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While reading through the health answers forum on the Go Ask Alice Website, I came across a plethora of questions from a range of topics such as nutrition, alcohol, and relationships. In response to a question regarding long term nightmares and unfavorable mood, the writer of Go Ask Alice emphasized the biological sources of bad dreams and mood but shined far less light on social aspects that influence an individual’s perception of mental illness as well as means and resources they may not have to cope with it.
Using Emily Wentzell’s notion of composite illness, I will argue that while mental health does have significant biological roots, it has just as strong a history with social circumstances, which ultimately guide individuals to understand and treat their condition within a certain approach. I will offer two suggestions that bring forward the social differences, such as social stigma that can result in long term diagnosis and lack of support from loved ones.
Wentzell defines composite illness as a “condition that is lived differently in different social settings… [that] both shapes and is shaped by individuals’ bodies, emotions, social worlds, and structural contexts” (Wentzell, 87). While evaluating illnesses, it is most common to initially identify causes through a biological perspective. In this case, bad dreams and mood are tied to the biological phenomenon of depression and anxiety. Antidepressants, such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors are often used to treat depression by increasing serotonin levels, but “may also increase the likelihood of experiencing nightmares and bad dreams” (Go Ask Alice).
The onset of these nightmares during sleep ultimately influences mood and judgement throughout the day, as individuals may unknowingly perceive what they experienced in dreams as part of their real life. Emotional health is also largely affected, as “people who are clinically depressed may dream three to four times more than the average person and having disturbing dreams may also intensify a person’s anxiety” (Go Ask Alice). A recommendation proposed by the author of Go Ask Alice was to reach out to family and friends for support. For some people, “negative emotions generally arise from problematic interpersonal relationships or life hardships,” which could include family difficulties, and friendships (Wentzell, 93).
These people are left with a lack of social and emotional support, as the conditions of their relationships might hinder them from being more transparent about their health. For example, someone who is part of the LGBTQ community may stay away from approaching their family about their mental health, if their family does not support the LGBTQ community. Because of such social obstacle barriers, these individuals are left with an impediment to progress and improvement, ultimately resulting in a longer diagnosis of depression and anxiety.
One way Go Ask Alice can help its readers understand that illness is not only a biological but also a social phenomenon is through consideration of social factors and status. Readers may not be financially stable, and thus may not be able to adhere to a consistent sleep pattern or afford the recommended professional treatment. Providing methods that are less or not costly, such as relaxation techniques can help these readers cope with their mood themselves. Go Ask Alice can also encourage students to reach out to resources, such as a school counselor or online forum that can offer social support when there is a lack of support from family and even friends. Mental health, not uncommonly, is often regarded as a social stigma in certain cultures and groups, leaving individuals suffering from a mental illness to face it completely alone. Taking such circumstances into consideration is especially important when accessing what may and may not work in handling depression and anxiety, and ultimately our dreams and mood. By staying away from focusing on only the biomedical aspect of illness, more people are able to utilize the advice from the Go Ask Alice forum.
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