Continuing the conversation about mental health
A few weeks ago, it was mental health awareness week. Here in the UK, that meant people we’re tweeting, instagram-ing and Facebook-ing all about it. The Royals launched “Shout”, a “free 24/7 text service for anyone in crisis anytime, anywhere.” Newspapers printed articles about people and their stories related to mental health difficulties – some of the people being celebrities and some not-so-well-known. There was stuff in print in the Sun, the Guardian, the Huffington post and more. There was stuff on the radio, like the Duke of Cambridge and other celebrities talking about what a positive thing it can be to really listen to others or this programme about “Growing Well”, a mental health charity on an organic farm that spoke about how farming can help keep you mentally healthy. Even the BBC (and likely other television channels) were on board, launching their “Mental Health Season”.
This is all very positive, as far as it goes. There are some celebrities who have made it their life mission to be open about their own mental health issues and what works for them to keep themselves in good mental health (Ruby Wax and Stephen Fry immediately spring to mind). But not a lot of people, those of us who are less well known, feel comfortable talking about their mental health and any difficulties they might be having with it. I mean people like you and me. According to statistics presented by the World Health Organisation in 2001, one in four people in the world will be affected by a mental or neurological disorder. According to Mind, a mental health charity in the UK, more recent statistics (from a study published in 2009) confirm this prevalence within the UK. So almost 20 years have gone by and still 25% of the population experience some sort of difficulty with their mental health. One out of every four people. In. The. World. See a family: mum, dad and two children? Statistically speaking, one of them will experience some difficulty with their mental health at some point in their life. And would we know this? Doubtful. Think about the classes you attended in high school. If you were lucky, you had a small class of 20. In a class of that size, 5 of the students would experience, at some point in their life, a mental health difficulty. Was it you? If it was, who would have known?
It is so important to understand how common it is to experience difficulty, whether it's sadness, depression, anxiety. When we don’t understand this, it only makes things worse. It becomes something that needs to be hidden, something shameful and wrong; something that needs to be fixed. For some, it is even more difficult to talk about, especially those who are 'supposed to be' strong. Mental health difficulties can happen to anyone – a man, woman, child or teen with any level of ability in any culture anywhere in the world. Just like a toothache, pulled muscle or sprained ankle. And until struggles with our mental health can be spoken about like a toothache or sprained ankle, people will continue to try and hide their difficulties. These kinds of difficulties will continue to bring shame and more difficulty. So let’s talk about it. Let’s have Mental Health Awareness Week. But let’s not forget about it the rest of the year. We have 51 other weeks in the year that we can remember that ONE-IN-FOUR people experience problems with their mental health. Celebrities and their stories are valid and are a good reminder. But what about everyone else? How about asking the next four people you come into contact with how they’re doing? And if they’re all great, perhaps ask yourself how you’re doing. And really listen to the answers. Without judgement. We are starting to hear more and more that it’s ok not to be ok. And that’s the truth of it, no matter what anyone else says. If you ask someone how they are, and they have to courage to be honest and say “not so great”, acknowledge that. They are not telling you because they think you can fix it; they are telling you because they need to be heard. And that in and of itself can be the start of the resolution of the problem. Just naming and acknowledging that there is a difficulty starts the process of being able to get through it.
Every day, when I come into work, I have the privilege of asking people how they are doing and every day I do my best to listen, really listen, to their answers. Each day and each interaction reminds me of how brave the people I work with are. They come to me and speak their truth. And that takes some amount of courage. So each day I’m reminded of how incredibly brave, strong and resilient people can be. What an honour! Every day, I am reminded that people experience difficulties with their mental health – and every day, I’m saddened that this is the case. But to see how people are able to carry on in the face of difficulties – and to see how they can learn to cope with difficulties and many times resolve them – this brings me hope. If we are able to cultivate this hope by starting proper conversations about how we are feeling during Mental Health Awareness Week, maybe we can continue to do this the rest of the year. And maybe this will help to dispel some common myths about mental health difficulties, like it's rare or wrong or a sign of weakness. One in four. Remember that figure. That's not rare and that's not weak. Let's keep talking all 52 weeks of the year. If we do that, we might actually have a chance to reduce that long-standing one in four statistic. Because it is ok to not be ok – and also, it is ok to talk about it. Not just during mental health awareness week, but Every Single Day. So, let’s talk – and once we start talking, let’s not stop.