Mental Health is on my mind. This weekend we commemorated World Mental Health Day and last week I attended a mental health first aid course. It is training to enable me to understand mental health further, recognise signs and symptoms, provide help on a first aid basis and effectively support people towards useful resources and the help that they might need. This subject is one that I feel hugely passionate about and one that I really want to raise awareness of. I recently posted my story, Finding Lightness. It discussed my experience of anxiety and depression and how yoga has given me the tools to cope with life. This course really resonated with a lot of my own experiences. It really got me thinking about how we respond and view mental health and how it is so often ignored.
A lot of my students come to me because they want to find a little lightness of mind. Some have anxiety, some are dealing with stress and others just want a bit of headspace. Yoga is a brilliant way to help and I say this from a place of personal experience. However I often notice in my students and in myself a struggle to place importance on looking after our own mental and physical wellbeing. It’s taken me a long time to realise that when we look after ourselves we are in a better place to look after others. It is something I try to work on as a teacher. It’s often tough though and over the years I have found that so often I take on too much, ignore physical niggles, minor injuries or emotional issues and by doing this they have often become worse. In fact there is a direct correlation between the darkest times of my depression and anxiety and my lack of self care. I was working over 16 hours a day, not eating properly, not sleeping enough, drinking too much alcohol and not exercising – the result was burnout, stress, fatigue, depression and anxiety. Not fun!
Students often say to me “but isn’t it a bit selfish to think of ourselves. I haven’t got time”. This is definitely not the case and we should set aside some time for self care. What use are we if we are tired, lethargic, anxious, depressed or ill? How can we be strong for others when our own resilience is low? When we are resilient, at peace with ourselves and have a clear mind we are in a better position to step up and be there to support other people. This in turn can give us a greater sense of happiness and wellbeing. As a teacher this is something I am immensely aware of. I want to be a good teacher and by sorting my own health and wellbeing I am able to be there for my students and avoid transferring my own issues on to them.
It takes continuous work but through checking in with ourselves and placing value on our self care we can look after our mental health. We place emphasis on nutrition and exercise for a healthy body so why not place emphasis on self care for mental health? Here are 10 of my key actions to enable mental wellbeing:
Giving: Doing things for others makes us feel good and allows us to find a sense of fulfilment.
Connect with people: we are naturally sociable beings so schedule in time to connect with friends and family.
Exercise: Take care of your body and enable the happy hormones to be released. Obviously I recommend yoga but physical exercise really is a great way to feel good.
Notice and appreciate: take your awareness to the world around you and actively look for interesting and beautiful things. Reflecting on the positive diverts our minds from negative patterns and has a positive affect on our brain chemistry.
Learn: by seeking out knowledge, learning a new skill or taking part in something that allows the mind to enquire we can stay inspired and feel more positive and alive.
Make plans: Set goals or book things to look forward to. This enables us to feel focussed, excited and look to the future in a positive way.
Resilience: Find ways to bounce back. Focus on energy, looking to future goals, look inwards, build and develop relationships and develop flexible thinking. This allows us to gain strength and bounce back from whatever comes our way.
Gratitude: compile a list or focus on what you are grateful for each day. This enables us to seek out the positive in our day and focus on good things.
Acceptance: Be comfortable with who you are. Accept what comes your way and accept the past.
Meaning: Be part of something bigger than yourself. When we focus on things that are greater than us it brings a greater sense of self worth.
Getting through anxiety and depression is work. It takes time and constant awareness and effort but it is something that can be managed and recovered from. The list above are small things that can improve our wellbeing. Your GP can help and NHS Choices are a great source of information while yoga and mindfulness can offer techniques to improve, balance and maintain mental wellbeing.
The above are ingredients to maintain mental wellbeing but what happens when someone is in crisis? During crisis point or acute mental issue the following may be of use for dealing with the situation:
Call the Samaritans: Seriously please call the Samaritans. They won’t hang up until you are ready to end the conversation, they listen, they can get you the support that you need and they won’t inform anyone that you have called eg police unless you ask them to. The new number which is free to call is 116 123. They help 1000’s of people each year and they really could make a difference in a time of crisis.
Visit your GP: They can refer you onto therapies and other professionals, signpost you to support and prescribe medication if needed.
Maintaining and dealing with mental wellbeing definitely takes work and focus but there is so much support out there if you need it.
Dealing with the symptoms and affects of mental health issues is one thing but what about the stigma attached to this subject? According to MHFA over 70 million sick days a year were taken from mental health issues last year. I can’t help but wonder if there are more than that and how many are put down as headaches, migraines or 24 hour bugs. According to BBC news three times as many people die from suicide than on the roads each year and until The Suicides Act 1961 it was illegal to take your life and failed attempts landed people in prison while successful attempts landed the families in prison. Clearly these facts point to a huge stigma around mental health.
We all have mental health needs and it is estimated that 1 in 4 people will experience some kind of issue. So why is it so difficult to talk about? I found that I didn’t want to be seen as weak or unable to cope. I didn’t want anyone to know and found it really tough to tell people even those closest to me. There can often be a lot of pejorative language, negative attitudes, a stiff upper lip outlook and the denial into some professions if you have a mental health issue only serves to increase stigma and a reluctance to speak out. I am only able to speak of my experiences three years on and it still worries me about speaking frankly and openly on the subject as though it has been my dirty little secret. I have come to realise that if I keep quiet and others keep quiet then the stigma will not disappear, the health services won’t improve and people will struggle alone.
It’s an ongoing effort to keep on top of things and to keep my anxiety and unhelpful negative thoughts at bay. I try to practice yoga and meditation six days a week, I practice mindfulness and ensure I have a well balanced diet. It’s hard work but a process that is enabling me to lead a happier, healthier and stable.
I am lucky and found the support I needed but so many people are right in the thick of the darkness and struggling to get through it. So let’s keep mental wellbeing on the agenda, let’s talk about mental health and let’s break down the stigma associated with mental health. Hopefully by doing this we can reduce suicide rates, prevent some mental health issues occurring and support others through their journey to wellness.
For more information, support and awareness resources there is a wealth of useful organisations out there but here are a few that I have found useful:
Rethink Mental Health