I look forward to the day when ‘World Mental Health Day’ isn’t necessary.
When taking care of our mental health is so embedded in our daily lives and conversations, so much a part of who we are and our culture, that we don’t need a ‘day’ dedicated to it, because it’s part of every day.
Mental health, one day, I hope, will be treated and talked about, the same way we treat and talk about physical health. Some of us are there already, some of us, and some organisations and institutions have further to go.
Challenges around physical health are something we all accept as part of being alive. Most of us get sick at some point and we expect to get better. Some of us face far greater challenges than others, but we know now how wrong it is to judge someone because of this. In many cases, we actively support each other with the physical health challenges we face. We form groups and communities around weight loss, healthy eating and exercise. There’s less stigma, more encouragement, recognition and in some cases, celebration. Think of Slimming World, cancer survivors, ‘Swim Fit’, and The Daily Mile. Imagine how different our lives would be if we had to go into hiding anytime our BMI meant we became classed as ‘overweight’.
Every pupil, at every school, takes part in Physical Education.
Good choices with our physical health aren’t always enough. We could exercise daily and eat all the right things, get 8 hours sleep every night, bend our knees when we lift something heavy and still suffer the agony caused by the ‘wrong genes’, a hereditary condition, bad luck, catch an illness from someone else or suffer life changing injuries in an accident.
The point is we’re OK talking about it. We accept it as part of life and many of us are fortunate enough to learn from someone else’s misfortune and we make smart changes to our own lifestyles as a result.
Although I look forward to the day when there’s parity between mental health and physical health, I recognise there’s a long way to go. Despite the progress and investment and some very powerful stories from some very brave individuals, there’s still a lot of prejudice and stigma associated with issues around mental health. There’s a lack of understanding and a tendency to dramatise the issues. It can also be harder to find people who’ve experienced poor mental health who now consider themselves ‘better’. Whereas we probably all know several people with asthma, diabetes, or who have had cancer who are leading full, active, healthy lives. Physical illness is associated with physical recovery. Mental illness, all too often, even now, is associated with the abyss.
There’s also the issue of treatment. Most of us, if we experience an issue with our physical health, have an expectation of what we will receive when we seek help, generally from the NHS and that help, when it comes, is generally, of a pretty high standard. From what I hear, that isn’t always the case when it comes to issues around mental health. There seem to be many more variables, more complex answers, if there are answers, and sometimes, little in the way of effective treatment. And because there are often no physical symptoms, patients can be unsure if they should take time off work, or tell their boss, or friends and family. And if you don’t, if you keep it to yourself, as many do, it can become a painful, lonely battle. Whereas, if you fall and break your arm, the next steps – who you tell, how long you take off work and when the cast comes off, are probably pretty obvious.
Like it or not, mental health is something we all have. And much of it is out of our hands. By the time we become adults, we’ve gone through childhood and our teens. Show me someone who’s gone through 18 years on this planet without experiencing some sort of traumatic incident and I’ll show you a liar. It’s impossible. Our parents aren’t perfect, there are challenges around fitting in at school, puberty, making friends, falling out with friends, learning about love, loss, life and death. It’s a minefield. And we’re thrown into this world and told, from a very young age, to ‘cope.’
And that’s what we set about trying to do. To cope. And we devise strategies to help us cope. ‘Bury it’. ‘Don’t cry’. ‘Just get on with it’. ‘Let off some steam’, ‘have a drink’, ‘here, try this’ etc etc etc. And what we learn the hard way, is that so many of those ‘coping strategies’ work. To a degree. So we fall back on them and keep going and use them until we wake up one morning and realise what we’ve become.
And those are the lucky ones. What I’ve described there is what I consider the nuts and bolts of ordinary life. Coping with stress and pressure and the mess that is living on this planet. If, on top of that, you’re unfortunate enough to suffer abuse at the hands of someone you thought you could trust, or you’ve been on the receiving end of serious bullying or you’ve grown up with addiction in your family or lived in poverty, or your particular make up makes you more prone to serious mental health issues, then what’s required of you to cope with it becomes ever more challenging. Find respite in the *wrong* thing, take a couple of wrong turns and you’re now also plagued with guilt on top of the issue that made you take that route in the first place.
Mental health is complex. And while we’re making progress towards it being regarded in the same manner as physical health, it’s naive to think we’re getting there anytime soon.
You’ll read lots today from brave people sharing their own experiences. I’ll be reading and reflecting on them. You’ll also see lots of advice and signposting towards sources of support. And hashtags like #itsoknottobeok will trend.
All I can say is that experience has taught me that life is better when I take responsibility for my own mental health. There’s lots of help, support, treatment, understanding and empathy available…but it all starts with me taking responsibility.
Thousands of lives are saved each year because people have heart attacks. For many, it’s a built-in early warning system that something’s not right. Those fortunate enough to get the opportunity heed that warning, make changes and many go on and recover fully.
I’m no expert and I don’t know what the equivalent of that ‘early warning’ would be or if there even is such a thing for our mental health. But simply looking at the numbers, it’s clear that there are far too many people, leaving it far too late, before asking for help.
I’ll say it again: In my experience, life is better, often immediately and significantly, when I take responsibility for my own mental health.