Cross-posted (lightly edited) from my blog.
TL;DR: from my experience, it is an altruistic priority to look after one’s own mental health.
This post explores some ideas around mental health, self-care and doing good.
It is also about one highly significant day in my life: Wednesday 10th February 2021.
So, what happened on Wednesday 10th February 2021?
One, it was the day surge testing began in the particular part of London I was living in at the time due to a confirmed case of the South African variant of COVID-19 in the area.
Two, it was the day I sent an email to the senior tutor of my college, formally requesting suspension of my degree for a year due to the state of my mental health.
These two events represent a conflict between the part of me that wants to act in line with what I care about and the part of me that is too far gone in its own nosedive of anxiety to care about the things I really care about.
Let me explain.
As you will know, by Wednesday 10th February 2021, COVID-19 had been tearing the fabric of society apart for at least a year, perhaps longer (depending on when you started counting).
But at that time the threat of variants of the virus was much newer and, to some, scarier.
The South African variant in particular, with its rumoured harmful effects on younger people, was getting people worried.
The thing I care(d) about is stopping — or, more realistically, limiting — the spread of the virus, especially new variants. When I think about how bad the pandemic has been, and how much worse it could get if a more harmful variant starts spreading out of control, I want to do all I can to stop this happening.
I care about this on a somewhat visceral, not-completely-abstract, level.
Because the variant had been found very near where I was living at the time, mass testing was being carried out in the streets near me. I walked past signs advertising this every day.
I didn’t get a test.
When I look back on this day, I find it hard to believe that I would be able to walk past these signs every day and ignore the thought that I might want to help out by getting a test and limiting my social contact. I mean, I knew that it’s crucial to stop variants in their tracks when cases are in the single digits and that mass testing (with appropriate isolation) is the best way of doing this. This is an opinion I probably stated publicly, I suppose without even noticing the internal contradiction.
So, why did I not get tested?
Surely, I would’ve thought about the seriousness of the situation and concluded that I may as well err on the side of caution and book a test if I could, or at least Google what the situation was and think about what I wanted to do. I have enough faith in my own intelligence to suppose that I would have been capable of this chain of reasoning without too much effort.
Yet, I didn’t book a test, I didn’t do a single Google search. I basically didn’t think about it for longer than a few seconds after I saw the sign each day.
So, the question remains: why did I not get tested?
Only one answer seems likely, and this is where the other thing that happened on Wednesday 10th February 2021 comes in.
My decision to send the email formally requesting suspension from my degree was the culmination of one week mulling over the issue, which itself was the culmination of months, perhaps years (depending on when you started counting) of my mental health slowly deteriorating.
Throughout the lockdown, and probably before, I had been battling severe anxiety. I was just about to be diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. I was struggling to get any work done without feeling like I was falling apart, and I was struggling to focus on much else without a similar result.
Essentially, my thinking was totally dominated by my own problems, worries and obsessions. I was completely stuck in my own head, unable to cope effectively with the real world. In a sense, my mind was eating itself.
This seems the best explanation of my ignoring the advice to “book a test today”. I simply didn’t have the energy to think about whether I should get the test, do the Google search, book the test, etc. I was so wrapped up in my own internal struggle that I had gone blind to the wider struggle of the world — and, at the time, my immediate surroundings — around me.
It was already clear that my mental health was hurting my ability to do certain things: study effectively, relax in my time off and, I now realise, connect with the important people in my life. But, looking back, this was probably the worst of the lot. It was hurting my ability to do the things I cared about. It was stopping me from doing what I thought was right.
This is something I refuse to stand for.
This post is about that tension that I, among many others I’m sure, have felt at many times: how can I spend so much time, effort and money doing things just to help myself, when there are so many others worse off than me? Isn’t that selfish? And if it turns out that morality is demanding, then surely it tells us that we have to always put other people first, rather than looking after ourselves?
If you’ve ever thought any of these things, let me tell you from my own experience: NO! It don’t work like that.
No matter how many people are worse off than us, we have to look after ourselves. It’s not selfish, but rather selfless, if done in the right way. Crucially, if morality is demanding, then the conclusion is even stronger. It’s not just ok to look after ourselves, it’s our duty.
At this point, I could give any number of cliches that make the exact point I’m making. Of course, the problem with cliches is that most of them are actually true.
You can’t pour from an empty cup.
You do have to love yourself in order to (fully) love others.
There have been so many times I’ve thought about all the awful things going on in the world and felt bad about all the time and money I spend on myself instead of ‘doing more’ to help. Often, I’ve responded by pushing myself to work harder or beating myself up. Each time, without fail, I’ve made it harder for myself to actually do more.
I now think that when people think about all the awful things going on in the world, they should form even more resolve to look after themselves (before going on and doing more to help, if they so wish), rather than resolving to spend less resources on themselves.
I have not yet managed to fully take this on, but I’m working on it.
To be clear, I’m not blaming myself for not getting that COVID test (although I still feel a bit guilty about it). I actually have a lot of compassion for that guy who was struggling and couldn’t get his head out of itself. Much less would I blame anyone else who is struggling with their mental health for failing to live up to their (potentially very high!) moral standards.
My point is not to blame people who are struggling… for anything!
Nor am I saying that failing to get the COVID test was a particularly awful or immoral thing to do. I’m using it as an example because it’s a clear, discrete event in which there was something I cared about, something I wanted to do (and wanted to for moral reasons), but something I didn’t do because of my mental health. I’m sure there are countless other examples of my mental health getting in the way of what I wanted to do, and probably some in which I did worse things because of it.
But my point is not to regret or lament these ‘failings’.
My point is that there are probably many many people, with and without mental health disorders, who feel bad about helping themselves. Who feel that it is selfish to put themselves first. Who feel that, if they ought to do anything, they ought to spend more energy on others and less on themselves.
My point is that I don’t think they (you) should feel this way.
For anyone who tends to think like this, as many EAs do, I think it’s likely that you have good reason to prioritise looking after yourself more highly.
It is not selfish to look after yourself. It is good. And not just good for you, good for the world.
If anyone reading this is having a hard time — first things first, reach out to someone, and if you don't feel like you have anyone to reach out to, reach out to me! — and weighing up whether to push yourself just a bit harder or spend a bit of time on self-care, then I hope I have convinced you that it’s often better to choose self-care.
From my experience, it’s what the world wants.