Comment: #DoOneThing and have a chat this World Mental Health Day

Tomorrow is World Mental Health Day (#WMHD), the goal for which is ‘to help raise mental health awareness so each of us can make a contribution to ensure that people dealing with mental health problems can live better lives with dignity.’

If you #DoOneThing for this WMHD, it’s to have a chat with someone if you’re struggling. The Covid-19 pandemic and associated lockdown has caused mental health referrals to rise sharply and, in my experience, talking to someone is one of the most effective things you can do – even if it is done so virtually.

This principle, however, needs to expand and embed itself in society. While I applaud the various initiatives to encourage more people to talk about mental health, including WMHD, I do believe the ultimate aim should be for this to be the norm across our society, rather than just something to do on one day. I know that a greater openness about the issue would have helped me no end when I was experiencing chronic anxiety, a condition I battled with between about the ages of 10 and 25 and something I will always live with to some extent.

I feel that writing a post about this topic is timely given the impact that Covid-19 has had, as a result of both the worry that the pandemic has caused and the impact of lockdown itself. Services were under pressure before the pandemic started. Services that, unless you are privileged enough to be able to go private, you may have to wait for over a year to access. I’m generally a sceptical person (I know, who knew?), but no more so than when it comes to government announcements about levelling the playing field with respect to accessing mental health services, or ensuring mental health has parity with physical health. Some would argue that even this is not enough and experience on the ground tells me it is still is not happening.

This is shocking, considering that one in four of us will experience a mental health problem in our lifetime, which means the chances are the vast majority of us will either have a mental health problem or be aware of someone close to us who has. My non-scientific analysis leads me to believe that this statistic of one in four is currently higher, considering the impact that Covid-19 is having.

Which is why talking to each other about mental health is extremely important, more so now than ever before. To help those who are in despair and have nowhere to turn. To provide peer support and comfort in numbers. To give options and advice. And to put two fingers up to those who pour scorn on people who have mental health problems, generating the stigma, which is gradually in decline but still exists in some quarters today.

I will spare you the blow by blow account of my experience with anxiety, but sufficient is it to say that it is wide-ranging and has shaped my life and my personality. It was a painful era caused by panic disorder, social anxiety and health anxiety, the latter of which has been coming back to haunt me in the past six months. You can read more on my blog which I actively edited between 2012 and 2018, listen to more on my co-podcast and scroll through my Twitter account if you want the gory details.

The main problem was I was scared to speak out, especially because much of my anxiety occurred during school and university. Scared of being judged, belittled, cast aside from society, when in fact what I didn’t realise is that by not speaking out I was doing this all to myself anyway.

Then, nearly ten years ago, I hit a crescendo with a 14 hour long panic attack. What I didn’t appreciate at the time was that this was actually needed for me to finally ‘not take no for an answer’ when it came to getting the right sort of help. I got in touch with Anxiety UK who paired me with a therapist and fifty sessions of online Cognitive Behaviour Therapy later (I started video calls early), I could see light at the end of the tunnel.

The therapy has since enabled me to manage my condition and not let it dictate my life. But talking to people prior to this, and since, has helped in equal measure. Friends can often tell earlier than me when I need to keep an eye on things and I am lucky to have people around me who know all about me and what I now like to call ‘my past.’ But the last seven months has been hard, largely as a result of being a part-time carer. I have been effectively locked down since mid-March and this has taken its toll as a result of having limited interaction with other human beings. Thank goodness for technology!

Granted, this comment is a little removed from SWM’s more traditional posts about sustainability, but actually I would argue that achieving greater and fairer support for mental health problems is a huge part of one of the priority themes of our 2030 Roadmap, ‘social equity and health.’ Health inequality does not just extend to physical health and it is little surprise that those in the most deprived areas of our society are more likely to experience a mental health problem in their lifetime. The ‘one in four’ figure I quoted earlier is likely to look much different in these areas. Moreover, other key sustainability themes such as provision of access to green space, encouraging more cycling and physical exercise, prevention of stressful events like flooding and being able to work in the knowledge of job security are all key factors to improving mental health. The importance of this within the whole concept of ‘sustainability’ should be at least level in priority with tackling climate change and achieving our net zero carbon goals, in my opinion.

But there is one key message I want to reiterate to finish with. I can assure you that the best thing for you to do if you’re experiencing a mental health problem, or think you might be, is to speak out. If you suspect a friend or family member is suffering, reach out to them. There’s no right or wrong person to speak to – it could be a family member, friend, GP, therapist, colleague, teacher or a random person you meet on the street (at a distance). And if you get a negative reaction from your first attempt, try again. I guarantee that it is the first stepping stone to getting the help you need.

As I said in one of my final blog posts, ‘you are not alone, and never will be.’ And it is this togetherness that gives me great comfort every single day.

Some links to further support:

Alan Carr, Senior Sustainability Adviser, SWM