There has been a lot spoken and written about mental health in recent months.
Triggers to mental health issues can occur anytime to anyone. The cause can be new experiences, ongoing ones or circumstances from our pasts. Unfortunately, the road to recovery is rarely simple or straightforward. It should never be taken for granted.
The focus around Mental Health Awareness Week in May was greater this year than ever before. This public relations initiative undoubtedly achieved its objective in awareness terms, and more importantly, in terms of outcomes relating to knowledge, understanding, attitudes and behaviour regarding stress and mental health.
But recovery from mental health challenges that cause anxiety, depression, fear, and other deep emotional trauma is not a matter of a single week. It requires more than a PR initiative or short-term public awareness of the issue.
There was a question behind this year’s focus on male suicide:
Stress: are we coping?
Coping involves responding to life’s challenges minute by minute, day by day, month by month. That’s why the Mental Health Foundation, as with many organisations and individuals, is dedicated year round to support and research good mental health.
The real value of any campaign around mental health issues is in the long-term measures – and cultural changes. Are we helping ourselves and others to cope with whatever comes their way? However they feel or behave? Today and tomorrow – not just when prompted by the news, memes or PR campaigns?
At my PhD graduation ceremony last November, my PhD supervisor, Professor Tom Watson, cautioned me that I’d experience a sense of loss over the next few weeks. Fortunately for me, the opposite was true. Graduation marked the start of recovery – in finding a sense of myself that had been buried under books, research and writing.
I’m sure that a sense of loss is felt by many young people who may not have achieved the grades they wanted or needed as exam results have been announced over the last week in the UK. They may feel distressed if things haven’t gone well – or maybe they’re sad about the end of their schooldays.
If we are able to, it is important to reflect at such moments. If we can’t see a way forward, others can help us get things in perspective. Can we move in new directions – or revert to other hopes, dreams and ambitions? Or take the time to process and rethink.
For me, I found recovery initially in being able to read anything but academic texts. This slowly helped me return to research, writing and other things I enjoy – such as dog walking and spending time with family and friends.
I had suffered in the final stages of completing my PhD with stress-induced eczema and typing-induced tendonitis.
My mental health had suffered in other ways – some of which I’m still addressing. But what had concerned me most at my graduation was how I felt about myself physically. I’d gained weight slowly but steadily over many years.
To complete my 80,000 word thesis, I spent months sitting in front of a computer or a pile of books. There were weeks when I didn’t go outside my house apart from quick dog-walks and trips to the supermarket. Eating more and exercising less not only piled on the pounds, but took a toll on my self-esteem.
Whilst relieved to have reached the point of submission and then to defend my thesis successfully, I wasn’t really happy in myself. More than that, I struggled to remember what happiness felt like.
I knew I had to make a change and recover my mental and physical health. I noticed there was a SlimmingWorld group in the next village and thought it was worth a try.
I found a group of wonderful, funny and welcoming people – and since last November, with their help, I’ve achieved a weight loss of over 3.5 stone (as a child of the ’60s, I don’t think in kilos).
I consider this milestone as a mark of recovery and gradually feeling better about myself. The tendonitis remains, and life continues to bring challenges. The support of others – strangers and friends – has been vitally important, especially as it is easy to isolate yourself when experiencing mental and physical health worries.
Recovery is a hard road – but we don’t have to travel it alone, especially when we are moving backward rather than forward. Recovery is about taking small steps and recognising our achievements, even if we don’t always feel the positive emotions that we think we should.