As another World Mental Health Day draws to a close, with all its hashtags, messages of solidarity and support, and the UK government announcing its appointment of a minister for suicide prevention, I find myself thinking: OK, but what happens tomorrow?
I welcome any initiative that breaks down the stigma that has for too long surrounded mental health. We’ve done it with physical illness: it’s within my lifetime that I can remember people whispering the word ‘cancer’, if they talked about it at all, and now we live in a culture where women walk through the night in their bras to raise money and men grow moustaches and talk about checking their prostates. Great! If having a ‘World Mental Health Day’ helps draw similar attention to depression, anxiety and other mental health issues, that has to be a good thing.
‘Top tips for improving your mental health’ have been popping up on my timeline and pinging into my inbox today, and while these are well-meaning, and no doubt helpful for some, they’re necessarily very general and along the lines of: ‘Exercise! Get plenty of rest! Eat healthily!’ Common sense, you might think, and in actual fact very similar advice applies for looking after one’s physical wellbeing. Just how easy it is to get exercise when you’re housebound with agoraphobia or depression, or to rest when your anxiety won’t let your brain take a break, or to manage a balanced diet when you’re living with an eating disorder, is a much larger subject, of course.
The one message that everyone seems to agree on is, if you are struggling with your mental or emotional health, it’s good to talk. Find someone you trust – be it a friend, family member, colleague, or a professional. For some people the GP is the starting point. For others, a charity or an online chat. World Mental Health Day can be a great catalyst for these conversations. However, some of the stories I’ve heard in the last 24 hours, on the radio and on social media, have been dispiriting to say the least: along the lines of ‘I reached out, to be told there was a 4-month waiting list for help’. I can’t help but think we’re raising awareness, and enabling conversations, but the infrastructure and resources sadly aren’t there for the millions who need support.
That’s why it’s incumbent on all of us to live by the message ‘it’s good to listen’. If someone comes to you in trouble, that’s the first, maybe only, thing you have to do: listen. When it comes to mental health, sometimes we shy away from it because we’re afraid of doing or saying the wrong thing; we feel we’re not qualified. And yet, if a friend with cancer turned up at your door to talk about it, you wouldn’t turn them away because you’re not an oncologist. It’s true that a friend struggling with their mental health may need professional help at some stage, but for now, you don’t have to be an expert. No-one ever hurt anyone by listening too much.
Mental illness can come in waves or it can be, sadly, relentless. It certainly can’t be confined and contained by one day on the calendar. Please, keep reaching out. Let’s keep up the conversation, and whether you’re doing the talking or the listening, know that you aren’t alone. Whatever day it is.
Head of Counselling, Professional Help.