We are currently midway through Mental Health Awareness Week, hosted by the Mental Health Foundation this year between 8-14th May. These days happen to encompass a rather stressful time in my own life: most of my final exams for my university degree take place this week, and it seemed like a good idea to take a break from the books to reflect on my own current health and consider whether I think of myself as surviving or thriving at the moment.
A recent survey undertaken on behalf of the foundation has found that just 13% of people surveyed consider their mental health to be good. This figure is, of course, worrying, but I like to also consider it a sign that people are feeling confident enough to judge their own mental health and find it lacking. Acknowledgement of the legitimacy of mental health is, unfortunately, a relatively new thing.
This acknowledgement has come alongside the frustrating comments frequently made about millenials. I bring this up simply because it these stereotypes have made me hold my tongue in the past. Amongst my fellow generation Y-ers it can seem a little less intimidating to talk about mental health problems, but outside of my own bubble, I fear accusal of laziness, entitlement, being self-absorbed or self-obsessed. It is the perfect fuel for the fire of anxiety and depression which burns always, but only flares at moments of serious stress.
It is from this perspective that I tackle an examination of my current mental health state, compared to how it was 12, 6, even 3 months ago. Writing is therapeutic, publishing is fear-inducing. I publish in order to reassure others who may feel similarly, and to honour the occasion of mental health awareness week. There will always be those who find this writing representative of those very words that I have just divulged scare me often: entitled, self-absorbed, etc. Right to opinion aside, I would respectfully ask those who have negative comments or ideas about the motivation behind writing this piece to consider the impact which sharing those comments might have before hitting ‘post’. And to those who are here because they feel lost and alone, you are not. You are not alone.
I have certain tactics which help me to survive when my mind is conspiring against me. These are for hard days, when fog sets in and reality eludes. I am glad to report that those days have not been a large part of the last 4 weeks, which feels like a great success.
- Lists. The fact that this is point one on my surviving list is no coincidence. For me, anxiety looks like being trapped in one position, unable to make a single movement due to the implied chain of expectation that it generates. One common example for me is being unable to go to bed, because I imagine all the things I have to do before I can get into bed with a quiet mind, and it overwhelms to the point of crisis. I may sit for hours before passing out where I sit, and it’s not difficult to see why that is problematic. My lists are embarrassingly simple, but they help me. If you have to tell yourself to put pyjamas on by writing it in a list, then so be it. For more sleeplessness tips, check out another post here.
- The five minute rule. Now that the list is written, it needs to be followed. But as anyone who has either been depressed, or tried to reason with the very difficult person that depression can sometimes turn your loved one into will know, it is quite another thing to actually do things when depression has struck. In these situations, I might set a timer on my phone. Can’t bear to clean your teeth? Make an agreement to do it for just 30 seconds and see how you feel when the timer goes off. Often, I’ll manage to keep going. No idea how to start that essay? Set a timer for 5 minutes only and promise yourself you can finish as soon as it goes. Often, the sense of achievement from 5 minutes of work can lift you just enough to keep going and drag yourself out of that spiral.
- Talk. Impossible to get started, but it will do you the world of good. I am incredibly lucky to have people around me who can tell when I call that sometimes, I am in a bad way. I know this is a luxury that not every person has, but I assure you that you all deserve it. If you can bear to open up, then take a chance and do it. Chances are, you’re speaking to one of the 87% of people who are struggling with their mental health in the UK. If not, please talk to the Samaritans or something similar. I have been in serious situations before where I have called the Samaritans, but I have also used their letter-writing service for those times when I don’t feel that my situation warrants taking up the time of one of their phone volunteers, but I am still feeling desperate to talk to somebody impartial. I only sent a few, but I found it very helpful. Feel free to comment or send a message to me if you want to talk more.
- Medical Help. I have taken medication for 18 months, and seen two counsellors. I may never ‘cure’ my mental health, but I can learn how to deal with it appropriately, I just try to think of it like a long-term physical health problem. If I knew I had bad knees, then I would choose my work-outs accordingly and avoid running, for example. I know that I get severe depression, therefore I (am supposed to!) minimise my alcohol intake to keep myself on an even keel. Whilst not all GPs will be experts on mental health, they can get you the help you need. I have talked about my mental health with varying degrees of success with different GPs. Some have been wonderful, others have left me feeling like a time-waster and I am aware that as a young woman, my demographic is probably the one most often associated with mental health and it may feel more ground-breaking to have to talk about it if you are male, from an older generation, etc. It will be worth it, I promise.
These are the things that I do when my mental health feels relatively stable, in order to maintain it. At the end of the day, we still don’t quite understand the cause and effects of mental health, and the best laid plans can still be struck with a depressive episode. However, I am lucky in that I do experience respite, and I can, for the most part, handle a balanced and successful day-to-day.
- Create. I have written some pieces from some very dark places, but overall I much prefer a sense of infallible optimism to permeate my work, whether I’m writing about Glasgow’s dog-friendly cafés or deeply personal works like these. I love painting and making collages with bits and pieces cut out of (free) magazines and scraps from Poundland, or watercolours when I’m feeling flush enough for fancy paper. Otherwise, just walking with my camera can be a great source of inspiration and relaxation.
- Rest. I know what you’re thinking. Did you not just spend a week in bed too scared to move? The problem is that sometimes I swing from depressed to hypomanic. My productivity goes through the roof. I stay out for days. And that isn’t really helpful either. It might feel like I’m thriving when I’ve written 1000 words, spent an hour in the gym, made a cake and researched imaginary jobs in New Zealand all before 6am, but it is not going to be sustainable. Habits are the best friend of those with mental health challenges, and resting is important, too.
- Be self-aware. There is a difference between being self-indulgent and being self-aware. It can be incredibly hard, but you don’t need to justify yourself to anyone. You certainly don’t need to compare yourself with anyone. If you wake up in the morning, and sense that meeting a friend is going to be more draining than beneficial, than don’t let your guilt take over. They will understand. Self-awareness is an important part of self-love. It’s corny, but it’s essential. Be your own best friend, and your other relationships will improve.
Thanks for reading so far! If you have comments, I’d love to hear them. If this has been helpful for you, share it. Please also check out these resources to help you deal with your own or a loved one’s mental health challenges:
SAMH (Scottish Association for Mental Health)
Finally, follow Mental Health Week using the #MHAW17 tag on social media xx
Cover Image: Loch Lomond (Credit: Sara McQueen)