Tag Archives: Mental health

See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil

Mens mental health – The challenges of encouraging men to seek help

In a slight deviation from my four pillars series I have decided to write a short piece on mens mental health, in part because I have been in the process of writing a response to this very question for someone else and felt my musings could be of value to the wider audience.  

Apparently in the UK, women are twice as likely to see a GP about their mental health than a man causing some to ask if the services we provide alienate men by being female centric.  

STIGMA

I would start by saying that in my opinion, the biggest problem men face is not at the point of service but before that.  Stigma is still the biggest issue standing between men and accessing mental health support in spite of significant efforts in recent times.  Many men either don’t want the label that accompanies diagnosis, or they are unaware of their mental health in the first place.

Head in Hands

Stigma has both social and practical consequences which challenge traditional views on masculinity and impact on areas of life like career.  Anecdotally I am aware of men who fund therapy privately because of the negative impact a disclosed mental health condition would have on their career.   

Anger

An example of where stigma may be contributing to misconceptions by men is the traditional portrayal of mental illness.  The “head in the hands” picture accompanying so much of the discussion often does not fit the male experience.  Many men may feel angry and frustrated as a result of mental illness but I rarely see this discussed or represented. It is highly plausible that many men simply do not understand that they are unwell and this is such a crucial part of the healing process.  I am asked all the time by people how they can help a loved one who doesn’t want help or doesn’t know they have a problem.  The simple answer is, you cant.  You can love them and support them, talk to them, educate them but you cannot impose your will upon them.  To heal from any condition there needs to be a degree of will and co-operation.  I also wonder how prepared society is for managing this face of the problem.  How do we reach out to angry people?  It is difficult to show compassion and empathy to someone who is angry and as a result society tends more often to alienate them.  

Male Stereotypes

Male soldier in desert patrol

Male representations in media could help but we must tread cautiously.  There is a tendency in my opinion to represent male mental illness through readily explainable conditions like PTSD, or through individuals who have experienced trauma or operate in high stress or highly psychologically challenging environments.  It is incredibly important to support those in society that we expose to the most difficult situations but we must also remember that mental illness is not all trauma based.  Many, in fact the majority, struggle like I do with common mental disorders through a combination of inherited, biological, psychological and lifestyle factors.  Over emphasising trauma as a cause of mental illness risks creating a hierarchy that causes those suffering outside of this model to question wether they are truly ill or indeed have a right to be ill.  

Challenges in Primary Care

Assuming that men, or anyone come to that, have managed to navigate the initial barrier of stigma, you must then overcome the practical considerations of accessing support.  The problems with seeing a GP are well documented.  You could pick up on any of the traditionally cited complaints, waiting times, being triaged, 10 minute appointments.  All of these are seen as problematic in health provision (by doctors themselves) but it becomes additionally complex when your condition is sensitive and one of your primary considerations is maintaining discretion. Reflecting on some of my own experience I have often pondered the irony that at a time when I had exhausted my emotional reserves I needed to muster every shred of fortitude I could, just to navigate the system.  

circle on a calendar with "doctor" written on it

In many areas you are able to self refer into psychological services.  Undoubtedly this helps but it is not always appropriate and is certainly not a substitute for face to face primary care.

My final observation, and one of my initial motivations for starting Talking FreEly, was the manner in which services are provided.  In my local area I found them to be almost entirely provided during standard working hours, both public and third sector provisions.  This automatically excludes anyone who is attempting to manage their illness discretely or in conjunction with holding down a job.

Summing Up

I am certain that, with regard to primary care, the current provision of services disadvantages anyone suffering with mental illness, regardless of gender. In the discussion about mens mental health however, the issue in my opinion is still one of getting men to the point that they identify with the need for help and feel confident in doing so.

Talking FreEly logo

We must be realistic about the challenges.  I have campaigned for better tolerance and understanding of mental illness for over 10 years now.  I didn’t sense any significant change in attitudes until the launch of Heads Together by Princes William and Harry.  Whilst this and other campaigns have helped the discussion no end, attitudes do not change overnight.  People dont open up about their mental health because we tell them to.  They open up about their mental health when they feel it is safe to do so and that is why organisations like Talking FreEly exist, to create those environments and communities that will bring about the change.

Tony Sigrist

Portrait of Tony Sigrist

Tony is a qualified acupuncturist with clinics across east Anglia. He is also the founder and a director of Talking FreEly, an organisation campaigning to break down the stigma of mental illness through honest and open conversations.

If you are interested in learning more about how Tony could help you to achieve your well being goals please get in touch or book an appointment at one of his clinics.

If you are interested in how Tony and his team can help your organisation to raise awareness of mental health and support your staff please email enquiries@talkingfreely.org 

Family In the park

7 Tips for improving Mental Health

In the last couple of years the world has had a serious mental health wake up call. Barely a day passes now without a news article or social media post drawing attention to a problem that has existed since time began but has gone largely unnoticed.

Let’s make no mistake. Mental Illness has been a big problem for a number of years. What is driving the change in attitudes now is likely a greater awareness brought about because some very high profile individuals have spoken out and a greater understanding of the financial and personal costs of poor mental health. Regardless of the reasons, a greater awareness of our mental wellness and willingness to discuss it more openly can only be a positive thing in terms of wellbeing.

Mental Health or Mental illness?

I do think however that it is very important to make a distinction between mental illness and mental health. We tend not to use the word mental illness because it is surrounded by Stigma, substituting it for “mental health problems”. Unfortunately this muddies the water a little so let me set out how I see the language.

Mental health is something we all have. It is part of our overall health, separated at some point in time in medical terms, and governs how we think and feel about ourselves. The homeostatic place for our mental capacity is that we fluctuate gently between a range of emotions in a socially accepted response to a range of stimulus from the outside world. If for whatever reason the homeostasis is disrupted and a particular emotion starts to predominate we may start to behave in a way that is not considered socially normal or acceptable (I use this definition because, after all, who defines what normal is!). We may become irrational, withdrawn or even psychotic. At this point we are becoming mentally ill.

Mental health and Physical health

Like physical health, there are aspects of your mental health that are utterly beyond your control. Equally there are aspects of mental health that are influenced by lifestyle and adopting a healthier approach can reap benefits.

Of all the pillars of wellbeing, mental health is the one I have spent the most time contemplating, researching and engaging with. My understanding and opinion is ever changing but one of the things I feel most confident in asserting is that time spent figuring out what makes you tick is rarely time wasted.

What follows therefore is not a rule book or magic formula for zen level contentment. It is simply a collection of ideas that may help you to develop positive mental health.

1. Understand your own mental health

cup of coffee and open books

I am a firm believer that self awareness is the most important aspect of changing your mental health.  For many of us, the first time we will become aware of our mental health is when it becomes a problem.  Taking time to think about what makes you tick first however could help you to identify where your possible triggers may lie and help you to avoid them in the first place.  This may seem like quite an overwhelming task but there are plenty of resources out there that can help.  In his book, The Chimp Paradox, professor Steve Peters discusses the relationships between various parts of our brain that govern emotional and rationality thinking and how these develop in response to our experiences.  I found it an extremely useful way to explore and understand my own psychology as the basis of my mental health.  

Without understanding, your efforts at training are potentially shots in the dark.  When we first visit a gym, we may have no idea of where our strengths and weaknesses lie.  Once we’ve pumped a bit of weight or stepped out on the treadmill we will have a clearer idea and this can help to focus our training.  

As a side note, I’m not sponsored to promote anyone’s work or product. I happened to find this book particularly useful but I acknowledge it may not be for everyone and there are a raft of other resources out there that may be equally useful.  

2. Balance activity with rest

Any athlete will tell you that the harder you train, the more rest you require.  Its a simple balance of Yin and Yang.  When it comes to resting mentally I find people are generally less aware of what constitutes rest. TV for example is rarely relaxing.  It is usually emotive or stimulating.  After all, it is designed to entertain.  We could be lulled into thinking we are resting because our bodies aren’t moving however all  the while however our brains are ticking away, processing the information.

In my humble opinion, 21st century human beings are over stimulated. Information is fired at us left right and centre and for many, we have simply lost the art of being still.  Because of this I strongly recommend developing a mindfulness practise.  Mindfulness is a form of meditation that allows us to focus on what is happening right now as oppose to past or future events.  It sounds simple enough but once you engage in a mindful practise you will be astonished at how much time is spent thinking in either past or future terms.  If you need anymore convincing the mainstream media are frequently bestowing its benefits as seen in this well balanced article.

Mindfulness can help us to give the mind a break and in time that will become more than just something we do for ten minutes a day.  It becomes a skill to manage some of the more difficult aspects of life.

3. Don’t expect overnight results

This is another casualty of our modern world where we no longer have to wait for anything.  Our expectations have moved, often unrealistically.  If I want to develop 32” biceps its going to take time.  If I am recovering from a shoulder injury, its going to take even longer.  Patience is the key.  Its harder because we struggle to see the results however in time, if we stick with it we will start to feel the results.

Brain Training

4. Consider how the other pillars of wellbeing influence your mental health

This really harks back to my first post introducing the four pillars of wellbeing.  Ultimately, wellness is not held up by one aspect of health.  If we want to be resilient we will want to stand our wellbeing on four Saturday pillars, each of which is helping the load of the other.  It can help us to consider our health in individual terms but there is plenty of cross over.  For example, how we eat can have an effect on our mental health as seen in this link from MIND.

Mental health can affect sleep and sleep can affect mental health.  The best way to approach your mental health is to sit down with a piece of paper and think about various aspects of lifestyle and how they may be affecting you.  A few key areas to think about could be sleep routine, social media use, alcohol and caffeine consumption.  This is by no means exhaustive but is a nice starting point.

Remember, we are all individuals

This reminds me of my favourite line in life of Brian where the entire crowd repeat this sentence.  There is a tendency to think of our health in a one size fits all model.  My training and career as a holistic therapist has taught me that no two people are truly alike.  We all bring subtle differences so whilst I very much advocate open and honest conversation about mental health with the sharing of ideas, we never the less should be aware that what worked for one may not work for another.  This doesn’t mean it or you have failed, just that you have different needs and should try something else.

Reach out for help if you need it

This is where our old friend stigma comes in again.  I’m afraid it is also an opportunity for me to use another physical health analogy (yes repetitive but unapologetic, it gets the message across). My local green has someone training under the watchful eye of a personal trainer nearly every day at some point in time.  Most of the people in my social circle engage in some type of regular physical activity under the watchful eye of a trainer, coach or professional.  In my family it is Karate.  In others it is Yoga or Pilates or whatever.  For those who run or cycle the help may be less formal, working instead in pairs or small groups.  When we take a bump we will ask someone to put a plaster on or give the area a rub.  If the injury is more serious we usually seek professional help.  What I’m saying is that we all understand that our physical needs are usually better met under guidance or with support.

Consultation

Why then are we so reluctant to seek help for our mental health?  Stigma.  Its a tired line but in my opinion it cant be said enough.  reaching out for help with mental health is not a sign of weakness or failure.  It is a sign of common sense that you have recognised the limit of your own capabilities and need some help to either fix things or take you to the next level.  Mental health support can take many forms.  CBT, Counselling, Complementary therapy, Talking informally in groups like Talking FreEly  What is important is that we feel able to reach out when we need it

Be mindful of the end goal

A few months ago I posted a blog on Happiness.  To say it was highly controversial would be an overstatement but suffice to say it was divisive, some disagreeing with my assertion that we should not be striving for happiness.

I haven’t shifted my thinking here.  If you see the epitome of mental health as perpetual joy you are going to be disappointed.  Life can be hard.  Its a series of obstacles and challenges, some pleasing, others not.  Very few people navigate through life on a steady straight zen line.  We are always moving between highs and lows.  Its a natural process of life to experience a range of emotions according to what life presents us.  Instead the goal should be improving our capacity to cope or recover from the knocks and equally, not to get too carried away with the highs

Contact

Tony is a qualified acupuncturist with clinics across east Anglia. He is also the founder and a director of Talking FreEly, an organisation campaigning to break down the stigma of mental illness through honest and open conversations.

If you are interested in learning more about how Tony could help you or your organisation please get in touch or book an appointment at one of his clinics.

The four pillars of wellbeing

The Four Pillars of Wellbeing

Wellbeing.  Its a word we hear a lot about these days. Used a lot by the health and fitness industries it describes an all encompassing state of existence that we would all aspire to achieve.  The dictionary defines well being as “the state of being comfortable, healthy or happy” (see my post on Happiness here).  Taken literally it is two words, being and well.  

You could be forgiven for thinking that wellbeing is in fact a goal, something we must work towards.  Many people who claim to have good ‘wellbeing” will present their own successes as the key to unlocking your own pathway to wellbeing.  For some this can be very alienating.  Being physically fit is often portrayed as the key to wellbeing (this post has an interesting view here ) but what about people who suffer from life restricting disabilities?  Can they then not achieve wellbeing?  Of course they can because our sense of wellness is not based on someone else’s.  Nor is built upon a “one size fits all” model that focuses on a one aspect of life.  In the same way that a good building spreads its load accross a strong foundation, so our sense of wellness should be equally supported.

In fact wellbeing is a subjective sense that is built on our own values and priorities.  Furthermore, its an ever changing landscape. For example my priorities as a father of a young family are different to those I had as a 20 year old man.

The four pillars of wellbeing

In my clinical work I tackle wellbeing by looking at four areas of life.  Mental health, physical health, diet and sleep.  I call these the pillars of wellbeing and they have a few precepts

Everyone has their own pillars

Ive mentioned this already but to reiterate.  An 80 year old person may be very physically fit relative to their age but they cannot build their health in the same ways as a 20 year old athlete.  Its cruel perhaps but its a fact.  

Human beings broadly share the same anatomy but that is where the similarity ends.  This to me is where modern medicine and science with all of its immense knowledge and intelligence fundamentally falls over.  It relies too heavily on people behaving and reacting in the same way.  I do not practise acupuncture like this and nor do I consider wellbeing to work this way.  Good practise and shared ideas yes but every person treated as the individual they are.

The pillars must share the load

A building cant have one side and wellbeing cannot balance on one pillar. 

No one pillar stands more importantly than the others.  Lets look for example at someone who has identified their pathway to wellbeing through being extremely fit.  Diet will naturally need to adjust to cater for extra calories or protein.  Your sleep however, a frequently overlooked health priority, is equally important because that is the time the body recovers.  

Each pillar is made out of many rocks

Another curse of the western world is a tendency to throw our hat into one aspect of life and the expense of all others.  Gym people will be only too familiar with the “no legs day” physique. Massive upper body, tiny legs.  Pillars of wellbeing contain many building blocks in their own right, not just the ones on the outside that people see.

For example, sticking with the pillar of physical health it is also important not to focus entirely on the part that relies on moving. Rest, as with sleep, is also important as may be remedial therapy like acupuncture or massage to deal with the extra demands you are placing on your body.  Professional footballers for example spend a lot of time resting to stay fit.

And then theres the all to oftenly neglected mental aspect.  How do we switch off.  TV? Is that really relaxing us?

In this example we can see that each pillar carries its own appropriate mix and adjustments, not just a relationship to the others. This ensures it remains strong in its own right.

The pillars must hold their own weight

At first look, it seems my rules contradict one another.  Support each other but stand alone?  Bear with me.

What I am saying by this is that although a building will derive its best strength from spreading its load, it can still be built in such a way that it is capable of standing if one of the supports fails.

Sticking with the athlete example, a question I always ask clients who have a strong reliance on physical fitness is “what is your plan for injury, or your body slowing down”. Often there isn’t one and I can tell you from experience, if fitness is propping up mental health it will start to crumble when its no longer supported.

A pillar can build its strength from another pillar, even carry a little less weight itself, but it cannot lean on another and expect to stand if it falls. I highlight mental health because in my experience this is where we focus least but if it helps try to envisage it with one of the other pillars, diet for example.  Where do your 5,000 calories a day go once you stop training?

Any building will become weakened or shaken if one of its supporting structures develops a stress, or worse fails completely. If the building is well built however there is no reason that it should fall over.  Wellbeing is the same.

How to build your own wellbeing

This is always the million dollar question. In clinic I work individually with my patients to focus on the areas we decide may be vulnerable.  This isn’t a radical “do or die” process but a collaboration of ideas and adjustments.  It helps to reinforce the pillars that are belong held up by the others.  I usually look at slower aspects of life like rest and sleep and frequently there can be easy wins here.  Likewise I work a lot with mental health, encouraging periods of time when we focus on using our brains more slowly or indeed not at all.  In patients who are looking to be more active we talk through achievable sustainable goals rather than big changes that risk being passing fads.

Contact

If you are looking for support on your own journey to wellbeing get in touch today.  My details can be found on the contact page. Alternatively drop me an email via the contact form and I’ll get back to you.

Stress Free Zone - Signpost directing you to a stress free zone

Stress – 5 steps to help you manage

Stress free zone.  A signpost pointing the way

Stress Free zone – Photo by thornypup on Flickr and used here with Creative Commons license.

Stress seems to be a a 21st century epidemic and its not difficult to see why.  Everything in life moves so quickly we barely pause for breath.  Long hours at work, mortgages and bills to stay on top of, roads full of cars, trains crammed with people.  The potential for stress seems to sit round every corner.

Dissecting the finer details and complexities of stress is the basis of a deeper and more detailed story but there are some simple steps you can take to start taking a bit of control.  Becoming aware of stress levels is now part of my commitment to self care and when I feel them rising there are a few key places I look for some quick easy releases.

1. Turn the technology feeds off – Yep I’m talking all of them.  E-Mail, Social Media, News, Twitter.  Did you know that there are now more mobile devices than people in the world ?  There is increasing evidence that we are becoming addicted to technology.  People are absolutely bombarded with information and it sits right there at our fingertips, bonging away every five seconds on a smart phone.  Do you really need to instantaneously know that you mate just checked in at the gym or the Bank of England reduced the base rate by 0.25%?  Will your mates gym session go any better for you “liking” it?  No.  Thats not to say we shouldn’t enjoy our technology.  Just be more disciplined about when you use it.

2. Switch yourself off – When I ask people how they relax the most common response I get is “Watching TV”  Lets explore this.  Is TV designed to help us switch off?  No.  Switching off is the last thing the TV bosses want us to do.  What do you watch? X Factor? The News? Soap Opera’s?  Think about whats happening emotionally when you do this.  Excited? Angry? Jealous? Watching TV may be giving your body a rest but not your mind.  I recommend mindfulness as a way to regenerate the brain as its simple and accessible.  You can find a wealth of resources out there to help develop your technique but if you want to just give it a go why not try practising a breathing technique and focusing on the breath for a few minutes each day.  You will be surprised at just how busy your mind is!

3. Go for a walk – This has 2 benefits.  Firstly, you get some exercise. A lot of my patients don’t register walking as exercise because we seem to only register physical activity with going to the gym. Actually the traditional Chinese view of health would take quite a dim view of all that heaving straining and sweating.  Traditional exercises such as Tai-Chi are far more sedate but get the blood and energy flowing all the same.  The second advantage of walking is you get some natural light.   Studies of seasonal affective disorder suggest a clear link between natural light and mood so getting this into your daily routine is really important, particularly since so few of us now work outside, instead staring at manufactured light on computers all day.  Get outdoors and revel in all that fresh air!  If the suns out even better since sunlight is a natural source of vitamin D!

4.  Sit down and eat properly – This isn’t a diet lecture. There are a whole bundle of resources out there on what you should and shouldn’t eat, some good, some rubbish. I do give dietary advice but one of the most overlooked aspects about  food is how you eat it which is arguably as important as the food itself.  Buying a healthy lunch then shoving it down at your desk between meetings is a waste of good food.  Eat 3 times a day, every day, and take enough time to sit down and eat these meals properly, preferably at a table, but at least without distractions like TV, work and yes those retched smart phones again!  You will digest better and therefore feel better.  Less indigestion, more energy and who knows, you may even lose weight.  Once you’ve nailed that we can start thinking about what type of food we actually put in!

5.  Give yourself a break once in a while – One of things we struggle with in the West is this sense that one shower ruins the summer.  If we have a chocolate bar our whole diet is a failure.  Its a huge barrier to progress because rather than seeing it as a set back or a one off it becomes the end of the line.  Out comes the ice-cream, on goes the Shakira (Bridget Jones for those who missed the reference). What we miss is the massive triumph of the 1, 2, 10 days before. Life is for living and whilst having self discipline is a wonderful thing having fun is an essential part of life too.  If you fall off the wagon, remind yourself you’re human, applaud yourself for everything you’ve achieved AND for recognising your human limitations and start again tomorrow.

So there they are.  5 simple steps on a long journey.  Thank you for reading and good luck.  Do remember to check in again for more health a wellness tips.

Written by Tony Sigrist

Tony is a qualified Acupuncturist with a lot of experience in managing mental health.  He is available for talks and presentations to businesses and groups and also has a private practise in Ely Cambridgeshire where he see’s patients for individual support across a full range of physical and mental health conditions.  Contact him today to discuss your individual needs.

Happiness

Happiness – Why this should not be our wellbeing goal

I realise and acknowledge that this headline may not grab you as something your want to read.  I would like to assure you from the outset that I am not against happiness or spreading joy. Happiness is great, I love being happy.  Ive also had long periods of time when I wasn’t.  

The reason I feel compelled to write about this is that its very easy to get caught up in the drive of positivity online thats working furiously to counteract the equally negative world.  The problem with both of these stances is that they stand at the extremes of the spectrum as polar opposites and life just isn’t like that.  Ask any acupuncturist.  Life needs Yin and Yang!  

In my working and personal lives I have encountered unhappiness that is driven by unavoidable circumstances.  Tragedy, mental illness, relationships, all examples of the obstacles life throws at us often without warning. Sometimes its all we can do to survive (see my post on thrive v survive). 

This blog is not intended to trash happiness but to raise our awareness of how it fits into our emotional health.  I believe this awareness can help us to achieve a better sense of wellbeing.

Happiness isn’t always a selfless and wholesome thing that makes the world a better place

Happiness means different things to different people.  A wellbeing professional will understand the wholesome messages they are trying to portray but in the modern world, driven by consumerism happiness as is frequently wrapped up with the acquisition of goods. 

There are other extremes too. For example, some people feel happiness when they are driving a vehicle at break neck speeds or from stealing other peoples possessions.

These are not really measures of happiness but examples of quick highs or easy fixes.  They are of short duration and need constantly replacing.  They demonstrate that happiness in itself is not an exclusively virtuous or wholesome pathway.  It is by no means an absolute right to feel happy if there is a cost to others.

Spreading happiness won’t help everyone to feel better

Its nice to read positive stories to motivate us to fill our lives with joy.  All over the world, thousands of people will feel the benefit and I’m not knocking this.

We should be aware though that there is another side.  For some people, happiness is simply not within their grasp.  Problems like repression, life events and mental illness can be absolute barriers to happiness. The problem with flooding their world with happiness is that it simply reinforces their unhappiness. We see this particularly at Christmas time, when our community feels an overwhelming pressure to feel joyful. Its well documented that those suffering from depression, loneliness or isolation will feel the effects particularly at this time of year.

Happiness is not a permanent state of mind

Happiness is one of many emotions human beings feel and express.  Because its the one that makes us feel good its natural to think that we should aim to feel like that all the time.  There are reasons this is flawed.

Firstly, its probably unachievable.  If someone is unhappy, no amount of tom foolery or coercion is going to make them happy.  Telling someone to be happy is far more likely to make them feel miserable.

Secondly, its not appropriate.  The human mind is adapted to feel and express several different emotions in response to the situations we find ourselves in. For example, we feel fear when faced with danger. This is entirely appropriate and triggers a hormonal response in our bodies that alters how we function in preparation for responding to the threat. The natural expression of a broad range of emotions is normal, healthy and part of living a well balanced life. It becomes a problem when these emotions cant be switched off or become overly expressed. Happiness is no different. It would be highly inappropriate to feel happy when faced with a dangerous situation or grief.

This all sounds a bit pedantic.  Aren’t you just playing with words?

Maybe but life is littered with arguments about words and language.  Humans are evolving intellectually very quickly and our language has developed enormously in recent years. The addition of new words into our vocabulary and the change in culture have affected how we interpret language. We have a duty to take care over the choice of words we use and at very least to discuss and rationalise how we interpret themes. This isn’t judging something as right or wrong, simply opening the opportunity to broaden our discussions and consider different perspectives. 

How else do we measure wellbeing if not through happiness

Lets be clear, I’m not saying we shouldn’t be happy or to spread positive news.  What I am saying is we should be respectful of the complexity of human emotion.  Not everyone strives to be or can be happy and we shouldn’t take it personally when people dont feel like smiling or joining in the fun.

People should express all emotions freely and appropriately without fear of judgement or ridicule and perhaps a more achievable goal for wellbeing is to embrace this. 

Working towards “happiness” is fundamentally flawed as a life goal.  I advocate a values based approach, working to the best of our ability to do what we feel is right and aligns with the person we truly want to be. This would include self compassion and compassion for others.  If we follow this path, happiness may reward us along the way but we will achieve an overall sense of contentment and personal wellbeing.  In my opinion this is a more wholesome, achievable and sustainable goal.

I’m sure people will disagree with me. This is what makes us develop as human beings and I welcome the variety of opinion that supports or contradicts my own. That is after all what keeps the conversation going and the human mind developing. I hope you have enjoyed reading this and if so, or if not, please comment.

Stepping back from the stress

Today I am travelling into London for a meeting, a journey that I made daily a few years back in a haze of numb misery.

Looking around me. the stress is palpable. Too many people, not enough space. Rubbing salt into the wounds, I look out of the window and the sun is shining, reflecting off rivers winding their way through green fields and trees. The train is full of people travelling to jobs that aren’t fulfilling and away from lives they’d rather be having, enjoying the simple pleasures that life has to offer us.

I only make the journey every few weeks these days and I enjoy the experience, not because I like the heat and bustle of an overcrowded train but because I can reflect on why I removed this from my life and indeed how fortunate I am.

At its most basic level, human existence has very few requirements. Eating, breathing, resting pretty much keeps us going. All of the other rules are created by humans and work on the basis that we consent to follow them. Some of these rules are positive and allow us to exist harmoniously together. In the main these rules are written. Some of the rules however are unwritten, the accepted norm that we follow because its what society expects of us like working 40 hours a week, having a mortgage etc. In fact these are not rules, they are choices and we have far more control of these rules than we think.

I doubt anyone really enjoys commuting to work but for some, the life it affords them outweighs the sacrifice. When this position is reversed and the sacrifice outweighs the benefit its time to step back and question what we could do differently.

The UK is currently in the grip of a mental health epidemic. Medically, the causes of mental illness are poorly understood, hypothesis rich, evidence poor. Genetics, biology and psychology can all be at play but the link with stress, when considered alongside the typical lifestyle in the west, would seem the most likely driver behind the recent surge of common mental disorders like depression and anxiety. Its also the one cause we have the most control over.

I broke the cycle 7 years ago now and whilst my life is not plain sailing I’m way happier than I was sitting on this train everyday. What I sacrificed in money and “stuff” was invested in the one thing that money simply cannot buy. Time.

Mental Health – Adapting to the Environment

Many people who are aware of their Mental Health will notice that certain environmental changes can trigger their symptoms.

I recently attended a fascinating presentation on Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a keen interest of mine.  Some of the discussion was interesting because it highlighted how different attitudes towards mental and physical health.

Seasonal Affective Disorder

For those not in the know, SAD is an illness where mental health plummets at a particular point in the year, usually as the days become shorter.  I have written a more detailed piece on the condition which you can read by clicking here.

The event was presented by one of the worlds leading authorities on the subject but became a well managed exchange of experience and views.  One of the attendee’s was interested in the potential of building light therapy into existing light sources.  Light therapy currently requires a sufferer to sit in front of a light for up to 30 minutes.

To be clear, I think this is a great idea.  Anything that can help alleviate suffering without ingesting chemicals can only be a good thing.  What concerned me was some of the rationale that was offered for “needing” this type of product.  “People don’t have 30 minutes to sit in front of a light in the morning”.

Different attitudes

What immediately struck me from this statement is the disparity with which mental health is held next to physical health.  Lets be clear, SAD is not a choice, its a serious debilitating mental illness.  Mental illness is a serious medical complaint.  In certain demographic groups, the mortality from mental illness exceeds that of any other illness.  If we had a physical illness that necessitated 30 minutes of physical therapy a day, we would move heaven and earth to make sure that person received it.  Would we see dialysis or chemotherapy as a choice?  Of course not, nor should we.  So why when the problem is a mental health one do we suddenly feel that we just “don’t have time” for a 30 minute treatment?

This sense that we “don’t have time” is right at the centre of why so many of us struggle with our mental health.  We just don’t take time to care for ourselves.

Sunlight

Adapting to the Environment

I also think we should consider why we flood our world with artificial light as soon as it gets dark.  I believe that in many cases (not all) SAD is not a problem with lack of light but a problem with trying to continue life at the same frantic pace all year round.  Our bodies tell us to slow down but we don’t adapt.

In some species, the behaviours of taking on more fuel (carbohydrate craving is an early symptom of SAD) and resting is part of their seasonal rhythm.  In humans however, our bodies start to change and our instinct is to resist and fight.  We follow the same routines year round to maintain the same levels of productivity.

In an ideal world I would see people following a more seasonal approach to life.  I am however a realist and I know that the western world is going to be a long time bending to this ideal.  If however we continue to invent new ways of ignoring our bodies and circumnavigating basic needs, the mental health crisis thats slowly gripping society can only deepen.

Im glad to say that the majority of attendees at the event agreed. We should be finding ways to secure 30 minutes of our day to attend to our mental health, not more ways of disregarding it.

Where to find help

If you are suffering from mental health problems be assured, you are not alone. There is non judgmental help when you feel able to reach out for it.

To find out more about challenging the stigma of mental illness take a look at Talking FreELY or get in touch with me.

Logo for Talking FreEly, Mental Health Organisation

If you are suffering from mental health problems, be assured, you are not alone. There is non judgmental help when you feel able to reach out for it.

If you are in crisis please consider the following advice from MIND

  • Go to any Accident & Emergency (A&E) department.
  • Call 999 and ask for an ambulance to take you to A&E.
  • Ask someone else to call 999 for you or take you to A&E.

If you need urgent support but don’t want to go to A&E, you could:

  • call Samaritans on freephone 116 123 – they’re always open and are there to listen
  • Call NHS Direct on 111.

Mental Health – Strong for too long?

One of the things I see on social media a lot is this statement

“Depression isn’t a sign you are weak, its a sign you have been strong for too long”

Its a well intentioned way of re-framing how we perceive mental illness but what does it actually mean and is it accurate? For me the language creates some problems!

Firstly, its a bit of a sweeping statement because mental illness is completely arbitrary, affecting people from all walks of life and for any number of different reasons.

What it refers to more specifically is a commonly encountered cause of depression. The curse of modern western society. Stress!

The “strength” to which it refers describes the capacity of a person to cope with stress. In so called “strong” individuals, stress acts as a motivator, an impulse to push harder and harder to overcome the adversity and achieve. When the drive goes beyond the bodies limits there comes a point where it has to break, like any system that is overloaded. At that point depression takes hold.

If you are one of these individuals (its fine by the way, I’m a lot like that myself) you probably feel better knowing that in spite of your mental health, society views you in positive terms as a go-getter. In some cases, it may encourage the perception that mental illness is simply a consequence of normal life if you want to “get on”.

But what if you aren’t “strong”? By implication, if not in actual language, this statement suggests that the opposite, people who fold at the first sign of stress and therefore don’t push their body through the same level of trauma, are unlikely to suffer depression. Apart from this (of course) being absolute rubbish, the implication is that these types of people are “weak” (it is after all the opposite of strong), a term most of us would consider to be an insult. Society after all has little regard for this approach to life.

Am I over analysing? Well certainly if the message that we value strong over weak is not implicitly carried in this statement on mental health, it is one that is heavily implied and indeed replicated across society, particularly in the workplace where I have repeatedly encountered the attitude that “going the extra mile” is pretty much compulsory.

Of course the path you decide to follow in life is an entirely personal choice. Where it becomes problematic is when society guides these choices through negative stereotypes. When people push themselves because they feel that is what is expected, not what they want.

Can a statement intended to make people feel better about themselves really do this? I think it can. I think the stigma of mental illness is driven by thousands of stereotypes, cultural norms and poorly used language. In this example, you could as easily change strong and weak for stupid and wise and tip the entire statement on its head. Language is a powerful tool and tackling what has become accepted norm is a huge challenge. If however we ever hope to have a lasting impact on the merciless onslaught of mental illness its one we have to take on.

It all begins by talking which is why Talking FreELY invest so heavily in facilitating simple and honest conversations about mental health. Because it is these conversations that will drive change.

If you are struggling with mental health there are a number of useful links on the Talking FreELY website. If you want to know how you can help to keep the conversation, check us out on Facebook and Twitter

www.talkingfreely.org

Mental Health – Surviving or Thriving

The theme of 2017 Mental Health Awareness Week is, surviving or thriving.  When I first read this I was immediately drawn to the word thriving, a word that fills me with optimism and excitement about the potential the world has to offer. Immediately I cast aside survival as a negative message that I didn’t want to focus on.

Today I was reflecting as I often do and I realised that this is mental health awareness week, and Talking FreELY, a local mental health organisation I am involved with is about honest non judgemental conversation on metal illness.  I realised my natural instinct to try and fix things had perhaps led to me missing at least 50% of the awareness message.   Awareness is not about solutions, its about giving some insight and however hard those messages are to deliver it is surely my responsibility as a mental health ambassador to try and do so.  So I would like to talk a little about survival and what that means in terms of mental health.

The first time I heard thrive or survive was on Chanel 4’s “The Island” with Bear Grylls.  12 contestants marooned on a desert island with nothing but basic tools and the clothes on their backs.  The challenge, not just to get through, but to actually enjoy it. To eat well, to create a comfortable living environment and a happy community.  I was watching this programme last night when the tail end of a hurricane hit the island dumping inch after inch of miserable battering rain on them.  No proper shelter, no proper clothing, unable to go and hunt for food, barely able to keep a fire going and worst perhaps, inaccessible even by the rescue teams.  It was utterly miserable and in that real life moment, any thought of thriving was lost and it became a single battle to get through that bad time.  It is a great example of how life is, and how mental health can be.

My own mental health is an ever changing landscape.  There are times when I do indeed thrive.  During these times I can really rip into life and live each day to its fullest potential,  laughing, joking, getting things done, the life, soul and energy of the party.  But its not always like that.  Several times a year, every year for as long as I can remember, my mental health will slump and the cloud of depression will loom overhead.  In these times its often all I can do to get out of bed in the morning.  I retreat from the world and everything from washing my face to taking the kids to school becomes a struggle.  As I’ve grown in my awareness I find I have an increasing number of strategies that can help me to predict and manage these bouts.  I lean more heavily on relationships, try where I can to get out more, stay off social media.  These interventions help but they aren’t about thriving or “snapping” myself out of it.  Surviving in these moments isn’t a choice under my conscious control.  I don’t chose to be depressed or anxious any more than those poor people on the island chose to be battered by relentless rain.  Its what life throws at me, and I do what I need to get through until the time passes and the sun comes out again.  Some people may come out of it and never get hit by a hurricane again.  For others, who live in their shadow, its about rebuilding and trying to be better prepared for the next time.

Perhaps I can be forgiven for focusing on thriving.  The reality of survival isn’t that cheerful and who wants to be seen as the harbinger of doom?  We all want to hear the positive messages. But this is mental health AWARENESS, not mental health utopia.  In amongst the positivity we should perhaps, quietly acknowledge that a lot of people are just surviving and in fact may not need a bundle of ideas just now to get them thriving.  Lets celebrate the successes but remember that the bigger task is in supporting the ever increasing number of people who are suffering from a mental health issue.  How you survive is what empowers and enables you to thrive.

If you are suffering from mental health problems and need help, please follow this link for details of support organisations – HELP