This post was first published on ON LINE Opinion - Australia’s e-journal of social and political debate.
There is nothing like the feeling of standing on the stage or dais clasping your hard-won medal in two hands to the sound of thunderous applause. Mine was for ballet, along with competitors from the suburbs of Sydney. Olympians and Paralympians are basking in the glow of ‘best in the world’ status for excellence in hockey, breaststroke, wrestling or athletics, to name just a few of the sports represented at the London Olympics.
Are the winners happy? You bet! But what keeps them motivated to train day in, day out? Well, I found it was the love of working out, of perfecting that move, the thrill of improvement, and sometimes the camaraderie between athletes.
However, many athletes spend large amounts of time in training and alone. I’ve heard it said that their preparation time can be a lonely time for them. And what of the sadness when they return home having failed, or to years of training for the next major event?
In a Brisbane Times article last week, You are not alone, David Baker, research director at the Australia Institute reported that the incidence of loneliness is growing in the wider community. He explained how it undermines people’s wellbeing and can be quite debilitating. Body+soul also reported that 49% of people suffering from mental illness are lonely; having no close relationship (compared with only 15 per cent of the general population).
When still in my teens all my hopes for success for a career as a dancer were dashed. To those around me I seemed to be adapting OK. However, a heavy load of despair and hopelessness flooded my thinking. Having dropped out of school to pursue my dancing career, I eventually found myself in a series of admin jobs where I felt different from everyone else – alone and a failure. Most of the jobs could have led to employer-funded training and success, if I’d let myself look towards a new horizon. Instead I descended into introversion, sadness, loneliness and eventually illness. I needed to get a better view of myself, and I found this view through an alternative therapy. With the assistance of a prayer buddy or Christian Science practitioner, inspirational reading and prayer gave me a ‘mental reno’. It remodelled me, eventually opening my thought to new possibilities for happiness.
Psychological literature is full of examples of young people who have experienced disengagement and depression, and so are our schools. Studies on ageing also report a very high level of disillusionment, loneliness and depression in nursing homes.
What’s interesting is that an Archives of Internal Medicine study urged physicians to screen for loneliness in the elderly. Screening for loneliness could have significant implications across the entire population. The study also suggests that, by screening for loneliness, the medical community feel that may be stepping outside its normal role. And there’s often the query: how do we treat loneliness?
Like Christopher Gordon, Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and Ben Herzig, doctor of clinical psychology and a research fellow at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding it may be time for health practitioners to make room for spirituality in mental health treatment. Research is showing that loneliness and depression can’t be changed by so-called ‘happy pills’. Even exercise has as good or better results than drugs. Dr Irving Kirsch adds that “Depression is not caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain, and it is not cured by medication” (The Emperor’s New Drugs).
The good news is that psychiatry and psychology now recognise the benefits of including spirituality or religious practice in treatment, tending to improve the medical model. One idea that is now gaining acceptance by some leading health researchers comes from the writings of 19th century health researcher, Mary Baker Eddy, “[t]he moral and spiritual facts of health, whispered into thought, produce very direct and marked effects on the body” (S&H, page 370).
So what does spirituality or religion actually bring to the table? Patients are encouraged to turn their thought away from a fixation with negativity and personal failure, and to improve their interactions by learning not to judge, learning to forgive, learning to volunteer both in the family and in the wider community, learning what true happiness is.
But what if your doctor told you to watch what you’re thinking, especially if you knew it could work as both a preventative and curative agent?
A news article this week in The Christian Science Monitor, The people of Myanmar need to learn to ‘think freedom’, reminded me of my experiences with depression. I needed to LEARN to ‘think good’, ‘think happiness’, ‘think fulfillment’, ‘think usefulness’ – all traits of our divine heritage.
From my experience, the move from depression and loneliness to fulfillment was not an easy journey. However, I now realise that my new spiritual viewpoint positively affected my relationships, my exercise habits, my goals, my health and my experiences.
As for Olympic fairy-tales and gold medal winners, we don’t need to listen to the ‘ugly duckling’ fairy-tale or genetically malformed hypothesis that binds some of us, our family members or friends hopelessly to depression and loneliness. Finding ways out of depression and loneliness may lie in integrating prayer and spirituality to enrich the current medical model.