June 2018

Loneliness and Mental Health

The death of Anthony Bourdain by apparent suicide earlier this month was a huge shock to me. Bourdain was a tremendously successful celebrity chef, author, travel documentarian and television personality, and was considered one of the most influential chefs in the world. Bourdain was much more than a chef - to me he was a global leader. He was a cultural ambassador whose programs not only focused on the exploration of international cuisine, but also helped to shine a light on international culture. He had a penchant to tread the unknown paths, and visit countries that the mainstream media paid little or no attention to. His amazing gift to sit down with anyone and everyone over a kitchen table and get them to open up about everyday life provided him, and thus his audience, a unique perspective to explore and examine the human condition.

Bourdain died in the prime of his life. Looking in from the outside, he had an amazing life and career. Yet, as we see time and time again with mental health, the public face he presented was not an accurate reflection of his internal state of mind. I have been reflecting on this point since the sad news broke, and it highlighted to me the high degree of loneliness – a lack of meaningful social interaction - many people must face in their daily lives. We are told we are more interconnected today than any other time in history, yet we see people battling their ‘demons’ alone not able to reach out for help. I don’t want to speculate on Bourdain’s particular circumstances, but during his final days he was filming with a good friend, surrounded by his colleagues, and doing what he loved. Depression and its abruptness, may have also played a significant role, but it is a tragedy that these events are becoming increasingly more common around the world.

Suicide is a complex issue and I wanted to share my thoughts not with the goal of providing answers, but simply as a small gesture - to share some of my inner world with the outer world. With that in mind, my reflections this month got me thinking back to a conference I attended a number of years ago at which Martin Seligman was the keynote speaker. Seligman is commonly known as the father of positive psychology and his research has been a great source of personal inspiration for me. Seligman’s research has shown that the simple exercise of having gratitude for three things in your life before you go to sleep at night (either voicing these to yourself or writing them down) and for three things you are going to do each day when you wake up in the morning – can shift your attitude and thinking in a positive direction. I have been practising this exercise for a numbers of years and it is now one of my daily practices. Personally, it helps serve as an important reminder that no matter how bad things are there are lots of thing to be grateful for.

Most of us are well aware of what is required to look after our physical health, but unfortunately the same cannot be said about our mental health. We have a long way to go, but I believe little mental health exercises, like the one above, are an important step towards this future. Have you tried this exercise before? What other mental health exercises do you practice?

Podcast Recommendation

We are taking a short break from our regular Ask Dr Tom section this month to recommend a timely podcast that we recently recorded on the topic of loneliness. Please listen to the five-minute episode by clicking here.


Book Recommendation


Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life, Martin E. P. Seligman, Ph.D.

Dr. Seligman developed the theory of ‘Learned Helplessness’, during the 1960s at University of Pennsylvania. This theory found learned helplessness to be a psychological condition in which a human being (or an animal) has learned to act or behave helplessly in a particular situation, even when it actually has the power to change its unpleasant or even harmful circumstance. Seligman went on to become the father of the new science of positive psychology and continues to author books on the subject.

In Learned Optimism, Dr. Seligman draws on more than twenty years of clinical research to demonstrate how optimism enhances the quality of life and how anyone can learn to practice it. The book offers many simple and practical techniques aimed at helping the reader to develop a more constructive way of interpreting their own behaviour, and consequently break the habit of pessimism and experience the benefits of a more positive interior dialogue. This book is a great introduction to Dr. Seligman and positive psychology, and is a valuable guide for adults. It also offers additional advice on how to encourage optimistic behaviour at school and in children.

If you need help in a crisis, call Lifeline on 13 11 14. For further information about depression contact beyondblue on 1300 224 636 or talk to your GP, local health professional or someone you trust.
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