Ahead of World Mental Health Day, Nancy Buckland Kirk reflects on how to negotiate our complex relationship with mental health, looking for answers beyond the daily social media posts urging us all to ‘be kind’ and to ask for help when we need it.
“Oh, they’ve got mental health haven’t they?” It’s a common refrain in 2020, when describing someone else’s situation, or our own. Just writing those words down on paper confuses me. We have coined a phrase that does not match what we want, and need, to convey. If we describe someone as having ‘physical health’ we tend to mean they are in good shape physically. However, because our conversations around mental health are relatively new, we are all finding ourselves lost for the correct words to use.
This year’s World Mental Health Day is concentrating on mental health resources and support being more available to each and every one of us. It may seem like a tall order, especially as this year has seen health resources being prioritised, in a pandemic, to support the treatment of patients suffering from COVID-19, but so many people feel that so many of us struggling with mental health issues are being put on the back burner. When it comes to asking for help, we’ve been staying behind closed doors in every sense.
‘Mental health issues’ again is a phrase I’ve come to no longer want to use, but I’m just trying to find a better alternative. ‘Issues’ tends to represent something that doesn’t need to be taken too seriously. Under the real umbrella we need to describe comes so many different and varying illnesses, conditions and diseases from depression, to anxiety, to bipolar disorder to schizophrenia, and the list feels like it is endless. I only have my own experiences to speak of. I’m not a mental health professional and I am not armed with statistics today, but at a time when even more people seem to be suffering at least from a continuing low mood, what can we do about it?
I think we are given so many mixed messages. We are told it’s vital to talk, to reach out, to ask for help, to open up about our mental health concerns, and this is a helpful and valid recommendation. However, if you look at social media, for every ‘Be Kind’ message there is another one next to it informing us to stay away from negative people. They bring you down. They drain you. Stay upbeat and positive and the Universe will deliver the lifestyle and health rewards of your dreams. Swerve the Negative Nancy. You can imagine how I feel about that moniker.
When I see these posts, I often want to ask, “How do I know the difference between a depressed person and a negative one?” If you have ever suffered with depression, you will know that you feel relentlessly hopeless. It might not be who you are as a person, but it could be what you feel like when you are down, whether the reality of your situation is simply awful or actually full of promise.
Of course, you need to look after your own health first. We all know how it feels to be exhausted from working too hard, trying to keep up, putting ourselves under pressure to reply to a never ending stream of requests which require our time and resources. If you overstep your own inner trip switch, then you could become as poorly as someone you are trying to lend a listening ear to. It’s such a fine line, it’s like a modern tightrope at times.
If you have ever loved someone with debilitating mental illness then you will know, with the best will in the world, that as much as you are encouraged to ‘ask for help’ every time you put on a daytime TV show, actually being able to access is it more challenging, and that is if you are the able person trying to provide assistance. Over the last few months, it has felt as though a wall has been built up even further. Trying to provide moral support for a friend or relative who is suicidal, for example, can at times feel like a thankless task. It’s not a heart-to-heart chat over a pot of tea, and the problem is solved. It can involve a complex maze of emotions and experiences that mean that you also end up exhausted, before professional health can provide more solid ground.
However, during this time perhaps we have all learned valuable lessons that this time last year would not have even been on our lifetime curriculum. We are all responsible for ourselves, certainly, but perhaps we have come to realise over recent months that we exist better in society if we are working towards a common goal. Think back to when we were on our doorsteps clapping for the NHS. Some of those same neighbours are now judging and eyeing each other with suspicion, we are told, but this has not been my experience at all. I still feel a groundswell of support within my own community.
This year, we perhaps can start small and build from those tiny foundations. In reality, healthcare resources are stretched, and charities are finding it hard to raise vital funds. All we can each do is do our best to take care of ourselves, and offer kindness to someone we care about, or perhaps, someone we hardly know. As we head into winter, we are living in a world where it is impossible to find brightness in the faces of those passing us by, as masks take away that sense of human connection. But as a race we have learned to evolve and adapt, and we need that skill now more than ever.
Personally, I find the message of those I see on socials saying ‘I only surround myself with positive people’ a little unrealistic. Life can be a messy and painful process and while it’s wonderful to be around people who have sunny dispositions, also know that by finding time for someone who is really struggling mentally, you might not come away with a song in your heart, but you will have certainty opened up someone else’s, to a let a little light in.
When we know better we do better, as Oprah says, so I look forward to the day when I can say, “Oh that’s right, I’m the one with mental health.” And for it to mean I am doing really well.
Life has never felt more messy, and unsure, and there is a sense of instability which is shaking the sturdiest of people right now. Perhaps they too, will know how it feels to be super-anxious, and the super-anxious can teach them a lesson or two about coping mechanisms. As someone who has suffered with severe anxiety, I have been asked for advice about it more over the last year than I ever have in my entire life.
This World Mental Health Day, perhaps we can all get back to some basics. We can’t sort out Brexit, or the NHS, or all of the other political, social and economic issues that are constantly in the headlines. But what we can do is what we used to call ‘get back to the knitting’ which is a phrase from one of my old Economics lessons. It was about people knitting socks for men on the frontlines. It wasn’t tactical warfare, but it was about keeping feet warm and dry.
Get your knitting needles out. Ring someone you love today. Don’t DM them or message them, or Whatsapp them. Just check in where you can. And if you can afford to, donate to one of the charities below, or one of your choice, as if you can help them, they can assist so many more people in need of support right now.
When it comes to doing your best to keep yourself well and care for someone who needs you, take it one stitch at a time.
About the author: Nancy Buckland Kirk is a writer with a keen interest in fashion and beauty and a career which has spanned modelling, teaching and spreading the word about leading beauty brands.