Mental Health Awareness
How should you start a blog about mental health? A statistic seems a cold, detached opening for such a deeply personally and emotive subject, yet an anecdote fails to convey the weight, scope and depth of the issue. Forget writing a blog on mental health, how do we deal with it in our everyday lives? How can we go on when we feel like we’re sinking? How can we support colleagues who are struggling? How can we reduce the risk of burnout, depression and anxiety in our workplaces and homes? How can we meaningfully ask one another how we’re doing?
Last week marked mental health awareness week in the UK, but many of us (myself included!) will be keen that this is not a conversation which dries up with the coming of a new week. When we’re faced with questions which lack simple answers, and especially whilst we find ourselves living in these unprecedented times of lockdown, many readers will be battling anxiety over novel exam structures, uncertain job markets, personal circumstances and financial security. Inside and outside of lockdown, this is an important conversation to which there should always be an open door.
I’m no expert. Mental health will affect us all in various ways and to different degrees. I’ve written this as someone who has suffered from depression and anxiety and seen suffering in others close to me. It’s written in response to the shame and weakness we can feel when we talk about mental illness as those who have suffered, and the helplessness we feel when someone around us is struggling. Many of us will identify with both positions at some point or another in our lives. I have seen a variety of realities linked to mental health, but this blog invariably will not cover everyone’s experience or provide an exhaustive list of ways to address the bruises left by struggles with mental health. The below is not a self-help guide, or a help-your-loved-ones guide, it’s just one input into an important, ongoing conversation around mental health. I hope it stimulates thoughts and conversations and prompts others to make their own additions to the subject in whichever way they find most appropriate for them.
Understanding mental health
Too often, we picture mental health as an intrusive, uncertain alien with which we are not familiar. When we stop and think for a moment, we soon see that it’s is anything but alien. Challenges to our mental health are often the result of emotions and actions which are familiar to us all, but which have become inflated as a result of a certain catalyst.
We all relate to rainy spells in life. We all know what it is to feel alone, anxious and low. This is not the same as mental illness, which is more like flooding – it’s overwhelming, dangerous and can be devastating. This should empower us all, whether we are struggling with our mental health, or know those who are (and I would suggest we all fit into at least one of those categories at any one time in our lives).
I use the analogy of flooding because that’s certainly how it felt for me – an overwhelming sense of fighting the tide, swimming against emotions and behaviors which were taking control of me, and ultimately losing - sinking. As a Christian, the words of Psalm 69:1-3 stood out and perfectly sum up my own experience of depression - 'Save me oh God, for the waters have come up to my neck. I sink in the miry depths, where there is no foothold. I have come into the deep waters; the floods engulf me. I am worn out calling for help; my throat is parched. My eyes fail, looking for my God.' Others describe their encounters with depression and anxiety differently. I’m reminded of ex-corporate-lawyer-come-comedian Susan Calman’s description of her depression as a ‘Crab of Hate’ in her book Cheer Up Love. For others, it’s the Black Dog, a cloud-like haze, or a pit we’ve spiraled down into. Think about the above – each of these descriptions is bitterly isolating and individualistic and (certainly in my experience) depression and anxiety often feel this way. They leave us feeling cut off from those around us, lethargic and uncertain of what’s going on. They convince us that no-one else shares in our struggles. If we all share in rainy days, we don’t have to believe the lie that depression, anxiety and other challenges to our mental health are completely incomprehensible to those around us – to some degree, we can all empathise with the fundamental emotions which escalate into these illnesses.
Responding to mental health
These floods, crabs, dogs and clouds are invisible. How can we spot the flood warnings coming? The simple answer is that often we can’t. Sometimes it’s obvious that rain is going to lead to danger. Similarly, it can be easy to identify a specific project, department, or role which is likely to incur stress for any individuals involved, but mental health struggles don’t come with little yellow triangles or warning lights. Often flood waters rise up behind a tide of pleasantries, smiles and performance. As a result, they often go unnoticed.
I doubt anyone would have suspected that I was seeing a counsellor throughout my second year of university. My grades remained on a largely steady upward climb. I still attended class and most of my extra-curricular commitments. I made applications and attended interviews, networking evenings and visits to firms in London. I socialised, I smiled, and my room mostly remained the tidy haven it usually is. But inside I was desperately flailing in my own private flood.
Whether we reach out to check-in on those around us or are approached by someone struggling, we will find people who are battling mental illness. In those circumstances when people open up, we often either feel helpless and awkward, or launch into an I-can-fix-this mentality. Both can be natural. Often neither are particularly helpful. The first approach rejects the understanding that we all have rainy days and suggests that we have no idea what the person opposite us is enduring. The second rejects the truth that rainy days are not the same as flooding, and that a new routine, greater positivity, a diet and exercise routine will not fix the underlying issue (though they may all be good ideas to implement).
Listening, talking, counselling, cognitive behavioral therapy and medication may form part of the steps to recovery. That process won’t be the same for everyone. If you’re struggling with mental health, I would encourage you to reach out to someone, investigate options available to you and remain open. I personally found counselling particularly helpful to pump some rationality back into my thought processes and climb back up the spiral I’d slipped down. Even saying this, I appreciate that not everyone wants to engage in counselling and that finding the right counsellor can be hard. For me, it was an energy-sapping streamlining of my thinking which taught me lots about the way in which I work and think. Medication may be the right response. It’s easy to develop an unhealthy attitude to medication, either as the pill-form-panacea to all of the issues we face, or the last-resort which we want to avoid at all costs. Firstly, a pill might improve the situation, but medication has to be accompanied by a personal analysis of what’s gone wrong and whether there are steps you can put in place to make the situation better, independent of medication. Secondly, mental illness can be helped by adjusting chemical imbalances in your body, and in these terms, medication may be a good aspect of recovery, if recommended by medical specialists.
Maintaining mental health
Mental health, like physical health, is something which we all have and we all have to maintain. Some people will be naturally predisposed to have particular endurance when it comes to mental health – we all know those around us who seem to cope remarkably well under pressure, or in a crisis, or bounce back from life-challenging circumstances. Others of us will have to train hard to develop that resilience – the ultimate bounce-back skill!
I’ve recently started a new job and it’s offered a prime opportunity to review how to maintain resilient and stable mental health. The hours can be long and the work often feels like I’m racing against the clock, under pressure to deliver work which is attentive to detail and efficiently produced. I’m well aware that it’s good to have a few simple measures in place to maintain my mental health throughout my work. So, having sought advice, thought hard and tuned into guidance from others in the profession, here are some quick thoughts from me on maintaining ongoing mental health; they’re certainly no cure for flood-risk situations, but the below may provide some guidance on staying stable.
1. Red lines
When starting my job, I was encouraged to consider an element of my week I was eager not to compromise on. This may involve a weekly sports commitment, getting home early to put the kids to bed (or arriving to work later, so that you can take them to school), or getting home to greet the dog from their doggy daycare. It’s not something to worry about or judge anyone else on, this is simply an important carve-out, something you love and value at the forefront of work.
I try and commit to a bible study with church family each Wednesday evening. Some weeks, it might not be possible to make this red-line event, but colleagues are aware of the commitment and in most cases, I make myself available during that time and can go back to work afterwards or catch up on my to-do list at other times. For me, this time out is an important recalibration in my thinking, to remember that ultimately, I don’t believe I’m in control of life (even my own), but I am confident in a God who is. It’s a reminder that my worth is not in my mental strength, my work, my temperament or my bank balance but that I find my worth in being loved and forgiven by God. Whether I’m swimming against the storms of mental illness, or experiencing sunnier times, this is a wonderful anchor in my own life.
Regardless of what it is for you, have a think and get the red marker out to ring fence some time in your diary.
2. Escape Hatches
Life can sometimes feel like an aeropress, sensing the pressure closing in with deadlines and commitments and juggling projects. It’s important to be able to have some escape hatches to release that pressure. It doesn’t matter what it is. You may want to work in some daily escape hatches – coffee breaks, a quiet place you can go to, or a walk. Throughout university, I would take brief breaks in work to put the kettle and a sing-along anthem on, and just enjoy a few minutes away from my books and screen. Lockdown working routines allow for greater flexibility than office life would ordinarily, and I’ve enjoyed incorporating some golden hour walks and culinary breaks into my days.
Learn to find your escape hatch, and find out when you need to use it. Whether it’s the pool, gym, a café, a friend’s house, cooking up a storm, a phone call, a cup of coffee (or tea!) and a book, a biscuit… find somewhere that you can switch off and escape the problems for a momentary break and chance to digest what’s happening. Somewhere you can think straight and achieve something. I’m no advocate of escapism so please don’t read this wrong. The aim of getting away is to have an opportunity to step away from the situation you’re in and take some time to review it. I always liken it to coming up to the surface after you’ve been under water for a period of time. If you take regular breaks for breath, you’ll find you can stay under water for longer, with greater ease.
Routine is no cure for mental illness, but it so often adds some structure into a chaotic and confusing experience and can go a long way to helping you bounce back mentally. When depression and anxiety can feel like a hazy fog, it’s often easy for things to slip through the net and get forgotten. It can be easy to achieve very little or to at least feel as if that is the case. I’m a big advocate of lists (whatever state your mental health is at!) and they can help establish some routine and regain a sense of purpose, helping built mental health resilience. Nothing grand, but make your bed, make a meal for yourself and/or housemates or loved ones, get the kids to school, read them a bedtime story… these are basic achievements we are often quick to let slip when we’re feeling ill. Plants are something I and several friends have turned to (and since become very green fingered if we do say so ourselves!!) in times like this – having the routine of keeping something else alive and watching it grow is a super simple but encouraging way to regain some stability, independence and take ownership of a task.
Throughout our lives, many of us will encounter challenges to our mental health. We are unlikely to want to broadcast those moments to the world, certainly not at the time. But we can all feel empowered to talk about mental health, regardless of the state we find ours in presently or historically. Mental health awareness week presents a great opportunity to recognise a prevalent issue in health and well-being, to check in on one another and investigate opportunities to get help. But let’s be careful to keep the door open on this conversation for the next 51 weeks until next year…