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Surviving or Thriving? (Mental Health Awareness Week 2017)

I’ve opened the article by the same title on the Mental Health Foundation website and the first line struck me: We all have mental health. Good mental health is an asset that helps us to thrive. This is not just the absence of a mental health problem, but having the ability to think, feel and act in a way that allows us to enjoy life and deal with the challenges it presents. Yet it can be easy to assume that ongoing stress is the price we have to pay to keep our lives on track. It is time to challenge that assumption.

So much about the way we talk and think about mental health is just wrong. I have a diagnosis of generalised anxiety, and I’ve talked about how that affected my relationship with body image and eating before. For the past few weeks, I have been numb. Completely numb. Physically and mentally exhausted to the point I have hardly processed the feeling of hurt that a specific situation caused me. It takes way too much energy to cry. Yet, I have sat two exams with no anxiety, not even the healthy type. After screwing up a whole degree with panic attacks, that’s like living the dream, but this just doesn’t feel like the absence of a mental health problem makes me any healthy. It seems pretty clear that I’ve overworked myself and I’m not so slowly approaching burnout. It’s fairly ironic that my spending a morning sitting in bed against two pillows writing this is my way to take care of myself, as it kinda feels like I’m doing something when I should be doing nothing, but a) writing is something I do for pleasure,  b) I’m in bed and not out and about and c) I can stop and come back at my leisure if I just feel like having a nap, so that makes a huge difference.

So, right now I think I count in the group that is surviving. As much as thriving is the ideal, there is a group that doesn’t survive, and my friend was one of them, so I am thankful to God for being in this group. I believe it shouldn’t be this way: we put a lot of money into research to make sure diseases stop killing people, but somehow we seem to think when it comes to mental health you can sort it out by yourself. And to be honest, no health problem is the same as others. Think about respiratory issues: a cold is a pretty heavy thing to have, it feels horrible, but it goes away by itself, with a little help that doesn’t need prescriptions and things you can do yourself if you aren’t too sluggish. Asthma requires medications, and I personally feel more horrible with a cold than on a normal day, as the medications make a huge difference, so even if medically speaking it’s more serious I can manage it by myself better than I can manage a cold. Pneumonia instead is really serious and can have you in the hospital, in a coma or even dead, and even the mildest option requires medical treatment. You don’t self-diagnose either asthma or pneumonia.

Plenty of columns have been written about the dangers of self-diagnosing, especially as the call to raise awareness have made a lot of people speak up and sometimes it feels like too many seem to have issues all of a sudden. I think it’s great that the Mental Health Foundation is trying to reframe the way we talk about mental health. You don’t need a mental health issue to be someone with poor mental health. If you have a poor diet lacking important nutrients you aren’t healthy, even if you may not have an illness at that time. You shouldn’t self-diagnose a bigger problem than you have because you fear you won’t be taken seriously if you open up, but I also think it’s common not to seek the help you need when you have a bigger problem because of fear of being seen as making up a problem that just isn’t there. That’s anxiety talk, and you shouldn’t listen. Just talk to someone. If you don’t feel like bothering friends and family, as that can just make you even more anxious (and sometimes their responses can make it worse), the Samaritans are available for you for free 24/7 on 116 123 (UK)

Self-awareness of a mental health issue without an existing diagnosis is a rare thing, or so I was told by a psychiatrist who was impressed with my coping mechanisms. The fears that clog your head are very real and very realistic, and unless someone with the knowledge to tell you it’s not the truth tells you that it’s hard not to believe the fears. Hands up if you’ve ever been so self-absorbed you made someone else feel like a burden, and actually you may have felt like they actually were a burden at that time. People aren’t necessarily paranoid (or just entirely paranoid), sometimes they are just perceptive of their surroundings, and you may inadvertently have sent the wrong message even if you think you have always been there for them, and they should just have asked. The bigger the problem the bigger the fear of being a burden. The smaller the problem, the bigger the fear it’s not worth talking about it, and you’re just being silly. To make it even more complicated, you really have no true conception of how big the problem is, and might swing from one way of thinking to the other within 2 seconds. It’s a minefield, and we should all feel able to talk about not feeling that great whether or not we have an actual mental health issue.

We complain about being tired, which (unless you have one of many conditions that come with fatigue as a symptom) is just a fact of life…you don’t have an illness, but you’re not okay either. The way we react to people opening up about these struggles is often at the root of why people don’t open up more about them. While there is definitely a benefit in not having a victim mentality and giving up on the idea of ever improving by holding onto a label (seen point no 9 here), it shouldn’t be a matter of just keeping a stuff upper lip. It’s about recognising that a diagnosis, or a temporary state, isn’t who we are. It isn’t intrinsic to our identity and as such it means we can live around it, improve and get better even if life without something this big seems surreal and not something you can really imagine, and sometimes the way out is long and tortuous and everything seems to fail. So I think it’s important that we stop seeing mental health in terms of just illnesses vs health, and start being a bit kinder to each other.

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