Issue 2 - Tues 13 Oct
A Silver Lining by Richard Leonard SJ
Saturday October 10 was the United Nation’s annual World Mental Health Day. Promoted by the presently-famous World Health Organisation, its purpose in the mental health space to: raise awareness; mobilize efforts; provide an opportunity for all stakeholders to talk about their work; and chart what more needs to be done for people worldwide. We have never needed all of this more.
COVID-19 has seen a spike in anxiety, depression, self-harm, addictive behaviours, isolation, and domestic violence. As one local example, the increased demand for the services provided by Mary’s House and the North Sydney Council’s Daisy Centre tells some of the story.
None of this comes as a surprise. The present pandemic has only dramatically exacerbated a mental health crisis that has been acute for some time. Last year, the Australian Government report The Mental Health of Children and Adolescence made for grim reading. Something is terribly wrong when in most developed countries like our own the biggest killer of young adults is now suicide.
This report talks constantly about “meaninglessness” as one of the main drivers for poor mental health, where a person feels they do not matter in the scheme of things, not to any other person, and not to the community. The increase in meaninglessness is connected to a rise in utilitarianism and individualism and to personal autonomy being recognised as an absolute value: my worth or meaning is gauged by money and status; “I am what I do”; “No one can tell me what to do, especially with my body.”
The study goes on to list several causes, a few of which have been around for a while: marriage breakdown; extended families and local communities that fail to make young people feel connected and instead feeling they belong to no one; “helicopter parents” leaving their children feeling anxious and smothered; having so many choices that they are immobilised; and being inculcated in the attitude that “I can achieve anything I want”, leading to unrealistic expectations and lack of awareness of the preparation and hard work that is needed to achieve a goal.
Social media comes in for careful and critical analysis in the government’s report. The government report highlights the seeming contradiction between never having more possibilities for making connections online, and at the same time young adults never feeling more isolated. In the online world, “friends”, whom one may never have met, are considered real friends; “likes”, or the lack of them, control self-esteem and mood; and the fallout from addictions, including to online pornography, is devastating.
WHO and the Australian government’s mental health report argues for further study, new protocols, and improved procedures. These are worthwhile and important and I hope they will have an impact. As followers of Christ, however, we need to talk about hope, or the increasing lack of it. Meaninglessness is born of hopelessness.
Pope Francis has often linked hope to encouragement, to pursuing dreams, to joy, to being forgiven and having compassion, to seeking the truth, to forming consciences, and being mentored and accompanied here on earth and by the cloud of witnesses in heaven. And he argues against “those who worship the ‘goddess of lament’ … She is a false goddess: she makes you take the wrong road. When everything seems to be standing still and stagnant, when our personal issues trouble us, and social problems do not meet with the right responses, it does no good to give up. Jesus is the way: welcome him into your ‘boat’ and put out into the deep! He is the Lord! He changes the way we see life. Faith in Jesus leads to greater hope, to a certainty based not on our qualities and skills, but on the word of God, on the invitation that comes from him. Without making too many human calculations, and without worrying about things that challenge your security, put out into the deep.” (Christus Vivit. #77: the post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation dedicated to young people)
In my many dealings with young people, most poignantly at the funerals of their friends who have taken their own lives, they respond most to a hope that trusts in God’s mercy and love, that knows that we are connected to a greater story, to a welcoming and inclusive Catholic community and to looking for a life yet to come. Christian hope affirms and celebrates that we know where we have come from, why we are here and where we are going, and that we are not doing this on our own.
A government report can never say it, but the breakdown in communities of hope, especially the breakdown in faith communities, of the kind that we are experiencing in the Church in Australia, has had negative effects on the mental wellbeing not just of young Catholics but all of us too. While shouldering our fair share of the blame for our faith not attracting young people in anything like the way we would like to see – partly because our community of hope is often seen by young people as hopeless – those of us who know that Christ is alive have to redouble our efforts to live our Christian faith with hope and joy. The mental health of our children – and all of us - depends on it.
Rev Dr Richard Leonard SJ is the author of What Does it All Mean? A Guide to Living Lives of Faith Hope and Love (Paulist Press, 2018)
available at St Paul’s bookstore, (02) 9264 8630, https://www.paulinebooks.com.au/product/detail.cgi?id=9780809148035
Some thought provoking films about mental health
THE SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK. Starring: Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert de Niro, and Jackie Weaver. Directed by David O. Russell. Rated M (Mature themes, coarse language, sexual references and violence). 122 min.
This clever and original American film is the first movie in over 30 years to score Oscar nominations in all four acting categories. Its originality lies in the quirkiness with which it portrays contemporary family life in America, and it was adapted from the novel of the same name by Matthew Quick.
The film centres its plot on a disturbed, ex-mental patient, Pat Solitano, who has been deserted by his wife and charged for assaulting her lover. It tells the story of his personal search to re-establish his marriage. In the course of pursuing that goal, he meets an equally disturbed young girl, Tiffany Maxwell (Jennifer Lawrence), and they begin to form a relationship that survives the ups and downs of mutual mental disturbance. He is bipolar, and she is severely depressed and a possible sex-addict. Mental disturbance features strongly elsewhere in the movie. Pat's father is obsessive and a football fanatic, his best friend suffers from anxiety neurosis, and his mother lives on the edge of permanently being unable to cope.
Robert de Niro plays Patrizio Solitano, his father, and Australia's Jackie Weaver plays his mother, Dolores, and all four main actors give outstanding performances. It is a bit unnerving to contemplate that the four are meant to represent family life bubbling along in modern-day, stressed America, but they are a spirited ensemble group working very well to bring the quality movie to an unexpected conclusion. Pat Jr. 's motto is "Excelsior" - to improve and excel - and the movie's title draws its meaning from his private battle against life's negativity, so as to prove to himself that he is not a quitter. He believes passionately that "if you stay positive, you have a shot at a silver lining". Bradley Cooper gives a wonderful, finely-tuned performance in this role, and Jennifer Lawrence matches the quality of his acting in subtlety and sophistication.
The emotional themes of this movie are designed to be troubling. They deal with mental illness, marital failure, inability to cope, and profound personal vulnerability. People survive in this movie by constantly negotiating through their vulnerabilities, and the fact that this all happens in a comic way makes the film particularly quirky and unusual. The fact that the movie is genuinely funny and romantic is in no small way due to the performances of the main characters being so well pitched. All performances are delivered somewhere between the contrasting emotional mood-states of deep cynicism, and affectionate sweetness.
A movie with such a philosophy was headed inevitably toward some form of happiness and resolution of conflict. Pat Snr. wages all his money on a football game and the results of a dance competition in which his son and Tiffany have entered. The route to "Excelsior", however, is not sport and dancing, and both activities prove weak metaphors for locating happiness, indicating that the movie opts in the final run for bland and popular ways to face major problems in life. But until that point, the film is highly absorbing, and very smart.
Combating negativity in life offers a goal that has universal appeal. Resolving it so simply is not as convincing as this very different and watchable movie would have us believe.
Peter W. Sheehan is an associate of Jesuit Media.
MELANCHOLIA. Starring Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Kiefer Sutherland, Charlotte Rampling and John Hurt. Directed by Lars von Trier.136 minutes. Rated M (Sexual references, nudity and coarse language).
At one point, director Lars von Trier focuses on a dictionary and the various meanings of melancholia. Already we have seen a pensive, inward-looking bride which suggests the melancholic mental disposition and its emotions. But, we soon learn that a planet veering towards earth, with the potential to destroy and consume it, is also called Melancholia.
This is also a film about two sisters, made clear by the nomination of Part I and Part II.
The first sister is the younger, Justine, played by Kirsten Dunst. She is the glimpsed bride in the prologue. Part I is a portrait of her wedding, beginning with a long limousine unable to get through narrow country roads and the couple being late for the celebration. To the anxiety of the older sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her husband (Kiefer Sutherland). Initially, playful, Justine begins to act erratically (understatement) to the growing bewilderment of her gracious husband (Alexander Skarsgaard). Among the guests are the bon-vivant father (John Hurt) and his acidic ex-wife (Charlotte Rampling) and Justine’s employer (Stellan Skarsgaard). Enough enigmatic events occur which make us wonder about Justine, her state of mind and her future. As a visual and dramatic exploration of a disturbed character, the film is sometimes masterly.
Part II is not exactly a portrait of Claire because Justine is still to the forefront of the picture. Justine is in Claire’s care as she suffers from depression. There is a love-hate relationship between the two. It is mostly hate on the part of Claire’s husband. But their son is attached to his aunt. Claire is not only preoccupied with coping with Justine but she grows more and more afraid that the planet is moving dangerously towards earth. Her husband reassures her. However, as the planet nears, she goes into panic mode while Justine seems calmer, a touch fatalistic. How will they deal with imminent destruction without any resources except themselves, no transcendent hope?
Von Trier has chosen to confine all the action to the mansion that serves as a hotel for a golf course for the wealthy. Apart from the wedding guests and the staff, there is no actual contact with the outer world. Media contact is through the internet. So, this isolated group serves as a microsmic metaphor for macrocosmic events. In terms of realism, it doesn’t really work, so the audience is asked to suspend disbelief and focus on the symbolic few. Easy for those who are absorbed. Not easy for those not persuaded by the premise.
Which means, as with all von Trier’s films, that there are contradictory opinions, enthusiasm and hostility or, as one unsympathetic reviewer remarked, he was indifferent. Whatever one’s response, von Trier makes distinctive films.
[The small budget American film, Another Earth, was released about the same time as Melancholia. There are similarities in plot concerning a new planet and its relationship to Earth, but quite a difference in outlook between the two films.]
Fr Peter Malone MSC is an associate of Jesuit Media.