Mental Health is an issue that lies very close to my heart. Personally, I have had many friends and family members who have suffered with some form of mental ill-health; and I myself have had a pretty colourful past when it comes to problems in the upstairs department.
It is estimated that 1 in 6 people in the past week experienced a common mental health problem globally, and 1 in 3 people in the UK will develop mental health issues in the course of their lifetime (according to NHS England); both of which illustrate how prevalent the problem is in the UK and beyond…
A recent Survey of 301 diseases found mental health problems to be one of the main causes of the overall disease burden worldwide (They were shown to account for 21.2% of years lived with disability worldwide.). Yet, in spite of the pervasiveness of mental health in the world, it remains a highly underestimated issue and is commonly swept under the table in favour of other conditions that have more defined physical/ visual symptoms.
In light of Mental Health Awareness Week, I thought it would be apt to write a wee article explaining the top 5 lessons that I have learnt as both a friend of someone close to me, as well as the problems I myself have experienced in the past…
Mental Health : The ‘Whats’
Mental health, as defined by the Oxford English Dictionary, describes ‘a person’s condition with regard to their psychological and emotional well-being.’
As opposed to physical injuries and diseases, mental health conditions rarely manifest themselves through visual symptoms; instead, the side effects that one experiences from such conditions are felt predominantly within (i.e. through one’s thought processes, feelings, emotions, and opinions of the world ).
Some of the most common mental health conditions worldwide include:
- Depression (MDD) – “causes people to experience low mood, loss of interest or pleasure, feelings of guilt or low self-worth, disturbed sleep or appetite, low energy, and poor concentration.” (1)
- Anxiety –“a feeling of unease, worry or fear which, when persistent and impacting on daily life may be a sign of an anxiety disorder. Generalised Anxiety Disorder, which is one common type of anxiety disorder, is estimated to impact 5.9% of adults in England” (2)
- Eating Disorders – “any of a range of psychological disorders characterized by abnormal or disturbed eating habits (such as anorexia nervosa).” (3)
These are just a few of the many different forms of mental health condition in existence.
What’s All The Fuss About?!
You will have undoubtedly noticed the increasing amount of content in the media concerning the prevalence of mental health in the last 5 years, whether it’s anecdotes from people who have suffered from particular conditions, self-help techniques to improve your personal state of mind, or information about accessing services to help you deal with ongoing problems in the upstairs department. But why all the fuss?!
Well, up until the mid-late noughties, mental health was largely seen as a bit of a ‘fluffy’ concept; people seldom took things like anxiety and depression seriously, and were of the opinion that if you were having a hard time with something, you should just ‘man-up and get your act together’. Thankfully, this lax attitude to mental health is, to a certain extent, behind us…
As studies began to emerge documenting the severity of the issue on a global scale, the world started taking mental health a bit more seriously, and people began to open up about thier personal battles with various conditions. As more people got conversations going, the stigma surrounding mental health started to subside.
That said, there is still a long way to go; which is why there is still a big fuss. There are still those who find it hard to confront their personal demons out of fear judgement from others (particularly men, but also with women). That is why there is so much chat in the media aimed at building awareness & educating people on the effects, therapies, and treatments available for various conditions…
So, now we’ve got the basic deets down, let’s crack on with my top 5 lessons learnt from my personal battles with mental health conditions, both as sufferer and onlooker…
Lesson #1 – Boys Cry Too
This one goes out to all my dudes out there: NEVER be afraid to shed one from time to time. No, it doesn’t make you a p*ssy; and no, it doesn’t strip you of your manlihood in any way, shape or form. In fact, I would argue that it shows more courage to recognise the need to cry than bottling it up in the name of ‘masculinity’…
I am not just referring to this in the literal sense, either;the phrase ‘boys cry too’ refers to the prevalence of unreported male mental health both in the UK and beyond. A Study by Time to Change discovered that 75% of men would not feel comfortable opening up to a close friend about having a mental health problem. Therefore, there is definitely a problem with stereotypical ideals of masculinity limiting an individual’s ability to talk openly about mental health…
As a man, I have absolutely no shame in admitting my checkered past in terms of mental health, as I am of the belief that what I personally have been through has played a huge role in who I am today.
Lesson #2 – Harness The Power Of Words
Never underestimate the impact that a simple facebook message or instagram DM can have on the recipient’s state of mind…
We talk a lot about the negative effects of words when it comes to mental health, usually regarding some form of abuse; be it verbal slurs or cyber-bullying. However, every action has an equal and opposite reaction as my GCSE Physics teacher said; in this case, words have the potential to improve one’s psychological wellbeing and nullify the detrimental effects that mental health conditions have on an individual.
It could be as simple as a message saying “Are you okay?”, or “Fancy a beer on Friday?”; it doesn’t have to be much. For me, I was lucky enough to have loads of incredible friends close to me when I was struggling, and I would recieve these sorts of messages pretty regularly when I was at my worst. Just knowing that someone cares, or that someone is fussing about you gives you a sense of purpose, and certainly helped me out of the mire on more occasions than one…
I would even go as far as to say that one message in particular actually stopped me from making an attempt on my life; and I will be forever grateful to the sender, as his kind words pulled me from the brink.
Long-story short, NEVER underestimate the power of words; and if you believe someone close to you to be struggling with some demons, drop them a line just to show someone is thinking of them….
Lesson #3 – Verbal Exorcism Is The Sh*t
Talking about your problems is probably the hardest step you can take in your battle against mental health conditions. It may be the hardest step, but it is also THE single-most effective step you can take to get yourself out of a rut…
For me, it took a wee while to find someone who I was comfortable opening to about my most personal demons; but once I found Susie (my consultant at the time), I found myself exorcising my negative thoughts on a weekly basis. Every week, I would spend the best part of an hour spouting all of the grim thoughts in my head to an impartial audience; one who ultimately helped me conquer a life threatening eating disorder and MDD.
Even if it just you talking to yourself in an empty room, verbalising your inner thoughts can go an insanely long way in kickstarting your recovery from a mental health condition. And if you have not been officially diagnosed, but are feeling particularly anxious/stressed/depressed about something, you too can employ this ‘Verbal Exorcism’ method to help deal with those feelings.
Lesson #4 – Look Beyond Appearances
This is a subject that recieves a lot of attention in the media; the fact that those suffering with mental health difficulties often have no physical/visual symptoms. This means that people fail to take their conditions seriously simply due to the fact that you cannot see how it is affecting the individual.
When I’ve been at my lowest points during extended episodes of depression, many of my closest mates told me after I had recovered that you would have never guessed that something so serious was going on behind closed doors. To the outside world, I portrayed my usual self and conciously tried to act as normal as possible to prevent people from asking questions; however, as soon as I would be left in my own company, the dark reality would rear its ugly head and take over.
Why am I telling you this? Because many who suffer with severe mental disorders appear to be absolutely fine; indeed, some may seem better/happier than usual due to a concious effort to ‘act the part’ of someone who is happy/mentally sound. That’s why the phrase ‘never judge a book by its cover’ applies more than ever when talking about mental health…
Lesson #5 – Don’t Go In Too Hot With Support
As someone who has been on both the giving and recieving end of support for mental health conditions, I have learnt that one of the most important things to consider when asking a friend/family member about their state of mind is how you choose to show you concerns and provide support.
I like to use the’Goldilocks’ Principle to explain the best approach to employ when trying to help a loved one suffering with mental health. That is to say there is a happy medium between not saying enough/offering enough support, and being overly fussy and messaging the person in question every half hour to check that they are okay!
When I first suffered with anorexia, for example, my parents were of the latter persuasion; naturally, due to the fact they were witnessing their kid going downhill very quickly, they wanted to do everything they possibly could to try and stop me from getting worse. I love them to pieces, but in this case the full-on approach they initially adopted towards my condition ended out accelerating the downward spiral. It was only when they toned it down a wee bit when their support really began to get me back onto the straight and narrow.
If you are trying to support a friend in need, don’t go in too hot, as this may cause the person suffering to push you away. Offer enough support to show that you care, but not so much that you begin to suffocate the person with your concerns!
The Final Word
The conversation about mental health is growing by the day. More and more people are becoming acutely aware of the seriousness of the issue on a global scale, and we are taking more steps to actively look after our own and others’ state of mind in order to live our lives to the fullest.
Althlough we are so much further than where we were 5 years ago, there is still a long way to go; there is still stigmatisation of mental health, and it remains somewhat a taboo topic in our modern culture. That’s why it is so important not to stop here in the fight to spread awareness, and keep the conversations going.
Having gone through some pretty intense battles in my own mind, one of the main things that I have learnt is that every corner you turn in life will present you with a new challenge, one which may throw a spanner in the inner workings of your mind and stimulate a decline in your mental health. Whenever you are confronted with such a spanner, it is ESSENTIAL that you get a hold of the demons before they get a hold of your every thought.
Every one of us is different, and the ways in which we process thoughts, feelings, and emotions vary significantly from person to person. Whatever is going on in your own Upstairs Department, do not be ashamed to talk about it; our struggles are one of the many things that makes us who we are as individuals.
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