I wanted to publish a post on the blog today to acknowledge World Mental Health Day 2020.
In case it isn't obvious, the point of World Mental Health Day is to help raise mental health awareness, and that is what my blog is all about. However, I believe that this is something that should be happening no matter what the day - because it is not only on this day that people struggle with their mental health.
For many of us, our mental health is a constant, daily battle, and everyone at some point in their life, even if you think you are above it, will face some sort of darkness and feel lost within it. It can come out of nowhere and wipe you off your feet. And if you are lucky enough to have never experienced a struggle with your mental health, you will know someone who has, even if you were not aware of it at the time.
This makes mental health a subject that is relevant to everybody, all of the time. We should all be talking about it, and we should all be listening.
Mental Health Awareness - Whose Responsibility Is It?
I spent a decade and a half of my life not knowing that my daily personal struggles were relevant and that they were in fact symptoms of a serious mental illness that was not my fault. The reason this went on for so long undetected was that mental health wasn't talked about enough at the time in a positive light, and it wasn't properly understood by me or anyone in my family.
In my own upbringing there was more emphasis placed on "being strong", "thinking positively", and not being "self-indulgent", because that is what had been taught to my parents, and probably their parents too. So I strongly believed that my struggles were my own fault and that I wasn't trying hard enough to be successful or avoid problems in my life.
It turns out that I suffer from a rare mental illness called Cyclothymia. It is a mood disorder on the bipolar spectrum. Do you know what this means? It means that I wasn't the lazy, unreliable, self-indulgent drama queen I imagined myself to be when I was unable to get out of bed and go to work... I was experiencing symptoms of depression. It means that my failed relationships, lost jobs, and family dramas were not necessarily down to me being unworthy, irresponsible, or emotionally volatile and badly behaved. In fact, the things I have experienced that lead to problems in my life were symptoms of my disorder, and I haven't really had a clue up until now what was actually happening to me and why.
Over the years I couldn't bring myself to validate a trip to see a doctor, even when I was at my lowest, because as far as I was concerned you go to the doctor when you are ill, and I wasn't ill. Why didn't I know that I was ill? Because nobody in my life had ever openly talked about mental health and how normal it is for people to struggle in the ways that I was.
I think that deep down I always knew that something was wrong. I have always been fully aware that mental illness is present in my family. The problem was that if you were mentally ill in my family you were demonized, and considered abnormal. Stories have been told about members of my family behaving in dangerous and irrational ways. Sectioned many times and put on drugs, they were turned into zombies and were robbed of a normal, happy life.
When you listened to those stories you thanked your lucky stars that it hadn't happened to you. You were normal. You were safe. It was your responsibility to make sure that you remained so. So I guess I was actually quite terrified of admitting to myself that something was wrong with my mental health.
I guess my point is, that it is not just important that we talk about mental health. It is the way we talk about it that counts. Mental health struggles are normal. It's okay to struggle with your mental health, especially in the kind of world we live in today. It's okay to talk about it, and it is okay to ask for and receive help. Nobody is "mad" or a lesser human being just because they can't cope or need extra support.
We can all help those who suffer feel safe enough to talk about their experiences and reach out for support when they need it - all we have to do is listen, learn about, and acknowledge their valid struggle.
The Invisible Mental Health Struggle
I want to emphasize the invisibility of the struggle with mental health, and how important it is for all of us to talk about our problems and listen to those of others, no matter what the day.
We may all feel supported and represented... today. World Mental Health Day 2020 is the loud voice that insists on being heard... today. We are all listening... today... because World Mental Health Day 2020 expects it of us. But what about yesterday? What about tomorrow? What if because we aren't listening and empowering people to talk about their mental health struggles every day, there are people who don't make it to tomorrow? What if those people turn out to be someone you know or someone you are related to?
If we don't talk more about our mental health struggles and make it a normal everyday thing that is accepted, both the sufferers and their friends and family will remain in the dark. And if you don't listen EVERY time someone tries to talk about their mental health, you risk isolating them. They won't be able to let you know when they need help in the future, and you won't recognise when they need it either.
It is amazing how we can all become experts at disguising the truth or the severity of it. This is a big problem, because how can you help if you don't know that someone needs it, after all?
And what about when you want to help but you don't know how to? Or when you feel awkward, say the wrong thing, and push someone further away? Maybe the person doesn't seem to want or appreciate your help. Supporting someone else's struggle with mental health can be a bit of a minefield.
But it doesn't have to be complicated or avoided...
How To Be There For Those In Need When You Don't Know Who They Are
The problem with those who are struggling with their mental health right now is that they probably don't want you to know that they are struggling. You can't really help those who are struggling if you don't know who they are... or can you?
Let me tell you a story.
Not long ago I was really struggling. I was lying in bed drowning in heavy depression. It was a dark place to be and I felt completely alone with my negative thoughts that were making everything feel and sound so much worse than it actually was. It had reached the point where I just needed to numb myself and I was trying to gather the energy to get off my bed and go to my cupboard where I knew there was a bottle of something that was going to help put me to sleep. Sleeping was the only solution I could think of to escape the mental pain I was feeling.
Then I heard a small beep come from my phone. It took a little while, but eventually, I made the choice to use what little energy I had to pick up my phone and read the message. It was from my 12-year-old niece. She just wanted to say hello and ask how I was. On any other day, I'd have just sent a short reply and thought nothing of it, but on that particular day, this was a message from the universe, reminding me that I was loved and that someone was thinking about me. I don't believe in God, but it made me cry with relief; like someone was up there in the clouds looking out for me, and the tears helped to release some of the stress that was bringing me down.
It was difficult after hearing from my sweet niece to go ahead and indulge in my flawed drinking plan. Her text and the interruption of my spiraling negative thoughts were enough to give me the energy I needed to call her back. So I did, and then I had a chat with my sister, which really helped lift the depression and allow me to start functioning a little again. After the conversation, I emptied the bottle down the loo and made myself a cup of tea instead. One simple text from a child had turned everything around.
My point is that my niece had no idea what I was struggling with that day. Her message was a random coincidence, and just really well-timed. We never know when a small, innocent gesture is going to make all the difference to someone's day, a whole week, or even their life. We should make more of them, these small, innocent gestures.
Supporting the mental health of your family, friends, colleagues, and even strangers on the street can be as simple as a mundane conversation, a text message, or a smile. Showing kindness every day can be a powerful thing, and yet it is so easy to overlook. You don't have to necessarily know that someone is struggling to be a support to them. So let's just assume that everyone needs a little bit of kindness.
And let's teach our kids, and other people's kids, not only how to be kind and to recognise when other people are struggling, but also to recognise when they need help with their mental health and how to ask for it. Hopefully, fewer kids will grow up neglecting or feeling ashamed of their own mental health needs.
Try it now...
There is no place like the present to put into action what you have learned. I really appreciate you taking the time to come and read my blog post. Knowing that you have taken the time to read what I have written makes me feel like what I have to say is valid and worthwhile. Talking about mental health issues takes a lot of courage, and while it may not seem like someone who has had the initiative to create a whole blog dedicated to her mental health journey struggles with courage, believe me, I do.
So don't feel shy to leave your thoughts in a comment below this post. You can leave it anonymously if you need to. But for every thought of yours I read, I will feel stronger and more courageous in order to keep telling my story and to continue to help support and validate the experiences of others who relate to what I write about.
You can go one step further by sharing this post in your social feeds. You never know who it is going to reach, and what difference it might make to someone.
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Thanks for reading x