By Gill Seaton-Jardine – Counsellor/Psychotherapist
Mental Health Awareness Week should address and involve everyone. We have all sorts of ‘weeks’ now suggesting we should think about some particular subject, some of which only involve a relatively small number of people and therefore can pass us by. Mental Health Awareness Week needs everyone to be involved – even if someone just knows that mental health is being considered for this week. It is far too important, and affects absolutely everybody, to be ignored as just another fad. How, then, can we raise the profile publicly so that everybody can see their ‘role’ in mental health?
Well, I guess we start with that last statement suggesting that everybody has a role in mental health – whatever does that mean and is it true? The obvious ‘roles’ are that of the professional, the volunteer and users of the mental health services – these are clearly people involved in mental health. By the professionals I mean GP s, Mental Health Nurses, Psychologists, Psychiatrists, Counsellors, Psychotherapists and various other Therapists. Volunteers offer an enormous amount of help and support working for various organisations such as Mind, Rethink, Alcoholics Anonymous, Samaritans , SANE and many more. The users are of course those of us who have need, at some time in our life, of help with mental health issues which may be short term and fairly straightforward or indeed long term and more complex. As I said earlier, their connections with mental health are obvious and they will all be aware of mental health at some level but why should everyone else be involved and indeed how?
Matters of health affect us all without exception. We all, at some time, need time off work due to illness. That may be a severe cold, flu, sickness bug, back pain, a condition needing treatment at the surgery or in hospital and numerous other physical conditions. The person suffering may be a relative, a work colleague, a friend, any of whom’s part in your life may be affected. This is where your role might come in. Perhaps the person needs transport, children collecting from school, shopping done, pets looked after etc. There are numerous ways you may help. Is this the same with mental health problems? I would suggest probably not – not because people don’t care. We have just identified above some of the many different ways people offer help. Perhaps the difference is that mental health problems are less seeable and less understandable and carry with them suspicion and wariness. So, does the person with mental health problems need help in the same way? Yes, of course they do. Do they get help in the same way? Sadly, I think not. So why not? Do they have different types of friends, colleagues and relatives? I don’t think so which tells me that it is lack of awareness about mental health issues leading to the wariness I mentioned above. What is the affect of this then – it seems to me that the affect is obvious – they do not get offered the help they need from anyone other than the professionals, the volunteers and maybe each other (although this I doubt through caution due to lack of understanding). So what do we need to do? We need as many people as possible to understand more about mental health conditions.
So now we have come right back to the beginning of this article considering how everyone has a role to play in the world of mental health. In the world of physical health, we talk about how we are. ‘I have a dreadful cold’ ‘Oh tell me about it, I have the worst ‘flu’! It’s almost a competition about who is more ill. However, we are less inclined to join in if a colleague tells us ‘I cried myself to sleep last night’ – we are more inclined to say ‘Oh it can’t be all that bad, just think about all the good things you have’ . This response, though meant well, can really shut down that person who has been brave enough to share a struggle she/he is having. So why do we do this? Why can’t we be with this person in their pain? I believe it is because we fear what may lay underneath. Is this person losing it? I’d better keep quiet, I may make things worse if I ask too many questions. These responses can leave two people in a difficult place where if they felt a little more confident about mental health, they may well be able to help one another. I often hear people talking about the loneliness of mental health issues and yet I don’t hear about the loneliness of physical health issues.
So how can we make this better? We can make it better by talking to each other. It really is as simple as that. We need to talk in order to be able to understand the other person’s point of view and become more aware of what life is like for them. We are a chatty species. We all natter away to each other, especially when we are supposed to be doing something else! So, if we all natter away how is it that we don’t know what the other person is really going through? Well my answer to this is that we don’t listen long enough or hard enough. We really don’t all need to be experts on neurosis, psychosis, depression, anxiety etc to be able to listen to another person who cried themselves to sleep last night . We just need to listen. At the very least, you will hear that person’s experience and that person will know that you have heard them. The joy of this approach is that it can happen anywhere at any time with anyone. Lockdown, of course, made this much more difficult for a time, although some folk found that talking to another person in the safety and familiarity of their own home was easier than going to a clinical setting such as a surgery or hospital.
Good luck with this, the very least you will be doing is raising awareness of mental health!