As its Mental Health Awareness week, I’ve been thinking about what that really means. Awareness days are abundant these days and becoming ever more creative- my particular favourite is “Talk like a Pirate day”. Awareness days can be fun or frivolous but most are intended to increase the profile and visibility of important issues such as health, culture, history etc. They’re often a good medium for charities to fund-raise and also spread awareness of help and support that’s available.
Increasing awareness in the general population, apart from fundraising objectives, can raise conversations which are often taboo e.g. “How is your mental health?” would not be a common dinner party question, unless perhaps it had become viral on social media or prominent on TV..
I could not find any research on the effectiveness of such days/weeks in the UK, although Johns Hopkins University did show some beneficial effects from similar events in the USA. Yet its good to talk, as they say, and “ok not to be ok”. So is the best result increasing our own self-awareness? And realising that being “normal” is an imaginary state.
I don’t even like the phrase “mental health” how can you have one bit of your body/ entity healthy – I think the word Health should automatically refer to Mind, Body and Soul very much our ethos at The Health Dispensary. As a pharmacist, I’ve become too aware of how many medical problems are linked with anxiety, stress, depression and a lack of self-care skills or support to deal with them. Very often in medicine, we are sticking plasters time and again over open wounds, without getting to the root of pain and healing.
I’ve become more aware of this having been sidelined from life for the past 5 months with a bad ankle break and surgery. I’d been lucky enough to do the same thing 25 years ago to the other ankle! My memory of that was not pleasant, as I’d become very depressed and experienced a lot of pain both physical and mental. Self-coaching is a wonderful skill I’ve learned over the past 6 years and I now had plenty of time to practise! I was determined to make it a different experience this time.
In many ways it has, I only had Oprah Winfrey as my TV friend then, now we have the ability to speak via FaceTime, continue work at home and retain some semblance of connection to the outside world. Human connection though is hard to substitute virtually and I did have times of being deep down in the rabbit-hole of despair. The rabbit hole had always been a scary place to me, brought up with bogeyman tales of aunts sticking their heads in gas ovens and father’s post-war depression, mental illness was always a shadow looming over me. As a result, I’ve kept myself busy, so very very busy.
Now I’d been gifted a time to hang around the rabbit hole and see what it was really like. I used to wait for my “black dog” (as Winston Churchill described) to pass so I could leap out and face the bright lights of the world again. That can take time and vast amounts of energy that frankly you haven’t got when you feel so low. This time I stayed with the feelings- uncomfortable! but it meant I could try to understand and learn from it. I realised that I didn’t need to go back up the same hole as I fell down. I didn’t need to return to who I was 4-5 months ago. In Rabbit warrens, there are many entrances and exits. By finding another way through and out, I was kinder to myself and I’ve come out in a different place and I feel a distinct change. Re-engaging with the world I find that I don’t want to lose that sense of presence or difference. The rabbit-hole I’d so feared has become an ally and protector- somewhere I can retreat and realise its temporary, often its necessary and yes it can be healing.
I realise my affliction was temporary, there are many people so ill or depressed their rabbit-hole reveals no light at all and may well be in need of medical intervention. However, I feel there are so many skills we can learn and teach, so suffering can be lessened. Self-awareness can at the very least alert us to our bodily sensations, our feelings and our fleeting thoughts. Being aware we can start to put this into words, make changes and reach out if we need help. On a TV documentary recently I was struck by a comment from a terminally ill woman who said she was grateful for her illness as it had given her time to be with her family” Must we wait for things to become so bad before we take action?
In this week of Mental Health Awareness, it’s nice to think we might have more compassion and empathy for each other, however next week it’s another topic and so easy to forget. There is help available, it is good to have support but ultimately we fight our own battles. Isn’t it strange how often in health we use the terminology of fighting some enemy? It’s a bit like my fear of the rabbit-hole – yet we don’t always realise the strength and resources we have inside. Do we forget the word healthy contains that magic word Heal? and to have a healthy self we can often Heal-thy self.
Self-care and self-resilience are the ultimate, but please remember, as I’ve also found, that people are often keen to help. Sometimes we just need the courage to ask and the humility to receive.