY: “The pandemic adversely affected our already divided and disconnected world, leaving us more fractured and shattered due to the trauma we have experienced. Due to the continuing challenges of life, from one chaotic event to another, it is hard to remain connected, but in that case, it is even more important to look after each other because only then will we be able to progress.”

CHRISTINE: “The pandemic has definitely impacted many of us… bringing about feelings of uncertainty, altered daily routines and dealing with the reality of social isolation. Surveys show an increase in adults who report symptoms of stress, anxiety, depression and insomnia, compared to pre-pandemic times. There has also been an increase in self-medicating behaviours as a means of coping with these stressors, which could, in turn, further exacerbate their symptoms.

Lockdowns, physical distancing, the fear of infection, deaths due to Covid, job losses, as well as the loss of experiences (e.g. attending family weddings/funerals/graduations) have contributed to an increase in isolation, loneliness and anxiety. These very experiences have also left people experiencing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, or what is now being called ‘post-Covid stress disorder’.”

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