Rage against the dying of the light

When it comes to mental health, is the end goal comfort or strength?


Following up on the story on trigger warnings and letters to the editor on mental health last week and this week, it seems that there’s a lot to consider on the issues of mental health and accommodation, so here’s an attempt to keep the discussion going.

Let me ground my discussion in a recent experience relating to my own grandfather, who is currently back at the hospital after several rounds of being there and returning home, being bedridden for the past month or so.

The decline in my grandfather’s health has been a reminder, among many things, of how vulnerable we all are regardless of our stage in life. It’s not often that I see my parents, aunts, and uncles grapple—really serously struggle—with difficult life questions and become caught in the middle of trying to do what they think is best for their father while also listening to the advice of the palliative care team, which at times contradicts our natural assumptions of what good care entails.

What’s dawned on me these past few days is that a lot of what we debate in terms of trigger warnings, accommodations, and other issues related to mental health is similar to what my family is going through with my grandfather.

On the one hand, palliative care is designed to ensure a person’s comfort. For someone who’s sick, it can mean taking medication to relieve the pain or other symptoms of one’s illness. It is an important type of care that can really help someone for whom there is no other treatment possible or available.

The other side of the story is of course that at the palliative stage, there are no longer any IVs or other medications for actually treating the source of the illness—the underlying cause. The focus is on the individual’s level of comfort, not quantity of life or quality of life (whatever that may mean).

For some, that can be taken to mean the equivalent of giving up.

And it seems from the recent letters and stories that a large part of the debate on mental health and accommodations has to do with the question of whether we’re actually helping people deal with trauma or if we’re hurting them by making them oversensitive to issues that inevitably come up in life. Is the end goal ensuring the comfort of the individual, or supporting the individual in a way that strengthens them to eventually confront those issues?

To be honest, I’m not sure. And it probably depends on each individual person and what he or she is physically, mentally, and emotionally capable of tolerating. Just like in the case of my grandfather, where my family is struggling to determine whether he just needs to be comfortable, or if there’s reason to keep fighting.

I don’t personally think any of us really knows the answer to those questions—how much we can and cannot tolerate—and maybe that’s reason enough to continue struggling. Because, it seems, that comfort as an end in itself will never really allow us to realize what could be our full potential. But if we keep fighting, there’s always the possibility that there’s yet more to achieve. How will we ever know?

As I read in an arts review this week on Rocky Balboa, “The world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows. It’s a very mean and nasty place, and I don’t care how tough you are, it will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it.

“You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain’t about how hard you hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward; how much you can take and keep moving forward.”

Admittedly, mental health is way too complex an issue for a one-size-fits-all answer. But I hope that part of our struggle to address the rising instances of mental health issues among our friends, family, and peers is about recognizing that we as humans are capable of incredible things when we fight for them—and comfort is one way of taking the time to develop the strength to do so.