When I wrote a piece for World Mental Health Day last year, I reflected on the challenges of lockdown and looked forward to finally coming out of it. What a rollercoaster of twelve months we have all had since then. Whether it’s been traffic light systems, worries over Covid jabs or anxiety about getting back into the world, we now have a whole other raft of issues to contend with. I can remember the last Winter of Discontent, and the whole heating vs eating debate. It’s getting a bit 1979 as I type.
This year, we are discussing mental health in an unequal world. This theme was released some time ago, and has gained even more momentum since then. After watching the events of the last couple of years play out, adding to that natural disasters, conflict and political instability, it’s no surprise that our mental health is a collective issue.
As this year again feels very different, I decided to have a chat with a mental health professional rather than just relying on my own words. For me, this wasn’t too difficult, as I’m married to a psychotherapist. Before I begin, this situation does prompt an awful lot of questions from other people. They do wonder if I get ‘counselling on tap’ and an endless source of empathy. Actually, living with someone who has therapeutic skills is obviously a huge bonus. However, I have come to learn that it’s a physically and mentally demanding job, and sometimes after a hard day at his practice, the last thing my other half needs is a shopping list of my problems when he gets in. (I’d also like to point out that he became multi-skilled during lockdown, as he also had to become my hairdresser, which is why Emma, the fabulous editor of His & Hers, now calls him Mr. Davide!)
Dave, as he’s known to me, changed careers in his forties, and swapped the world of engineering for the arena of psychotherapy. After studying Psychology to Masters level at LJMU, he has since worked in several roles, and now has his own private practice. He is an all-rounder but also specialises in both addiction and trauma. We sat down over the world’s worst pot of tea (he didn’t marry Nigella, put it that way!) to talk about staying well.
Dave, the theme this year about mental health in an unequal world is an important one. There are a lot of people worried about their mental health right now. What type of issues do you feel are most commonplace right now?
I think fear is an overriding concern at the moment, and so anyone who already has any type of mental health issue can become preoccupied with worry. Obviously, a lot of people have really been through a lot during the last couple of years: losing loved ones, caring for someone else, career changes or job losses, home schooling and working from home are just a few. Now that we are hopefully moving forward, I know that people who are anxious are becoming more so, as every time we switch on the news, we are bombarded with something else to concern us. I think reducing your news consumption can really help, by the way. It’s a small move which can really free up headspace.
What’s it like for anyone working in the mental health field at the moment?
I have friends and colleagues who work in both the NHS and in private practice, or who work across both areas. It has been a really challenging time. Obviously, for colleagues dealing with patients in crisis, this is always a tough role, but I do know that so many people with mental health issues feel that they don’t matter or count as much as someone with a physical illness. I do hope that perception continues to change. I really missed seeing my clients face-to-face during lockdown. I am not decrying Zoom or telephone sessions, but I think in-person therapy is really, really vital. I am always talking about the importance of meeting people and having social contact in our everyday lives, too. Of course, as trained professionals we have a level of impartiality but we are humans, too. So as therapists we also have to take care of our own wellbeing also.
A lot of people are on waiting lists right now for mental health appointments. One thing we talk a lot about is how we can manage our mental wellbeing as individuals. Perhaps you can share some of the tips we discuss?
I know waiting lists are really challenging for patients who need help. I’d always say to approach your GP as soon as you can, to see what is appropriate for you. If you call 111, and look at the NHS advice available, if you are in crisis then they can arrange for you to be seen in A&E, if this is applicable and suitable. Please don’t think that there is nothing available to you.
Many people do seek help via private counselling and therapy services, like mine, and of course I understand that there is a cost involved. I wish it were the case that our health services could provide everything we need to help patients and clients. I do appreciate the discussion around equality here.
Making your mental health a priority is vital, even during times when you feel it isn’t an issue. Becoming more resilient, and able to deal with life’s ups and downs, as well as experiencing its joys as well as its sad times, is key to making sure you stay well.
Talk. The worst thing you can do is isolate yourself, and yet it is the first thing people often do when they find themselves in a low mood. It’s not rocket science, but it’s the first line of defence. Even if you feel like it’s a huge effort, have some social contact. And I don’t mean texting or DM’s here, although they are fine within reason.
Recognise your triggers. Can I use you as an example, Nancy? One thing you do say is that I know what you’re thinking, which is not fun for you at times! You have been open in your writing about your own mental health issues, and I can see when you are beginning to struggle. It can be an upsetting storyline even on a TV soap, or worrying about a text message you have sent or received, or a comment you have read on Instagram that starts the anxiety ball rolling. You can get very distressed, quickly, if you feel you have made a mistake, upset someone, or have seen something on TV that mirrors a previous experience in your life. Now you are getting better at taking a breath, giving things time to settle, and simply switching off the TV, and picking up a book.
Move. I gave up running during lockdown. I am usually quite fit, and slowly just let my fitness go. And I noticed quite quickly that it left me feeling lethargic. Getting back to it hasn’t been easy, but it’s made a world of difference. I enjoy running with a few mates, it really gives me a lift – as does the breakfast we go for afterwards! Moving doesn’t have to mean lots of exercise. Getting outside in the fresh air and in nature is a balm, and this time of year is perfect for it. Be tough with yourself in terms of getting out there, but kind to yourself by choosing something you like. Plus being outside tops up your Vitamin D!
Try not to use your home as a control centre. If you work at home, it does have its advantages, but trying to use your house as a workplace, a home area, and everything in between leads to extra stress. You need demarcation between your home and personal life as much as possible. I am not telling you not to work hard, but so many people fear if they aren’t available 24/7 they aren’t doing a good job. The reality is you will spread yourself far too thin.
Seek out meaningful people. We all know so many people, don’t we? And sometimes we neglect established friends and connections and take them for granted. Make an effort. You will find time spent with a good friend is really healing. And if you know each other well, you don’t need to put on an act.
Get rid of stuff. This is an area where I can say my wife has educated me! We moved house two years ago, and we both had so much ‘stuff’ to sort through. I tend to ignore it, and hope it will go away. I’m not saying you have to be completely neat and tidy, but the act of sorting through what you own, and passing things on which you don’t need, is therapy in itself. I now like knowing where everything is. This is progress for me. And if you declutter a bit, think about what you buy next, too. Be more mindful, if you can.
Don’t compare. Comparison websites are great for sorting out your car insurance – but don’t put yourself through them personally. I see it constantly, up close in my own circle, with both male and female family members, and it’s painful to observe anyone you love feel not good enough because they don’t measure up. Don’t create your own inequality. There’s only one you.
Eat well, rest and have a bit of fun. I don’t stick to a rigid plan. But I do make sure I eat well, and make time to sleep. We don’t have any upstairs TVs at home, although I could be here all day debating room temperature, and whether we need blackout curtains, or not. Have a go-to film, or show, which always cheers you up even in dark moments, too.
Help. By helping others, I don’t mean the kind of help you need to announce to the world. We do feel senses of inequality and injustice, and it is easy to feel overwhelmed. If global issues feel too much for you to tackle, start with a local charity, campaign or even a neighbour you know who would appreciate your time. It really does feel good to be of service.
Accept yourself as you are this minute. We all think if we lost weight, or had more money, or a new job or car that life would somehow be better. It’s how the world is set up for us to operate in right now. Of course you can be proud if you have got fitter, or have been awarded a new promotion, but accept and love yourself as you are right now. It’s difficult, I know. Even if love is a strong word, then ask a few people you love what they like about you. Write it down. Read the list.
It does get better. In my work, I have seen people work through the most trying of experiences and setbacks. If you can, think of a time in your life when you were really happy and if you can feel yourself getting stressed, close your eyes and remember that great memory. Try and recall as much about it as you can. Have a memory bank of good times, and know they will happen again.
Be grateful, when you can. When you feel up against it, resentment starts to build up, and it really erodes your mental health. You can feel angry at yourself, and those you care about. The advice to feel gratitude winds you up, even. It’s hard to feel grateful when the world feels at odds with you. If you haven’t tried meditation, download a free App and have a go: even a five minute guided session is a start. It’s all about small steps. If you can wake up, and go to bed, with a list of gratitude basics, it is something to build on. Whether it’s a warm bed, or morning coffee, or a kind message, list it.
Accept differences. So many people have fallen out over the pandemic. Whether it’s over vaccinations, or rule breaking, or mask wearing, we all think we are in the right. Don’t let your opinions separate you from people you love. It’s very easy to argue right now, but losing a valuable person from your life simply isn’t worth it, unless they are causing you personal harm. If it’s a difference of opinion, then let them be.
Now, I know Dave will have to read through this when I have written it, but he does have a really uplifting look on life. Of course, it drives me nuts when he’s right and I won’t give him credit, but in turn, I think he does learn a few tips from me. It’s mainly about moisturiser or shopping your own wardrobe, and I have immersed him into the world of the Real Housewives, which he now classifies as research on group dynamics. Yeah, right.
I’m a terrible worrier. I’m one of those people who reads quotes someone has posted on Insta, and think they are aimed at me. And I don’t mean positive ones. I worry if the postman doesn’t talk to me. I have been worrying about the state of the world as soon as I could watch Newsround, and at the moment, I am keeping away from too many headlines as they literally give me nightmares.
However you are feeling today, please know you are not alone. If you feel isolated go online and find something to get involved in. I’ve spotted a few great activities at the Old Library, in Liverpool, close to where I live which are mostly free: from yoga, to family tree research, to reading groups, you don’t have to look far to find something.
However, whatever I do, while I know my husband is well respected in his field, and a huge source of inspiration to me, he is never going to make it in the world of hairdressing.
Mr. Davide is finally retired. And that goes on my Gratitude List, daily.
For NHS advice and information go to:
To find a BACP accredited counsellors and psychotherapist go to:
Other helpful resources:
To visit David Kirk Psychotherapy go to www.dkspychotherapy.co.uk
About the author: Nancy Buckland Kirk is a writer with a keen interest in mental health, fashion and beauty and a career which has spanned modelling, teaching and spreading the word about leading beauty brands.