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#014 - World Mental Health Day

This is a big one; a subject that’s applicable to everybody reading, no matter what kind of lifestyle you lead. Today is World Mental Health Day, and considering MAG’s sharp focus on conducting all of our business mindfully I’d like to take this chance to talk about the subject. The primary battle still being fought with regards to mental health is against the many negative preconceptions about the topic. Whilst there’s been an undeniable shift in the past few decades towards a much more open and tolerant society with regards to mental health issues, it’s still very easy to spot deeply-ingrained prejudicial attitudes within almost every society on Earth. It must be noted that mental health is an incredibly unique and incredibly vast topic, and as I’m not a trained professional in the field everything in this article is based on my own research and personal experiences.

Let’s put it this way: mental illness can be as physically-debilitating as broken bones – but at least if you trudge into work with a broken leg you’ll almost always be met with sympathetic questions and maybe some signatures on your cast. If instead, for example, you walk into work and express that you’ve been feeling increasingly unhappy in your life, haven’t had an appetite in over a week and you’ve not been able to sleep more than three hours a night for almost a month, you’re more likely to be met with uncomfortable half-responses and hasty exits. Please note: I’m certainly not saying every workplace is like this, but it does happen – the above comparison is drawn directly from an anecdote of a friend of mine, but there’s plenty of data that shows many workplaces lack both solid infrastructure to navigate mental health problems in employees and a compassionate culture of support for them. That friend later went on to express suicidal urges and was fortunate enough to receive help. One thing they said, however, is that if more people at their workplace had shown support – or even a basic level of comfort with asking questions about their situation – they believe they’d have had an easier time working through their issues.

But I don’t want to only use the experiences of friends to explore this matter: I’d like to talk a bit about my own struggles, both past and present. It took me a long time to reach a point where I was comfortable admitting that I had some mental health issues that initially manifested themselves in drinking too much, too regularly (a way to cushion the reality of how I really felt about myself) and later, when I dropped that crutch, in severe anxiety. It wasn’t particularly long ago that I’d wake up for work in the morning and, before I could even form a coherent thought, be hit with a wave of anxious energy that twisted a knot in my stomach and filled me with dread at the day before me. If you’ve never suffered from chronic anxiety it’s quite hard to explain how it feels - the best analogy I can come up with that many of you might recognise is this: if you ever (as many of us did) got in a lot of trouble in primary school and had to see the headmaster for punishment, perhaps you remember feeling as if your life was about to fall apart. I can certainly recall sitting outside the office, heart practically trying to escape through my mouth, picturing all of the terrible outcomes that could be waiting on the other side of the door. If we’re lucky, such moments were among the scariest we’d ever experienced at that age. Now imagine feeling this way most of the time, even when there’s absolutely no logical reason to. Imagine having to go to the bathroom at work to have a panic attack – one that you can’t even trace a reason for. Spending all of your time wrestling with extremely negative feelings that only get worse as you worry they’ll cause you to lose your job, your friends or your romantic relationships. It’s utterly exhausting, and I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy.

This isn’t a ‘pity me’ moment, by the way. I simply want to be as open as possible about my own personal struggles in an effort to highlight that it’s okay to talk about mental health. Some folk aren’t comfortable doing so, but that’s not your fault – it doesn’t make you any less worthy of support. I know that for some people, opening up about such issues must be a terrifying prospect – I’ve been there – but it truly is the best way to confront them; it’s so difficult to do it alone. I’ve done a lot of work to overcome my anxiety (though it does still rear its ugly head sometimes) and I’ve reached a much happier and chilled-out headspace. I can now look back on the period of my life at which I felt the weakest and least sure of myself and feel proud: that I got through the worst of it and that I didn’t let it break me. I’d rather not have had to, of course, but I can recognise that the last thing I was at the time was mentally-feeble.

As I’ve brought my own experiences into the discussion, I’d also like to share a few methods that worked for me when it came to navigating them. As mentioned, mental health issues impact everyone in different ways – the human race is wonderfully diverse, but this also means that nobody will ever respond to their illness in exactly the same way, and the same techniques may not help everyone effectively. All I can speak from is my own experience and offer you a few ideas. Firstly, seeking professional help is the best thing you can do for yourself. Cognitive behavioural therapy is the most popular, and seemingly effective, form of professional treatment people seek. Jon Hamm, speaking about the chronic depression he suffered before he became famous, noted that therapy “gives you another perspective when you are so lost in your own spiral, your own bullshit. It helps.” There’s no shame in seeking the advice of someone who has trained for around five years to gain their expertise – in fact, considering you can access free counselling via the NHS it’s practically foolish not to if you think you need it. Just as you wouldn’t shun a doctor if you had a serious physical ailment, you shouldn’t dismiss the concept of therapy for an ailing mind. It’s the number one piece of advice all experts suggest.

Meditation also had – and continues to have – a hugely-positive impact upon my mental health, and I’ll stand by it fiercely as a practice that everyone should incorporate into their lifestyle. It’s gradually gaining more and more popularity in the West, and for good reason. Meditation is one of the best things you can do to self-medicate; when performed properly, you fairly quickly begin to realise that you have an immense amount of control over your state of mind – far more than you often know. It’s incredibly difficult to discipline your thoughts sometimes, but regular meditation provides a useful tool for doing so – try and see it as an equivalent to physical fitness training; just as you learn to control and strengthen your body, through meditation you learn how to do the same with your mind. I’ve gone from mental hurricane to still water simply through the act of meditating; don’t underestimate its power, and if you’ve never tried it – give it a shot!

Aside from that, keep yourself connected to those around you. Mental health issues can be painfully isolating, and it’s very easy to feel as though you’re alone on a remote island, condemned to watch other ‘normal’ people having fun on the mainland. The truth is, you’re a normal person too – mental health issues don’t define you, and a huge percentage of people (an estimated ¼) experience them at some point in their life. Sometimes – especially when you feel like you’re trapped in your own mind – it’s a good idea to throw yourself into the company of others and remember that you aren’t limited to your illness. Staying social may not fix the core of what’s wrong, but they’re often sharp reminders that you can get better and that your headspace can change. Just as therapy can offer a new perspective on your issues, often simply being around others can do the same. At the end of the day, it’s these new perspectives that will do most of the healing work – and you can help yourself out by actively-seeking ones that will make your situation feel less painful and more acceptable.

I hope that advice comes in handy to at least someone. These next two paragraphs are dedicated to the men reading this: whilst I’m fully-aware that mental health issues affect everyone - no matter their gender - just as profoundly, there’s a documented culture amongst men across the world that frowns upon the open discussion of feelings; particularly negative ones. This sadly means that a tragically large proportion of men don’t feel like they can talk openly about their issues. Research has shown that not only is suicide the leading cause of death in men under 35 and that men have significantly-higher rates of drug and alcohol dependency, but that they also have measurably less access to social support from family, friends and the community in comparison to women. I’ve certainly felt a lot of pressure as a man to put on a brave face and not bring up my feelings amongst my male friends – and I’m lucky enough to have a great set of male friends who would’ve actually been very happy to listen. The issue is, most experts believe, the models of behaviour that men are taught – implicitly and explicitly – to aspire to as they grow up. Like it or not, the traditionally stoic, powerful, uncomplaining man is still the ideal for many people.

Now I’m not about to try and rewire anyone’s socialisation in an informal blog post, but for any men out there who’re struggling or have struggled with mental illness – or for any men who have friends or family who’re experiencing the same – I’d like to draw your attention to a couple of men who also struggled; men whom many might consider as representing, in various ways, traditional masculine ideals. Firstly, Winston Churchill – an instrumental figure to the Allied victory in the Second World War – suffered from depression; in fact, he’s the one who coined the term ‘black dog’ to refer to the illness. He reportedly told his doctor that “for two or three years, the light faded from the picture. I did my work. I sat in the House of Commons. But a black depression settled on me.” Even the wartime symbol of stoic resilience found himself plagued by mental illness. Secondly, Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson (is there a more ‘macho’-looking man on the planet?) opened up about his own struggles with depression following his mother’s suicide attempt when he was 15. "I reached a point where I didn't want to do a thing or go anywhere," he noted in a 2018 interview with The Express on Sunday. "I was crying constantly." These are two people who’ve come to represent traditional masculinity speaking out about the crippling effect that depression had on their lives: perhaps hearing them express such feelings might make men who feel unable to open up think twice. I’d like to leave you with the words of American actor Wayne Brady, who sums up the issue perfectly:

“It’s difficult for men in general, I think, because of just the way that we’re raised… We feel any of the negative emotions or that dark cloud settle on you, and you feel like you need to cry out or speak to someone about it, and, ‘Nope, I’m not gonna do that, because I’m a man. … What kind of man would I sound like if I told somebody, ‘Hey, I am so sad. I’m cripplingly sad. I can’t get out of bed. I just feel empty. Help me’… I’d be [seen as] some sissy. I’d be soft. That’s what you’re taught. That’s how you were programmed. And that’s what kills us.”

Credit to Instagram user @feministabulous

The truth is, mental health issues effect everyone in unique ways – they make up a vast umbrella of illnesses and symptoms that a single article such as this couldn’t hope to summarize. For that reason I’m simply seeking to add my voice to the ever-growing crowd, all of whom are saying the same thing: there’s nothing inherently wrong with you for suffering mental health problems, nor for wanting to talk about them – you aren’t weak, you aren’t lesser, and you have nothing to be ashamed of. That truly is the vital message that urgently needs spreading about mental health. Understanding how to treat these illnesses isn’t the pressing issue – medical science is actually rather effective, provided that patients are open to seeking help. That openness is something that every one of us – considering mental health issues can strike anybody – has a duty to help foster. If a friend or family member reveals they’ve been struggling, the best thing you can do is listen to them. Don’t brush them off, trivialise their symptoms or tell them they have no reason to feel that way; such responses will likely only cultivate embarrassment or shame in the sufferer. Respect the severity of mental illness just as you would a physical injury. If everyone followed this advice, I suspect the knock-on effects upon society as a whole would be resoundingly positive. Hope that’s some food for thought.

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