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, its good for the soul, but it is also time-consuming and I hate just to write rubbish. 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 important 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 writing 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 creates 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.

Finding your cow

Last night I hopped along the Hammersmith and City line to Housman’s Bookshop in King’s Cross to hear author and journalist Johann Hari talk about his latest book ‘Lost Connections‘. In it he explores a slightly different – and I would say complementary, although not all reviewers have agreed – explanation as to why depression has been increasing and mental health declining, focused on the changed way in which we live today, where we have ‘lost connections’ with things that matter to our well-being, as opposed to it all simply being isolated to causes in the brain.

I touched on one of these nine causes Hari describes, a lack of connection with others, in a blog last week on self-care. Personally, I found it one of the most profound and thought-provoking of my recent reads and I would recommend it as a must-read for anyone with an interest in this area. To say that we are facing real problems as individuals, communities and society because of some mis-match between the way we live, versus what we really need, is an understatement. And whilst there are some signs that we are awakening to this – from the recent rise of mindfulness to the even more recent appointment of a Minister for Loneliness – there’s a still a huge amount Hari writes about which either remains unsaid, or at least poorly understood, including by those who are suffering themselves.

Last night Hari re-counted a number of studies or stories from his book, but there was one which I’d forgotten since reading that really struck a chord. It’s about a South African psychiatrist Dr Derek Summerfield, the Cambodian countryside and a cow.

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Sweat the small stuff: the little things can count

Today was the first day since starting the 100 Day Project that I’ve a) felt a bit un-inspired about what to write and b) like perhaps skipping a night of writing.

However the latest issue of Women’s Health landed this eve with a section dedicated to self-care. It reminded me of the blog I wanted to, well, blog yesterday about connections, so never one to skip a sign, here goes.

Self-care is everywhere. It’s something I have always believed I was very good at practicing. I cook for myself, I ‘treat’ myself, I occasionally – well more than occasionally – splurge.

Recently though I’ve begun to redefine my definition of self-care in two, for me, really important ways.

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Work for the soul

Like many on the Internet I fell in love with last year’s story of a CEO thanking one of his team for openly saying she was taking a mental health day, lauding her for helping to cut through the stigma that still surrounds, and being brave enough to be open and direct with her colleagues about her struggles, when it would be easier just to say you weren’t feeling well.

Mental health and the workplace came up in a recent discussion I took part in in my workplace. I like to think I am lucky enough to work in a very accepting and open culture. I often laugh with my colleagues that I embody our value of ‘We can be ourselves here’. It’s fair to say I bring the – and I quote a former DR, colleague and greatest friend here – “brilliantly batshit on-it bitch” each day. But in that group we all agreed that apart from a handful of brave examples, mental health is still very much in the unspoken shadows, be it for the individual or for a loved one.

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