Mental Health Awareness
Updated: May 10
How should you start a blog about mental health? A statistic seems a cold, detached opening for such a deeply personally and emotive subject, 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, whether we’re struggling or know others who are? This week is 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.
Disclaimers: I’m no expert – mental health will affect us all differently, and this is written from the perspective of someone who has suffered from depression and anxiety and seen suffering in others close to me. This isn’t a self-help or a how-to-help-your-loved-ones guide, it’s just one input into an important, ongoing conversation which I hope we’re increasingly plugged into.
Understanding mental health
“Mental health” often feels far away and unfamiliar but we all know what it is to feel alone, anxious, stressed, tired and low. Challenges to our mental health are often the result of emotions and situations which are familiar to us all, but which have become inflated. For me it felt like flooding – 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, it’s a feeling well summed up in the words of Psalm 69 “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. Each of these descriptions is bitterly isolating, leaving us feeling cut off from those around us, lethargic and uncertain of what’s going on, often convincing ourselves 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.
These floods, crabs, dogs and clouds are often invisible. 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 trajectory. I still attended class and most of my extra-curricular commitments, I made applications, attended interviews, networking evenings, visits to firms in London, I socialised, smiled and my room remained the tidy haven it usually is. Other times, it’s more obvious. Friends, family and colleagues try to come alongside us and once we’re through the cloud and the floodwaters have passed, greet us with smiles and reassurances of how good it is to see us in a better place, reminders that invisible struggles often have tangible effects.
Responding to mental health challenges
Processing and recovering won’t be the same for everyone. If you’re struggling with your mental health, I would encourage you to reach out to someone, investigate the options available to you and remain open. I personally found counselling particularly helpful to pump some rationality back into my thought processes, and teach me about the way I think and work, but I appreciate that it’s not for everyone and that finding the right counsellor can be hard.
When people open up about mental health struggles, it can be all-to-easy to settle into an awkward, helpless silence, or launch into an I-can-fix-this mentality. Often neither are particularly helpful. The first approach rejects that we all have rainy days and suggests that we have no idea what the person opposite us is enduring, likely reinforcing the isolation they already feel. 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 necessarily fix the underlying issue (though all may be helpful). I don’t say this to make us feel guilty – I suspect most if not all of us (myself included) have taken these approaches at some stage. Listen and don’t be afraid to ask questions – you don’t need to have the answers.
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, others of us will have to train hard to develop that resilience. From personal experience, and the advice of others, these things have particularly helped me:
Escape Hatches – life can sometimes feel like an AeroPress and it’s important to be able to have some escape hatches to release pressure when it builds up. Escaping screens, talking to people, and getting the endorphins pumping either in the pool or at the gym have been big helps to me.
Routine – 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. 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. It doesn’t have to be anything grand: make your bed, make a meal for yourself and/or others, water the plants, walk the dog…
Reinforcements – I work long hours in a job I love. I live alone and have the luxury of being able to afford a cleaner and the occasional takeaway. You don’t have to do everything alone; whilst I often feel like a bit of a diva when I admit to having a cleaner, it gives me back precious time to recharge, see friends and family and takes away the stress of a messy flat. It might look different for you, but don’t feel guilty about calling in some reinforcements where helpful.
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, and keep the door open on this conversation for the rest of the year.