Although there is still a lot of stigma surrounding mental health, I’m grateful that there is a day dedicated to talking about it – struggling with mental health can seem like a lonely and isolating time, so when we see that it is actually very common, this helps us feel like we’re not alone. It’s also important to understand the difference between mental health and mental illness – everyone has the former, not everyone has the latter. So this day isn’t a day to self-diagnose or diagnose others, it is a day to share our experiences in the hopes of making ourselves or others feel less isolated and alone, but also to recognise that certain actions can be taken to help with our mental health, no matter whether or not we have a mental illness.
I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety in 2015. At first I was in denial about it, a few months before being diagnosed I remember just being hit with these waves of sadness or anxiety coming from nowhere and not understanding why, and when I found out I was diagnosed I was in shock because I couldn’t understand why someone as bubbly and cheery and positive as me could be diagnosed with depression and anxiety. But look at Robin Williams, and the people I know personally in my life who are so happy-go-lucky but yet struggle with mental illness. It really can happen to anybody, and that was part of breaking down the stigma surrounding mental health – not everybody dealing with their own issues will make it obvious that they are struggling. Some prefer to stick on a smiley face and mask their struggles, others are more vocal about it – both are okay, but we all need to make an effort as not to neglect our mental health. Mental illness aside, things like study, jobs, family life, financial issues etc. can all impact our mental health – they can make us feel anxious about the future, down about the past or present, and this is normal. If we can’t sort any of these problems on our own immediately, there are other things we can do which will help us deal with the problem, regardless of whether or not we have a mental illness.
Something that does bother me about this day, or anything mental health awareness related, is how some people take to social media and post certain things for likes or popularity. The very people who bullied those close to me would post about the importance of good mental health – despite the fact that these very people were the route of the anxieties of those I cared about and would continue to talk badly about things related to their mental health behind their backs. Similarly, an ex-friend of mine posted something on mental health awareness day last year. To paint a picture of the type of person she is, she gave a homeless man a tea and bragged about it on Instagram (which in my opinion is pretty dehumanising), she’d post a happy looking selfie with a caption of a keyboard smash of the number of “breakdowns” she’d have in a day (and judging by the look of her in the photo you could clearly see she looked very mentally stable and most definitely didn’t know what a mental breakdown actually looked like) and when I was ever in her company trying to have a conversation with her she’d just be taking selfies… So she undoubtedly loved attention, and I honestly think she could be a narcissist. The thing that bothered me is that in her post on mental health awareness day, she claimed that she was always the one to help other people with their mental health and then saying that there’s help out there, you’re not alone, and “to talk to someone and don’t be ashamed to tell that someone you are not okay.” So I called her out on it – the fact that she didn’t practice what she preached bothered me. In 2016 I met with her to tell her I’d been diagnosed with depression and anxiety and had tried to kill myself, but she laughed then called me a “f*cking idiot” before proceeding to make me feel even more embarrassed and ashamed by calling me a dafty (idiot) while hugging me. When I was telling her about my struggles, she was looking at me like I was about to tell a punchline of a joke. So it hurt when somebody like her was posting stuff that totally went against her actions, and she didn’t even bother to take any responsibility for it. Instead, she deleted my comments and blocked me, and we are of course no longer friends. So even though the beauty of social media is to connect people and experiences from all over the world, it’s important that we make sure that we are genuine in what we say, and we don’t just post empty words.
Our mental health is affected by diet, lifestyle, how we spend our free time etc – if we spend days on end glued to technology, isolating ourselves, eating junk food or binge-drinking alcohol, we will unsurprisingly feel like rubbish and that will impact our mental health. That’s not to say that every single day we should strive to drink enough water, eat our 5 a day, spend our free time doing yoga and meditating instead of binge watching a Netflix series while stuffing our faces – it’s all about balance. I’m starting to learn that write-off days are healthy because we need to relax, not something to punish ourselves for because we’re not being productive. With that being said, I try to incorporate the following things into my day-to-day life (if possible) to help with my mental health, but even more so on a day like today.
1 – Talk about it!
This is by far the most important one, as not talking about it can lead to bottling everything up and make us retreat farther and farther into ourselves. I still struggle to talk about my feelings as until recently I had always associated my vulnerability as a sign of weakness – it is not. And if like me you don’t feel like you can always talk to a family/friend/professional about what’s on your mind, writing a diary about how you feel can really help. I feel like whether it’s talking to a person or writing your thoughts and feelings down, either way helps me feel like a huge weight has been lifted off my shoulders. Allocating an hour either in the morning or at night to write a diary is great for keeping on top of mental health, and means you can always look back on something to remind you of how far you’ve come. Even writing about happy thoughts and feelings and things you’re grateful for leaves something positive to look back on for when you’re having a down day.
This is by far the hardest one, and it has taken me 4 long years to only begin to understand it. I had always been ashamed and embarrassed about having depression and anxiety – in my last job I felt humiliated after having an anxiety attack in work and then being told to finish my 10 hour shift because if the boss knew I wanted to go home due to my anxiety he would’ve “laughed in my face” (in my manager’s own words…). Why was my case any different from someone wanting to go home due to an injury, an asthma attack, maybe even a severe migraine or any other illness? I couldn’t even call in sick on my bad days in fear of how they’d react and now I am jobless because I am so scarred from the way I was treated before for being mentally ill. This is why we need to break the stigma. So it was situations like that on top of countless others that made it hard to accept the way I was, or to accept the days I couldn’t do the things I wanted. But now I’ve accepted it’s a part of who I am and I’ve learned what works and doesn’t work in terms of helping my mental state when I am feeling down or anxious. And in a way, I’m also grateful that my body and mind show me when it is urgent to unwind and relax before things get too bad. Accepting that there are going to be bad days on the days you wanted to get much done is key to having a healthier mindset. So accept that you won’t get anything done today – order that takeaway, binge that Netflix show, take that nap you were putting off having. Tomorrow is a new day.
3 – Do something that makes you feel good
I was watching Eat Pray Love last night and a particular part of it struck me. An Italian man was talking about “dolce far niente” – the sweetness of doing nothing. He was talking about how Americans work Monday to Friday then spend the weekend getting drunk and feeling guilty for having fun. And its similar to here in the UK. So whether it’s waking up a little earlier than usual to cook a nice, healthy breakfast or taking a relaxing bath instead of a shower, or reading a good book before bed, or spending a whole day watching a series you’ve wanted to watch for ages but never had the time for – it’s time to do things that make us feel good without feeling guilty about not being productive in terms of work/study/social life.
4 – Spend time in nature where possible.
Nature is by far the best anti-depressant out there. It doesn’t cost any money, has no side effects, and is so good for your mind and body. It doesn’t have to be somewhere far away or hard to get to, even a 20 minute walk around the neighbourhood is enough. I like to listen to podcasts or happy music when I go on walks as well, and I feel like this makes me feel productive when coming back home. Leaving the house obviously seems daunting when you’re feeling down or anxious, but if you have enough energy and strength to push yourself to do it, it feels even more rewarding. If you’re unable to walk, opening a window and just smelling the fresh air and feeling it on your face is enough.
5 – Take care of your body
When we feel down we begin to take less care of ourselves – whether it be hygiene or diet. It’s worse when we wake up feeling down and simple tasks like brushing our teeth or showering seem impossible. If I don’t manage to do things like brush my teeth, shower, eat healthy, drink lots of water all in the one day, then I try to aim to do at least one of those things – although it’s so hard. If I’m lucky, it makes me want to do another and if not, at least I was able to complete at least one thing. If I’m also able to, I like to chop up a few apples and make a herbal tea, and find that this makes me feel healthier physically, which in turn makes me feel healthier mentally. Spending some time on Headspace helped me with practicing meditation (which I personally struggled to get into on my own).
6. Be in tune with your body and mind – recognise your feelings.
If you wake up feeling like crap and can’t bring yourself to do all the stuff you have planned, then don’t. If you had planned to see a friend you haven’t seen in ages but when the day comes you can’t see yourself being anywhere apart from your bed, then cancel and try not to feel guilty in doing so. If you’re the friend that receives a message like that, don’t make the other person feel bad – let them know that it’s okay and you can reschedule, and if there is anything they need then you can try to help in any way you can. Pushing ourselves to do things when our mind or body is trying to tell us not to is only going to make us feel worse. And we should never feel guilty about taking necessary measures to feel better.
So those are the things I try to do every day where possible. I’m not lucky enough to have a therapist or the ability to walk at the moment, which of course gets me down, so I try to work around that by doing what I mentioned in the list. This is what living with poor mental health has taught me: even if we can’t directly address or fix an issue, we can do small things that will eventually add up to help us deal with the issues in a healthier way. The climate crisis has also made me spend days feeling down and anxious about the future of the world, but this is something that isn’t in my control: yes I can play my part, but I shouldn’t take responsibility to single-handedly make a change and in part feel depressed when I see the world is only getting worse. Again, talking to people helps – finding like-minded people who also want to make a difference, finding out what they are doing to help: everything adds up. And again, it is acceptance that it is not down to me to make the world a better place – there has always been bad in the world, so why am I only now fixated on a certain part of the bad now? For the sake of mental health, it’s time to focus on the good and what people are doing all over the world to help. So my stance on the climate crisis goes hand-in-hand with how I deal with bad mental health days – acceptance that I may not be able to directly “fix” my mental health or “cure” myself but can in fact do small, simple things that will add up to help how I deal with my situation is personally the best step forward that I can take.
So although today is Mental Health Awareness Day, we should be trying our best to make an effort to take care of our mental health every day, even if it only gets as far as brushing our teeth in the morning before spending the whole day in bed watching TV. Even the person with the healthiest mental state in the world is still going to have bad days where they feel sad or anxious, we’re only human. Phone a friend you haven’t spoken to in a while, take time out of your day to do something you feel like you haven’t done in a while, something that makes you happy and feel alive, make a plan to do something you’ve wanted to do all your life and make it happen – anything at all that makes you feel happy.