Guest contributor: Stewart Lucas, Strategic Lead at Mind (Written 13 May 2021)
Mental Health vs Mental Illness
It is fantastic having a high profile Mental Health Awareness Week - but like a dog being for life and not just for Christmas, we should be aware of our and other peoples mental health all the time, and not just a few days in May.
Mental health is still seen largely as someone else’s problem, and that is because we subconsciously stick the word illness after those two words. In the same way that we all have physical health (whether we are physically ill or not), we all have mental health as we all have a mind. Just like our physical health, our mental health will go up and down.
There will be good days and bad days, but that does not necessarily mean that you are ill. There is still a stigma about saying that your head does not feel in the right place, or that you are feeling down, or that you are feeling anxious. The truth is none of that means you necessarily have a mental illness.
Mental Health through the Pandemic
We have lived through unprecedented times. This is something our minds were unprepared for. All of our norms went and without notice, we are left living in a world that felt both strikingly familiar and also utterly alien. The rituals and social constructions that helped us navigate our lives were suddenly ripped from us, and we are left in the comfort of our own homes in what feels like a virtual hermetically sealed bubble. To feel nervous, anxious and a deep underlying sense of loss was normal. In fact, not feeling deeply affected by all this would be the un-normal state of being. The rug was well and truly pulled from under our feet - and that has affected how we feel.
For me, it is live music I miss most. Gigging is my hobby and my passion. In fact, it is more than that, it is my crutch and my salvation. It is my rock (n’roll), the antidote to rough days. It is something that I look forward to and hungrily countdown to. Life’s ups and downs and frequent disappointments are made easier by the thought of forthcoming shows. The stresses of work were made more bearable by the thought that I have got some obscure Norwegian Black Metal act that evening. When this is all over and I get to stand in front of a real-life, in the flesh live band I will cry like a friggin baby. I’m emotional just thinking about it.
But for fourteen months and counting this has all been on hold. A whole summer has come and gone without a single festival. Since I first started gigging back in 1986 (Queen, Wembley stadium, it was magnificent) the longest I have gone without going to see a band was a month, and that was when my youngest child was born and to be honest I was rather pre-occupied. The present vacuum has felt never-ending and soul-destroying. My point though is that this feeling is normal, not wrong or strange or alarming, this is a common human emotion.
What can we do about it?
It may seem counter-intuitive and a little glib, but accept it and try not to worry about it. When we bang or hurt a part of our body we know that it will hurt and in some cases bruise (last year I retracted a retractable ladder onto my thumb and it was blue for months). But we leave it, and let time and the wonder that is the human body do its business. The same is true here. Our minds have been bruised by this utterly unfathomable situation and we are all out of our comfort zones. But the brain is a miraculous thing and it will adapt. Lean back into these feelings, as they are normal.
Don’t give yourself a hard time for how you feel and get anxious about the anxiety. Look after yourself and be kind to yourself. At the end of the day, only you can truly look after you. So, whilst we may still be in Bizarreville Central, still ensure that you do things that make yourself feel better. Don’t feel bad about feeling bad, it is part of life. There are also plenty of things you can do to bolster and improve your mental wellbeing.
Mental Health is not a passive state on which we have no control. We can alter our state of mental wellbeing, but also we shouldn’t feel bad when we don’t feel able to. We accept that there are days that we feel inclined to go to the gym, go on the 50km bike ride or eat tons of superfoods and that there are also days where all we want to do is slouch on the sofa in our PJ’s and eat rubbish. The same is true of mental health. As I keep saying, thinking positive is a great discipline, but none of us can maintain it all the time. There will be days where positivity seems unobtainable - which isn’t a problem or an issue. It is just life.
What can we do for others?
We can alter other people’s state of mental wellbeing for both good and bad. Our actions have reactions. Malignant negativity causes harm, whether you mean it or not. Self-esteem is incredibly subjective. The most outwardly self-assured person is more than likely to internally be a maelstrom of doubts and insecurities.
Don’t assume jibes and caustic comments don’t hurt, because believe me they do. However positive actions and moments of “kindness” can also leave a massive impression. Even the smallest act of consideration in itself can have a mammoth impact. Being kind can take a second and cost nothing, but it can make a huge difference to another person’s life and how they are feeling at that precise moment. By showing a bit of kindness to each other, we can ensure that we all get through times like these.
It might mean volunteering and giving your time and energy. It might mean being charitable and donating, but also might mean just reaching out to someone. A quick text to someone you haven’t spoken to for a while, a positive “you’re bloody brill” messenger shout out to someone you know is currently struggling, or a Spotify playlist (it’s the 21st-century mixtape) compiled for someone you know is missing you. These are all acts of kindness and they are all good for mental health, both ours and others.
Nobody should be afraid or reluctant to talk out about how they are feeling, and you can give them the opportunity to do so. You don’t need qualifications, badges or special training to be there for someone. Just Kindness.
This blog is part of a two-part Mental Health series, following Mental Health Awareness Week and our Coffee Chat. To read about Andy's experience with mental illness, and his insights on what employers can do to help, please read here.
Mind is a national mental health charity, which provides advice and support for anyone experiencing a mental health problem. They also campaign to improve services, raise awareness and promote understanding.
Mind in Greater Manchester is a partnership of 5 local Minds, affiliated to national Mind but working together as independent mental health charities across the region. Guided by strong values and a shared sense of purpose they work together to ensure people in Greater Manchester experience better mental health, and feel supported in their life and work.