As world mental health day approaches (10th October) it’s a great opportunity to take stock and assess what we are doing for our own mental health and that of others. Building awareness of mental health is a very important step but it’s only the beginning in improving the state of our mental health today. We need treatment, resources and education. In other words, better solutions than we have now. But let’s start with awareness, as that important first step.
Some big businesses are going a long way to address mental health. Barclays bank launched their This is me campaign in 2016 where staff members of all levels shared stories about their own mental health through a video series. This is wonderful and great to see one of the big banks leading the way in trying to reduce the stigma.
Storytelling can really help humanise mental health and when people tell their stories, we relate to them as other human beings and mental health then becomes a bit less ‘scary’. I recently watched Jonny Benjamin and Neil Laybourn give a talk, where they shared their story of how a near-suicide attempt resulted in an enduring friendship and fulfilling careers in mental health campaigning. Hearing them speak about mental health in such a candid and relatable way was inspiring and will hopefully encourage others to do the same. Vulnerability can be very empowering and when we are willing to share stories with other people, we are offering an opportunity to connect with them.
Becoming mentally unwell is something that can happen to anyone. We are all at one time on a continuum of mental health; our position on it isn’t fixed, which means if we feel mentally healthy today, it doesn’t mean that we can’t slide down that continuum and feel mentally unwell at some point. The same goes the other way; recovery from mental illness is wholly possible and the more people who share their stories of recovery, the more likely we are to offer hope to others.
The best medicine is prevention and this is where early-education is key. Although many of us will suffer from mental illnesses that are beyond our control, it’s important to recognize that we are not completely powerless when it comes to our mental health and if we can educate people on how to maintain good mental health, then we may be able to prevent a good proportion of mental illnesses from arising.
This early education should happen in schools; just like we teach physical education. 50% of mental illnesses are established before age 141 so this issue should be higher on the agenda, but teachers themselves are stressed, overworked and have a lack of resources. It’s a problem we all have to take responsibility for as a society.
There are many things we can do to ensure we don’t slide down the continuum to become mentally unwell. These are just three of the things we teach to manage mental health:
1. Managing stress: It’s important to teach people how to manage stress effectively, as it’s all too easy for this to spiral into a more serious mental illness if left unchecked.
2. Building robust social networks: building a strong social support system is key. In our digital age, we need to make sure that now more than ever, we are connecting with others in a genuine and human way.
3. Coping strategies: teaching people to identify their own coping strategies is important; we are all wired differently and all have different systems that work for us. Helping people to identify theirs can help them manage their mental health effectively.
Often people who are suffering from more serious mental illnesses may need professional support so it’s important that people know where to go for this. The NHS is an obvious starting point but long waiting lists and an aversion to taking medication can deter people. There are fantastic charities such as Mind and Rethink Mental Illness who are doing great work to offer support in this area. There are a range of therapies which many find very effective such as CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy), hypnotherapy and psychotherapy.
Every school and workplace, should have a mental health first-aid trained professional to be able to offer basic support and point people in the right direction for treatment.
I believe we’re at the very beginning in tackling the mental health problem we’re facing today, but the positive is, we’ve started that journey. We should continue to speak up, tell our stories and offer support and education wherever possible. We are responsible for creating a mentally resilient society and we could all be doing more.
1Kessler RC, Berglund P, Demler O, Jin R, Merikangas KR, Walters EE. (2005). Lifetime Prevalence and Age-of-Onset Distributions of DSM-IV Disorders in the National Comorbidity Survey Replication. Archives of General Psychiatry, 62 (6) pp. 593-602.