Warning: The content of this blog may be triggering. Please contact a health professional involved in your care, a family member or friend or visit the Samaritans’ web page if you are in crisis / feeling suicidal.
Recently, I fear the painful emptiness of an existential crisis.
You may think this dramatic, but I experienced an existential crisis almost 12 years ago. I was 19, and had just embarked upon my 2nd year in university. Rather than hedonistically making my way between the Student Union and the occasional lecture, I was severely depressed and close to death.
Things had been progressively wronging in my mind for a very long time, and I eventually broke. I found myself lodged in a painful purgatory between the futility of a hedonistic lifestyle and the realisation that God was more than dead. He had never existed. My mood permitted me from engaging in anything pleasurable or vaguely hedonistic – I didnt deserve happiness. In my mind, If God did not exist, what was the point in living?
This was no crisis of faith. Despite being a Theology undergraduate, I was not religious; My study was purely an academic affair. However, I was plagued to preoccupation with the question of existence. The pursuit of happiness was dead and so was a purpose divinely ordained. Staring into the meaningless abyss of my existence, I saw no reason to continue.
I clung to the cusps of life for over the duration of a year, as gradually I reasoned a justification to exist. Indeed, rather than continue to torment my mind contemplating something that I had no means of proving (God) and without the presence of even a flickering leap of faith, I realised that what was most important in life was how people acted in this world: what good people could do. I discovered that I could make my own meaning, through my actions. I could act with purpose, aiming to impact positively on the lives of others. Through this, I felt my continued existence justified.
As a profession concerned with meaning-making through doing, I began training as an Occupational Therapist 2 years later. My ambition was to work with others who had mental health conditions, and enable them to find meaning even in the darkest of places. However, I find myself faced with the question of existence yet again. This time it is different. I am not severly depressed neither am I suicidal. Furthermore, the non-existence of God (in my mind) has been a given for many years, I have surpassed the hurdle of a God that is dead. However, as someone who has justified existence based upon the good we can do when we act, and akin to the sentiment of many other health professionals, I despair at the constraints continued cuts and lack of resources have upon the good we can do by acting.
Indeed, despite the prevalence of mental health conditions (1 in 4), only 14% of the NHS budget is spent on mental health. Healthcare professionals are leaving their professions, due to increased concerns that they can no longer act and do safely in their roles. An anonymous Midwife has recently shared her story of why she decided to resign from the NHS after 10 years. Despite our best endeavours, we hang on the purse strings.
Furthermore, following successive heart-breaking, damning reports and public inquiries, including Mid Staffs, it is apparent a culture that ”…delights in the ritual humiliation of those deemed to fail, tolerates and institutionalises outdated working practices and old-fashioned hierarchies…” (Prior, Chairman CQC, cited here) is tragically only beginning to self-fulfillingly execute its own crisis of existence. Far too late for those who have lost their lives to power and procedure.
Yet the cuts and culture prevalent in health, are symptomatic of a wider cutting culture. Indeed, the very individuals who rely on services provided by the NHS are also at Welfare Reform’s mercy. This is most definitely not my crisis alone. It inequitably impacts the poorest, most vulnerable, the sick and the disabled inproportunately. This is a crisis fuelled by the existence of acute injustice.
Yet this is not merely a crisis of injustice. It is a crisis of existing in the face of injustice. Ann Wilcocks (1999) description of the power of doing and the impact it can have on peoples lives by: ‘Doing, being, becoming and belonging’’, inspired me whilst training as an Occupational Therapist. However, the everyday struggle to meet or have needs met can be tortuous and lives have tragically been claimed. Many are confined to existing, barely doing, let alone being, becoming or belonging.
I question what meaning was ascribed to the actions that have perpetuated this current crisis to exist. Were these actions underpinned by a motivation to impact positively on the lives of others? Significantly, I recognise the innocence of my 19 year old self in this simple axiom. What is good or positive is individually defined, and positively dangerous when utilised by those who may be far removed from the consequences of their actions, through experience, circumstance or inability to recognise another’s humanity. Moreover, the utilitarian spirit looks beyond personal crises, ensuring the good is the majorities. Yet, it is the minority who experience injustice most acutely. Today’s existential crisis is collective: how can justice be for all?