Mental health is finally getting the attention it deserves. Many of us are aware of the limitations of the NHS for both physical and mental health care. On top of this we grapple with the limited provision of therapies, extensive waiting lists etc. etc. More and more we are being told to rely on self-care (which is no replacement for medical help).
With so many people providing their thoughts I decided to turn my own hand to the topic. After all, everyone else seems to be doing it! Below you will find my top ten pieces of advice. I must specify that this all comes from personal experience and what I’ve learnt working among those with lived experience.
Work on Being Happy; Not Perfect
Society shows us an unattainable vision of perfection. Many of us strive to fulfill this and in our failure berate ourselves. We’re all doing it but we shouldn’t be. Instead, work at being happy. Not every minute of the day but as often as possible. Invest in doing things you love with people you love. To me this is the surest path to happiness that I can think of.
Being OK is Enough
Happiness is a great goal but it can be hard to come by. Naturally we are not all happy all the time. Expecting ourselves to be is an added stress we don’t need. It’s okay if some days/weeks/months or years all you can manage is to be OK. (For more thoughts on happiness – read here)
Perspective. Perspective. Perspective
For some people realizing their insignificance in the population, world, universe, is a comforting thought. I use this to remind myself how small my mistake is in the grand scheme of things. Instead of beating myself up about an error I try to remedy a mistake or lessen it’s impact. One of my favourite sayings is “be part of the solution, not part of the problem“. Working on that is a far more productive use of time and energy.
Treat Yourself the Way You Would a Friend
As people we (most of us) will jump at the chance to help a friend. Or when super busy we may begrudgingly agree to something. Even if our own to-do list is out of control. Sometimes when our stress levels are so high we feel on the verge of explosion. Yet we still say yes. When it comes to looking after ourselves, to being kind to ourselves, I find humans rather lacking. We don’t make time to look after ourselves. Even though many of us would bend heaven and earth to help a friend. This has got to stop. It’s great to say ‘yes’ to others, but it’s high time we say ‘yes’ to ourselves as well.
Celebrate the Victories
However small or seemingly insignificant, they’re our victories. We achieved them. We worked for them. If no-one else is going to treat us, we should treat ourselves. It doesn’t matter if our achievement seems silly. Sometimes getting out of bed for the day, surviving work, going somewhere we’ve never been before etc. can be all that we can manage on a given day. Successes are relative. There’s no point in comparing ourselves to others. They don’t live our lives. They’re not in our shoes. Neither have they overcome our obstacles. As the character Debby says on QAF (Queer as Folk): “Mourn the losses, for they are many but celebrate the victories because they are few”. I can think of worse mantras.
Take it One Moment at a Time
Or one step at a time. Whichever way you see it, whatever way it works for you. Sometimes when we’re struggling we can only see to the end of the next minute or moment. We don’t need to look any further forward unless we want to. At times we just need to get through one minute and then the next. When I’m not feeling well, whether mental or physical, I remind myself it’s only time passing. I don’t know how much time needs to pass but it can’t last forever. I will feel better.
Allow Yourself to Feel
You don’t need to hide it. There’s so much pressure on us to present our best face, to put our best foot forward. On occasion the pressure to hide how I feel, to not burst in to tears, to control the rising tide of panic, is much worse than the emotions themselves.
The fear of exposing myself, of being vulnerable, of losing control is terrifying. But we do need to feel. We have the right to take ownership of our feelings. We shouldn’t have to hide them, or be made to feel that we should be ashamed of them. If you’re not in the right place to feel (because realistically there are some scenarios where we can’t crawl into a ball or shut down) then make sure you give yourself time to do this. Find a time, place, somewhere you feel safe and, in the words of Elsa, let (it) go.
Separate Your Anxiety from Anxieties of Others
The people around us often share their anxieties. Having a friend to listen to us can be invaluable. Many of us are those friends providing a listening ear, but we need to proceed with caution. There is a difference between listening, supporting, even providing advice and absorbing our friends stress for ourselves. One time at work I spent time supporting a colleague through work induced anxieties. By the end of the day I was knackered and stressed even though I’d had a relatively easy day.
My boss pointed out one of the most valuable things I’ve ever been told. By helping my colleague I had allowed them to project their anxieties onto me. Suddenly I was carrying their stress and baring responsibility for it. Once I realized the fears were not my own, that I had been as helpful as I could, I could release the stress and felt instant relief. This is a cautionary tale. By all means keep helping people with their mental health; we all need someone to listen to us. Just be careful and look after yourself.
Recognize You Deserve Help, Then Ask for It
Often we don’t know where to turn or if there is anywhere to turn. And even if we do, there can be many obstacles to access support. With the doom and gloom news headlines surrounding the provision of mental health care (me included – guilty as charged!) it’s no wonder. Some us may feel guilty. We have great lives so why do we feel this way? We should be able to control our feelings. Or we shouldn’t be using up limited resources. If we try and talk to friends they won’t understand. Or they have enough on their plates already. Maybe we’re embarrassed. Until I started looking I didn’t realize how many brilliant charities like Mind or Samaritans or Shout there were. There’s also the new Every Mind Matters NHS platform.
Mental health can get bad press in society. We’re made to feel that the suffering is in our head, that it’s something we can control, that it’s not serious, or as serious as a physical health problem. Let’s put these ideas to bed once and for all. If we suffer from a mental health problem then we have an illness and as with any illness we deserve help.
Know Whose Doing the Talking
Many of us may have discouraging, negative or downright abusive thoughts in our head. Thoughts we find hard to ignore or turn off. These thoughts might convince us that we’re not good enough, that no-one loves us, that we’re bad at what we do or that the world is better off without us. Before we can combat these thoughts we need to recognize just who is doing the talking. These thoughts aren’t us, it’s our illness.
I hope these ideas are of some help. They’re the sort of thing I wish someone had told me. Perhaps they may not have helped, I may not have listened.
If you have any ideas you want to share or thoughts, please do so in the comments below