This outbreak of incivility is not good for my mental health – or any of us

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Despite being someone who suffers from depression and anxiety, I consider myself to be fairly robust and resilient. Since my breakdown, I am more aware of my vulnerabilities and am less likely to accept excessive demands on me that make me feel down, low or stressed. I protect myself as much as possible from unnecessarily difficult people and things and I make better, healthier choices with my time than I once did. On the whole, I am a resilient person.

But I find that resilience tested on a daily basis; tested by three things.

My mental health and my propensity (I love that word!) to get down or low with ongoing bouts of depression and anxiety – every day is an ongoing effort to stay well and keep myself the right side of the dark clouds – is clearly one. 

The ups and downs that life throws up for us all – the demands of family life, working, money worries, health concerns and everything that we encounter in our daily lives – are another.  

But there is a third thing. A relatively new factor at play that we sadly are seeing more and more of as each week passes. A shift in societies and behaviours that is being experienced around the world and is beginning to dominate our news and social media feeds. I write of course about the destructive and toxic outbreak of incivility that the current shenanigans in Westminster has brought into our homes this week and is part of a much bigger decline in standards of behaviour and tolerance.

I am not adverse to pointing fingers at Donald Trump and Boris Johnson for many things – and they have a lot to answer for in their own conduct, use of language and treatment of others – especially those they perceive as enemies or “different” – from women of colour in the Congress to women wearing burkas. I am sure that they are acting as role models and examples for many people who now think it’s ok to behave as they do; weaponising Twitter as a tool for division and shouting; characterising anyone who disagrees with them as traitors or unpatriotic; and invoking the language of war and violence to simplify and emphasise their arguments.

But the problem that I encounter each day – the third factor which can impact my mental health – is not sitting in the White House or No 10 – nor is it the state of politics, Brexit Britain or Trump’s tweets. It is a habit that many have fallen into of seeing disagreements as areas of aggressive conflict or differences of opinion as evidence that I don’t like you, respect you or worse am bigoted towards you or your beliefs. In my job I see so many people who reach for an explosive or nuclear response as their first reaction, rather than starting by giving the person on the receiving end – often of the email or tweet – the benefit of the doubt or the chance to clarify their position. Attack, it seems, is the best form of defence.

This rush to outrage and anger is making many of us nervous about what will receive in our inboxes or on our phones each day and is far from healthy.

At my employer – Liverpool John Moores University – we are launching a major new initiative next week, called Respect, Always! As well as providing a platform to discuss some of the big societal issues for staff and students around sexual violence, hate crime, discrimination and intolerance, it is also giving us the opportunity to celebrate the small things that we each do every day to make the word around us a little kinder, gentler and more pleasant. 

We are focusing on taking small steps – as small as saying hello and goodbye to colleagues and please and thank you – to help us all rub along a little better and to help put smiles on people’s faces at work. This is not rocket science and it is not intended to patronise or be an episode of granny being taught to suck eggs. It is an acknowledgement that in our busy lives and with all the pressures we can feel under – with the shouty world of social media on our shoulder – it is easy to forget that in very small ways, we can each make each other’s lives a little better.

Being kinder in an email or greeting someone who comes into your office won’t put the incivility genie back in the bottle but it’s a start. Try it and see what response you get. If nothing else, I bet it will help your mental health. And it may help someone else’s.


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