I was lucky enough to be born into a world where complete strangers would routinely bid you a good morning, or simply greet each other with a hearty ‘hello there!’. Although such niceties may seem alien to modern city folk, the rural north was a haven of pleasantness even through the odd bit of grim. We knew what was normal and we would recognise the odd with mostly indulgent indifference. It was not our place to single people out for their peculiarities; that was between the families and their doctor, so long as it was contained.
As I grew older people would ask “How are you?” and later on, “All right?” and whenever this came from somebody I knew I took it at face value, often (to my later embarrassment) relaying the fine details of the progress of my day. I don’t know why nobody explained to me that a casual inquiry was merely another way of acknowledging ones existence and not a freedom of information request regarding my medical history. I eventually learned to return such entreaties with a simple “Grand!” or else some other non-specific affirmation. It was a simpler world.
You didn’t pry and (when you had learned) you didn’t volunteer. But now we live in an age where people teem and swarm in city masses, never catching a glance or, if accidentally doing so, apologetically lowering our eyes and pushing on. Heaven forfend that you would politely hail a fellow passenger on life’s journey. Yes, people are talking out loud but rarely to those in their immediate vicinity; a casual observer from the past might assume they are talking to invisible folk… or more likely that they are all mad.
But here’s the thing. When once the phrase ‘mental health’ was reserved for those in genuine need of professional help, nowadays it is almost part of the standard litany of social interaction. “How was the party?” “Nice weather, lately.” “Did you see the match?” and “How’s your mental health?” Not “How are you feeling or, the ubiquitous “All right?” but, right on the nose “Are you some sort of nutjob?”
Maybe it is the desperation in modern society for everybody to have some form of ailment which impedes their progress, or else explains the lack of it. Maybe it is meddlesome interest in the private affairs of others. Whatever it is it has become all pervasive. Listen out for it and everywhere you will hear interviewers raising the subject. Not “How did you feel about it” but, “What was your mental state at the time?” And of course, once you trot out this sort of invasive line of questioning, along come the body language experts, the sexperts, the perversely curious, all of whom construct labyrinthine arguments and convoluted buy-my-book explanations.
The cure for ‘mental health’ (which everyday contraction I find somewhat sinisterly simplistic) it seems is always lengthy, expensive and increases, rather than decreases the burden people feel. Whereas once you’d have said “Fine, son, how about you?” now you are enjoined to share your anxiety, unload your pain and generally bring down everybody around you. I don’t think this is an improvement; I don’t think it is of any help. I think we should all do our bit for good mental health by responding to enquiries about it with a traditional, “None of your fucking business.”