Everyone's a loser: mental health and loss

2 August 2016

Last week Heads Together – a charity coalition headed by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridgeshire and Prince Harry – launched a mini campaign around the importance of having a support network in place to get through tough times that affect one’s mental health.

Much of the media focus centred on dealing with loss and grief – following Prince Harry’s admission that he didn’t speak about the death of his mother for years. Also talking about loss and grief were former West Ham and Manchester United footballer Rio Ferdinand, whose wife passed away last year, and double Olympic gold medallist Kelly Holmes.

'Stiff upper lip'

For such high-profile individuals to talk openly about mental health issues should be welcomed – it’s hard to imagine older generations of royals, brought up in a culture of 'keeping a stiff upper lip', speaking publicly about mental health difficulties.

We associate grief and loss with bereavements. Virtually everyone will encounter the death of a family member or close friend during their lives. Yet Prince Harry’s comments were a reminder of the difficulties some people have in talking about this and the affect it has on their mental health, especially when it occurs tragically and unexpectedly for a child or young person, or when one has mixed feelings about the person who has died.

I have personal experience of this when my dad died, and men often struggle more in expressing their feelings in these situations, or it’s expressed through anger, as we touched upon in our Grouchy Old Men? project.

Difficulties in talking about loss occur partly because of language and attitudes. "Everyone loves a winner" – so how does that make the losers feel? "Loser" is commonly used as a term of abuse and ridicule in the playground and elsewhere.

Of course, winning has a good feeling about it and the aspiration to win is usually a positive one. But learning how to cope with loss, and having the words and opportunities to do this are just as crucial as supporting the desire to win. This is not intended to undermine confidence or create a defeatist mentality but because we all experience loss, and its associated emotions, on a regular basis. 

Loss throughout the lifecourse

Loss is experienced at any age – infants can experience loss and rejection in the way they are parented. For young people living in a highly competitive world, loss may be more frequently a relative concept – perceived to be losing out to others in terms of popularity, relationships, exam results, sporting achievement etc.

As we grow older we don’t necessarily lose this relative sense of loss but experience more substantive loss of things that cannot be replaced – loss of youth, loss of physical abilities, children leaving the family home, the death of family members and friends.

And people of any age can experience a kind of existential loss, in terms of one’s purpose in life – often a crisis of identity and self-belief for young people, but also a later life sense of lost opportunities, hopes or dreams that are no longer achievable. Having the opportunities and words to talk about and understand these experiences is vital (historically, an important function of organised religion). 

Language

In the TV interview Prince Harry struggled to find the right words at times: he spoke about people who "suffer mental health" – I think he meant people who experience mental health problems. Many people who experience mental health problems or dementia don’t like the word "suffer". And everyone has "mental health" in the same way that we all have physical health, for some it may be better than others.

Language and communication really do matter because mental health is partly about self-identity, self-understanding and feelings, so pejorative or inaccurate terms (intentionally or inadvertently used) can have a detrimental or confusing impact for individuals.

And nowhere is the importance of language and communication more acutely felt than among people with dementia, their families and friends, where loss of words, the ability to communicate, understand and make choices, are almost endemic to most forms of the condition.

So recognising that loss is a common part of life, not being overwhelmed by a sense of failure when it happens, and being able to talk about it in supportive environments are all crucial to ensuring wellbeing and positive mental health.

And it is sometimes hard to find the right words – I’ve been trying to work out what word means the opposite of "wellbeing". If you have any suggestions, let us know, but it’s not "loser".