In 2017 we talk more about our mental health than we ever did back when I was growing up in the 80’s and 90’s which is something I find encouraging, but what I’m still waiting for is a bigger shift in how we view the term ‘mental health’. We use the term ‘mental health problem’ almost like it’s a disease that should never be mentioned. I feel it’s a phrase that’s almost whispered or mouthed like my Granny used to when she was talking about something she viewed as a bit ‘out there’.
Well, let’s put this out there… ‘mental health problem’ is a very generic term, it gives the impression that it is a disease all by itself when in fact, just like our physical health, the spectrum is so much wider than that.
We talk about looking after our health in terms of our physical state, and although there is more awareness and strategies out there in the mainstream to help us nurture our sense of wellbeing, I still feel there is a stigma attached to having a ‘mental health problem’.
Our health should not be separated but viewed more holistically, that is how we develop from birth. All of our areas of development are so intrinsically linked that everything has an impact on us as a whole; why stop viewing ourselves as whole?
The fact of the matter is that at some point in our lives we will all have a blip with our mental health, that blip doesn’t have to mean medical intervention but it is something we will all experience on some level…I mean who doesn’t get the odd ‘down day’ or feel anxious about a situation unfolding.
Just like our physical health there are degrees of severity. Some people suffer from headaches whilst others experience migraines and other people develop brain tumours. Some ladies experience a pretty ‘normal’ menstrual cycle while others suffer from endometriosis. We sometimes get a cold and for some people that can develop into pneumonia…you get the jist.
Our mental health is the same and as such it is something we should all just accept as red. We should know and understand that it is not something strange or unusual to develop a problem that impacts on our wellbeing. Depression, eating disorders, anxiety and stress are just a few illnesses that can take hold and lead to such utter turmoil that it can take people’s lives from them. And it is the illness that takes it from them NOT themselves.
The more we discuss the easier it will be to break down the stigma. The more we admit the more we can talk and develop new strategies to help us cope, nurture and heal our mental health when we reach that blip in the road. And it’s something that needs to change fast.
Talking to a nurse in our local children’s A&E told me that 10 young people are admitted every week with feelings of wanting to end their short lives; and they’re the ones who get through the door.
The rise of social media, constant contact with their peers and that old thief of joy, comparison, means that our teens are struggling to manage their feelings, feelings that developmentally as teenagers are felt more intensely than at any other time in their lives.
So what can we do?
We can talk, from birth about how we feel. We can talk, from birth about how we are dealing with our feelings. We can model, from birth the strategies we use to help us look after ourselves as a whole. “I’m feeling tired so I’m going to sit and have a cup of tea and a rest for 5 minutes” “I’m feeling angry inside so I’m just going to step outside and take some deep breaths”. It may sound basic and even a bit daft (and of course this is on a fundamentally basic level) but it’s talking about how we feel, it’s naming the emotions to our children and it’s modelling to our children ways to deal with those feelings. It’s the very beginning of them viewing themselves as a whole. It’s helping them understand that negative emotions are a normal part of life, It’s helping them learn how to empathise; and at some point in our children’s lives that could make all the difference.
Now, just like our physical health there are no guarantees. We can do all we can to look after ourselves but sometimes people just get ill, we can’t stop that. What we can do though is the best we can for ourselves, our children and each other, in the hope that when that ‘blip in the road’ arrives, be it big or small, we are better equipped to talk about it. That we have the vocabulary needed to discuss it. At some point that may have a big impact in helping to prevent a ‘blip in the road’ declining into a full-blown illness.
Early intervention helps in both terms of our physical and our mental health – our health as a whole, holistically, and there should certainly be no stigma attached to that.
Jennifer Wyman is founder of Bridge the Gap and an emotional education consultant and trainer. A qualified early years practitioner and mum of two with over 21 years experience within the early years sector.