beyond fight or flight

“it is significant that during WW2 the amount of mental illness plummeted” – an acquaintance, in an email exchange yesterday.

We hadn’t been in touch for months – not for the whole duration of my horrible depression – but since we were debating welfare, I was open about how my recent experiences had challenged my perspective and made me more compassionate towards others. The observation about WWII was his response. It rankled.

Whether or not it was true (for a given value of “true” – how do we define mental illness now compared with how we defined it in the 1940s? How was it recorded then? How is it recorded now?), it plays to the idea that depression is a malaise of the privileged, that all we really need to do is pull our socks up, show some backbone, and imbibe a bit of the ‘Blitz spirit’.

Sure, in some ways, there is privilege involved in addressing mental health issues: when you have to struggle every day for physical subsistence, mental and emotional and spiritual needs are pushed back. Although the poorest and most vulnerable in our society suffer from mental illnesses, most of them have at least some basic provision for food and housing, creating time and space for them to tend to their other illnesses.

This does not, however, mean that we should ignore any problem that is not immediately life-threatening (and depression can be life-threatening). Nor does it mean that a state of war causes a reduction in mental illnesses (the acquaintance in question failed to provide any sources to back up the claim about WWII, but after a little digging I found that the assumption was questionable at best).


Dig for Victory leaflet from the British Library


The ‘Blitz spirit’ might have helped – having a good support network or a sense of cameraderie and common purpose can help a great deal in preventing or recovering from depression. But what this really tells us is that we need more than just our physical needs to be met: we need community and connection, work which is meaningful to us and valued by others. And why should this be more readily available in wartime than in peace?

If more and more of us are struggling with poor mental health, it is not because we are growing a nation of ‘soft’ or ‘entitled’ people, unable to cope with the demands placed on previous generations; it is because we are privileged to live in a time when we actually have a chance to heal these chronic, life-destroying illnesses, instead of hiding them or pushing them aside to deal with natural and man-made disasters. If I owe my wartime ancestors anything, it is self-care, the self-care they were denied. And that self-care finds its fullest expression in creating a better world – the sustainable, cooperative communities and ecologies so derided by people who hark back to the ‘Blitz spirit’ as some golden age of Britishness, but which grow from the same seeds of camaraderie and common purpose.

IET police station crops

community corn outside the Todmorden police station – courtesy of Incredible Edible


So put that in your wartime pipe and smoke it.


the poppy

pavement poppyIn Britain, once the field poppies have faded with the summer, the paper poppies start blooming from lapels.  Predictable controversies fill any empty-looking column inches as newspapers argue back-and-forth about whether and when our public figures should pin their remembrance to their chest.  A young girl looks down from a hundred billboards, asking us to wear a poppy for her father; the emotional impact all the stronger for what has been suggested and not said.

The further we move from living memory of their Flanders inspiration, the more powerful the symbol of these flowers seems to have become; these days, we are urged to wear them in honour of soldiers still serving and soldiers still dying, because “the war to end all wars” did nothing of the kind.

When I worked in Westminster, around this time of year I remember seeing a huge advert in the underground station: BAE systems announcing they were “proud to support our troops.”  I am sure they are, as individuals, but I am just as sure that the company profits outrageously from the conflicts in which these troops lose life and limb.  Yet this kind of jingoism and hypocrisy is more palatable than my pacifist ambivalence, in the first weeks of November.

In my lifetime, there hasn’t been a single war fought by this country which I agreed with or believed was necessary.  I understand the sacrifices made by our armed forces in these conflicts and I would never, ever suggest that they should not receive our support if hurt or injured – but I would feel deeply conflicted and hypocritical if I included these conflicts in my understanding of Remembrance.  I donate to the British Legion with mixed feelings; soldiers and ex-soldiers should not have to rely on our charity.  The government should provide.  But the government is systematically dismantling the welfare system on which these injured personnel – and many others – rely.  I wonder if that thought crossed the minds of our ministers as they laid their wreaths this morning.

Over the past few years, I have watched the word “hero” manoeuvred into synonymy with “soldier”.  Many soldiers were and are doubtlessly heroic; but so, in their time, were conscientious objectors, aid workers, journalists, nurses…  Recognising the heroism of others, those who work to build peace, does not detract from the heroism of soldiers.  But restricting the word “hero” to mean “someone who has served with the military and been wounded in action” does, I think, belittle the more important meaning of the word.  Heroism is conduct, regardless of profession.

Very soon there will be no-one left alive who remembers the world wars.  The majority of families will have lost their living link to a time when our country was under real threat.  It is an ideal almost unimaginable in our past.  Peace should be the focus of Remembrance; peace hard-won by generations past, who fought in the hope that their children would never have to live through such a war again.  Yet as the last few soldiers of the First World War leave us, the first stirrings of “the old lie” begin to rise again, unchallenged, in the discourse about war: Dulce et Decorum est Pro patria mori.  It’s the line we all learned by heart at school; I suppose I should take some cold comfort in the fact that these peaceful times allow us to forget its provenance and real significance.

For as long as my grandparents’ generation are alive, I will wear a red poppy for the past, to show that I honour their experiences.  But I will always wear white for the future.