By Gill Seaton-Jardine
There has always been a lot of mystery and suspicion around the subjects of mental health and mental illness. Am I losing my mind? Am I imagining things? Will I ever stop crying?
Frightening concepts creating a sense of isolation partly because, until recently, they were not talked about in everyday life. Happily this is changing and, to some degree, more out in the open.
One of the difficulties here is use of language across the two concepts. We do all feel many different feelings in response to life around us and these feelings help us deal with our experiences. We need to acknowledge such feelings and allow ourselves to experience them in order to manage our lives. If they become overwhelming, it might be hard to hold down a job, maintain a relationship and function as you would like to, to keep life on track. A problem may appear if one or more of these feelings become so much that they don’t allow us to get on with our lives.
We all now use such words as stress, depression, anxiety in common parlance – we used to use ‘under pressure’, ‘sadness’ and ‘worry’ in their place. The difference here is that we can all be psychologically well despite being sad, feeling under pressure to finish that project and /or concerned about a friend or family member. In fact, maintaining good mental health involves managing things that happen to us in our lives so as to stay ‘well’. We can expect life to throw good and bad things at us all the time and, in the same way that we take care of our physical self, we must take care of our mental health.
So how do we take care of ourselves? Well, physically, this probably seems obvious. We need a good balanced diet, the right amount of sleep, exercise, a suitable environment, the right temperature, appropriate clothing for our circumstances, plus a satisfactory routine to name a few. Much of this happens automatically, we don’t think about it too much, we are used to this kind of care. Taking care of our mental health may be a little less familiar to us – are we actually able to do that? The answer is largely yes, although with certain types of mental illness e.g. clinical depression, psychosis it can become more difficult.
Self-awareness is a huge factor in self-care. The term ‘self-awareness’ sounds pretty self-explanatory, but how often do you think about how you are actually feeling? Do you ever really think about how you are feeling? Moreover, how often do you consider what is causing those feelings? Are there difficulties at home? Perhaps money is short, those sharing your home are being awkward or perhaps you have noisy neighbours – just stop for a moment and consider how this is making you feel. Is there trouble at work? What effect is that having on your ability to cope? Maybe your relationship has become strained or is breaking down – how is that making you feel? Are you angry, frustrated, scared, lonely – you could be all of these and more. Any of this kind of ‘stuff’ is going to take its toll on our mental health if left unchecked. We need to bring it to awareness and take action to prevent the deterioration of our psychological health.
So, how can we look after our mental health? Many of the requirements are the same as with physical health, for example, a good diet, enough sleep, exercise, and a suitable environment for you. As well as those mentioned, we also need to notice our mood, our feelings and emotions in response to what is happening in our lives, our eating and sleeping patterns. Noticing these things is the first step towards preventing a downward spiral. We all seem to be in a hurry these days – never leaving enough time for all our needs. Grabbing a sandwich rather than sitting down and eating lunch or dinner, getting up early and going to bed late to ‘fit it all in’; feeling fatigued but pressing on anyway. We don’t even leave enough time to feel our feelings – ‘must pull myself together to crack on’. This is not the way to maintain good mental health.
After you have taken some time to bring these things to awareness, try not to bottle things up but talk to someone if you find you are struggling. You have made progress already by stopping and thinking. This could be a friend, a member of the family, a work colleague or an appropriate professional. Talking to friends is a great idea but it can be hard to show another person that you are vulnerable. You need to select the friend you talk to with care. Will this chosen person listen? Will they keep it to themselves if you ask them to? Will this actually be a helpful to talk to this person? This is about your awareness of your friends. We could all benefit from another person thinking about who we are.
Family members might seem the obvious people to talk to and indeed they might well be. The familiarity and the closeness can be very comforting and helpful but it can also be difficult to talk to people so close either for fear of being judged or for fear of upsetting someone you love.
It may be that you decide that you don’t feel comfortable talking to anyone you know, or, having spoken to a friend or family member you need something more. This then is the time to contact a professional. So, what do you get if you go to a counsellor? You need to ensure that your counsellor has been properly trained and has the appropriate experience for your requirements. Don’t be afraid to ask about his/her training and qualifications. A good practitioner will be quite happy to explain everything about his/her practice. A counsellor should offer a quiet, appropriate work space, reassurance of confidentiality except for some limits which should be explained to you at the outset, clear boundaries such as time and frequency of sessions, a warm, reassuring manner as well as a non-judgemental attitude towards you.
Remember, we all have physical and mental health and we will all have difficult challenges in our lives to deal with. Feeling sad when we lose someone, lose our job, lose our home is very normal and necessary for us to be able to tolerate such events. Feeling concern about our family, our friends, our pets is very normal. Feeling angry when something or someone annoys us is very normal.
These are part of all our lives. Let’s all vow to take more notice of our own and our loved ones’ mental health in the same way we take care of each other if we have a cold, a stomach bug or a broken leg.