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Pass Notes: Mental Health Awareness Week

That song’s going to be in your head all day, now…

What: MHAW

Age: Good question. It’ll come to me…I think it was set up in 2001 by the Mental Health Foundation.

Did you just Google that? Yes.

Appearance: Lots of social media posts, articles and adverts with the message that #KindnessMatters and #It’sOkNotToBeOk. Quite possibly accompanied by scenic pictures, dulcet tones and emotive music.

MWAH! Aww, a virtual kiss, isn’t that lovely. Right back atcha, buddy. Erm, I’m very fond of you too. But it’s MHAW. For ‘Mental Health Awareness Week’. Which it is, this week.

Oh! Haha, silly me. ‘Course it is… *ahem* So what’s that all about, then? It’s to raise awareness of mental health issues, to help reduce the stigmas around it, and to help people find practical ways to be healthy mentally.

I see. Sounds very worthy and all that, but I’ve kinda got enough on my plate, what with all this staying alert and all. Not to mention the rest of it. Well, absolutely. Even without the current situation, lots of people struggle with their mental health and feel they can’t talk about it. That might be you, or maybe someone you know. So, it’s more important than ever.

Stigma of being down in the dumps? That’s not even worthy of a groan. It is worth noting here that humour, or very feeble attempts at humour, are a classic coping mechanism when it comes to dealing with serious, difficult subject matter. Without making light of the subject itself, of course.

Which is what you’re doing here, via a blatantly nicked formula from a popular broadsheet newspaper column? Yup.

Tell me more about these stigmas. There’s a lot more openness than there used to be, but there are still be a lot of negative connotations when it comes to mental health stuff.

Such as? Weak, self-indulgent, attention-seeking, over-emotional. An inability to cope with life. Character flaws. These things don’t really come up in discussions around physical health.

Eeek. These might be messages that have been reinforced throughout your whole life, even from well-meaning people who love you dearly and want you to be happy.It’s hard to completely shake the nagging, persistent thoughts, even when you know better than to believe them. They are what stop a lot of people from getting help, or from talking about it.

Understandable, really. These stigmas are what has stopped me from being more open about it, too. I was worried about what people would think, and still am a bit. Hopefully, the more chats like this we have, the more we’ll start to counteract them. If you hear messages like ‘It’s ok not to be ok’ often enough, maybe you’ll start letting yourself believe them. Maybe they’ll eventually become as ingrained as those stigmas once were.

Can I have a pound every time you mention stigmas? Cheeky.

Fancy a cuppa? Good idea.Sometimes, the simplest actions do help you to feel better and get out of your own head. Having a break from newsfeeds and social media. Getting out into nature for some fresh air, being absorbed in a book or lost in music, the rhythmic movements of walking, running, dancing. Creating, gardening, cooking. Talking to a friend, watching some guilty pleasure trashy tv. Doing something to help someone else. Small, positive actions. Everyone will have their own list of things that help them feel refreshed, recharged and relaxed.

Love a bit of Morris Dancing, me. That’s nice. As helpful as these actions are though, sometimes they’re just not going to cut it. What do you do when you’re struggling to get moving at all? Depending on what you’re dealing with mental health wise, the smallest things can take a monumental effort. You might not want to face the world even for a gentle walk. Your mind could be spinning so much that it’s impossible to read more than one line of a book. If you feel like you need help, there is no shame in asking for it. Asking for help can be a massive hurdle to get over, especially if it feels like an admission of weakness.

You mean like talking to a pal? If you’re lucky enough to have someone to talk to who you trust, this could be a great place to start. You might be reluctant to bother them with your troubles, apologise a lot, and feel very vulnerable doing it. But sharing it with someone can be an enormous relief and is often the first step towards things improving.

I see. *awkward silence* You’re looking worried.

Well…if someone was to open up to me about this kind of thing, I don’t know if I’d have had a clue how to respond. Don’t worry. You’re not expected to have the answers, or to fix anything. Just being there, listening and not running away afterwards can make a massive difference. For your friend to be able to say it out loud, maybe for the first time ever, and for the world not to fall apart: that’s a big deal. They have opened up to you and you have let them know that you are still there for them, and that it’s ok.

That it’s ok not to be ok. Precisely.

Oh, thank goodness. I’d really want to help, but I’d be worried about saying the wrong thing. Or not saying the right thing. It can be pretty complicated. I’ve tried describing to someone what it’s like in my head during the worst times. I don’t think I’ve ever managed to explain it properly.  If it doesn’t make sense to me, I wouldn’t expect anyone else to understand it without a qualification!

Supporting someone with a mental health condition can be incredibly frustrating, confusing, sad and lonely. There are some very helpful resources online to help. They explain many different conditions and give you practical tips on how you can best offer support.

Qualification – you mean calling in the professionals? Yes. I did, eventually.However incredible your friends and loved ones are (and mine truly are), there might be things you feel you can’t say to them, or you might be struggling to articulate anything at all about what’s happening. Mental health issues are messy and destructive. The worst bit is the affect they can have on the people around you who you love. It can take getting to a pretty bad place before you finally wake up to it, bite the bullet and get professional help. Don’t feel like it has to get to that.

However much I wish that my brain functioned differently, it doesn’t. There’s only so much pretending I could get away with before I had to accept that. I looked around at other people and thought that they were all coping with life’s challenges far more competently than I was. I’ve spent many years being baffled at how everyone else was seemingly managing it all – and often still am.

But they might not have been. You’re right. That’s the other thing about mental health; it’s often invisible. Someone’s appearance and what they choose to present to the world is one thing. What they’re experiencing in reality might be entirely different.

What I could also see though, was that friends were dealing with immensely sad and challenging things in their lives. It’s not hard to look around and see people with far, far harder lives than mine. I have so much in life that I’m immensely grateful for. And yet, there was this feeling that something was very wrong. It didn’t make any sense at all. Logic didn’t seem to come into it. I felt ungrateful, guilty, pathetic and ashamed. So, for years I told myself I was just being ridiculous.

Heavy stuff. Maybe I should have got us something stronger than a cup of tea… This is the good bit.It gets better. Once I finally did get professional help, things improved a lot. It felt like a massive relief, and I wished I’d done it years earlier. The ups and downs are still there. But the downs are less frequent, less intense and I’m better equipped to manage them.

Good to know. I might still get that drink, though. Me too, especially before I press the ‘publish’ button on this blog…

You don’t have to, though. Yeah, I know. I meant to write a blog post on mental health a year ago, and kept finding reasons why it wasn’t such a good idea. However. I’ve read lots of accounts from people who have shared their experiences with mental health, and been very grateful for them. One in particular was this by Brad Stulberg. In it, mental illness is described as “being on one side of a river when everyone else is on the other side”. I read that and felt a bolt of connection. It felt miraculous that, when you can’t explain what’s going on in your own head, someone else can articulate it. And tell you that it can get better, and help you take action to help yourself. His article talks about his own particular condition, but also discusses so many important points far better than I ever could.

Just knowing that someone else felt like this helped massively. There is great comfort in knowing that you’re not alone. That’s one of the main reasons for sharing this, in case one person reading it can benefit in some way.

Here’s to that. So, whatever you’re dealing with, you’re not alone. The first step is often telling someone and asking for help. From there, it’s small steps. Be patient. Try to be kind to yourself along the way. Things might feel desperate, but they can change. It can get better.

Don’t say: Suck it up, buttercup.

Do say: It’s good to talk.

There’s a lot of useful advice and resources online. Here are just a few:

http://www.mentalhealth.org.uk

http://www.mind.org.uk

www.samaritans.org Call them for free, any time, from any phone: 116123

Search for #MentalHealthAwarenessWeek #KindnessMatters #itsoknottobeok

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