Broken bones or breaking inside: belated Mental Health Awareness Week

Last week was Mental Health Awareness Week and whilst I blogged inside my company, I have definitely let the side down on my public blog. In all honesty, I’ve decided to slow down a bit. I love the idea of the 100 Day Project and I would love to give it another go next year, but with something other than blogging. I adore writing and someone very smart reminded me on Sunday that just like reading, writing is good for the soul, but it is also time-consuming and I hate just to write rubbish for writing’s sake. I’ve also started writing something privately, which right now is for my own personal consumption (and no my filthy-minded followers, its not ‘adult fiction’).

But, whilst blogging inspiration didn’t strike last week, a few things have sprung to mind that I thought were fit for this blog, this week, kicking off today with a belated Mental Health Awareness Week post.

As you may have seen, the focus for this year’s week was all around stress and the impact on mental health.

Stress – quite rightly – gets a lot of bad press. But there is a fine line and delicate balance to be struck between good and bad stress. Stress is a natural part of life, and isn’t a bad thing in and of itself. A little bit of stress strengthens connections between neurons, improving memory and cognitive functions. It can give your immune function a little boost, and triggers the fight or flight response, which has been key to keeping mankind alive for all these years. Personally it can give me that much needed push to the finish line when I’ve been procrastinating!

But chronic and severe stress is a killer – literally in the most extreme cases. It is linked to increased risk of depression, anxiety, substance abuse and physical illness. A lot of stress commentary and study is focused on stress and the workplace. Think back to analysis on the economic crash, the reduction in job security, and the pressure to deliver more if you were in work. So much of it was about the increased and negative impacts of stress at work.

New research from the Mental Health Foundation published last week found that three in four UK Britons have been so stressed in the past year that they felt overwhelmed or unable to cope. One in three were so badly affected that they were left feeling suicidal, which I think is a damming indictment of the way we are living today.

Young adults are amongst the most vulnerable to stress. The Mental Health Foundation found 83% of 18 to 24 year olds had felt debilitating stress and the number who felt suicidal was 7 percentage points higher than adults overall. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m lucky enough to be a trustee of an incredible charity called Young Women’s Trust which campaigns for and provides support services to young women trapped in low or no pay, who often also suffer from a range of mental wellbeing issues. Our own research published last September found that 40% of young people were worried about their mental health and over half of young women worry about whether they are good enough to be successful at work.

Like many employers I’m sure, my company did a whole bunch of activity to mark Mental Health Awareness Week and more importantly ensure they are providing support to employees. But beyond the company initiatives I was just amazed at the number of incredibly powerful and very personal stories from my colleagues on their experiences of stress. From the new mum who felt she needed to be Wonder Woman and started to break under the pressure to the colleague who characterises themselves as highly strung, also suffering from deep anxiety, who has following a bad episode learnt various ways to cope.

A common theme was not suffering in silence, a sense that talking to people helps rather than hinders problems. That’s one of the reasons why they shared. It’s clearly very individual as to what people are comfortable saying, especially publicly and at work, but it’s so clear we need more discussion and less stigma around mental health; I touched on some of this in a previous blog. We are comfortable talking about broken bones, but how do you explain you are breaking inside? Each event like this, each small share that starts to normalise challenges with mental health, starts to change the norm on offering and asking for support, starts to change how we think about what our life should be not what we need it to be, it’s another step. And if sharing their story helped even just one more person, it’s actually not at all small; it really is life-changing stuff.

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