Working together to improve our mental health

Working together to improve our mental health

Today (Thursday 10 October 2019) is World Mental Health Day. As a school we are showing our support for people with mental health challenges by tying yellow ribbons on our form room doors. As a community we know that mental health is as important as physical health.

This year’s theme is ‘Working Together to Prevent Suicide’, due to the statistic that every forty seconds somewhere in the world a life is lost to suicide. This year’s campaign challenges us to commit to ‘forty seconds for action’ by checking in with those around us who may be struggling. All it can take is asking ‘How are you doing?’ and being ready to listen.

A powerful example of the impact of talking about mental health issues was given recently by the musician Sam Fender. Fender appeared on BBC Five Live to talk about the song Dead Boys, his tribute to two friends who had taken their lives. His conversation with Nihal Arthanayake had unexpected consequences as Fender recounted to NME: ‘There was a bloke who was going to kill himself, but he listened to Five Live and turned the car around … After hearing the conversation, the man headed home and told his wife how he had contemplated taking his own life.’

Three points in this story struck me as relevant to World Mental Health Day. First, this man’s wife, the person sharing his life, had no idea how he was feeling. Why would someone hide such desperate feelings from his wife? I can’t pretend to know the details of this case, but fear of the stigma attached to mental ill-health can still weigh heavily.

The binary view that most people, most of the time have good mental health while a minority suffer from mental health problems can be a powerful incentive to keep personal struggles to oneself. When already at a low ebb, the personal resources necessary to give a positive answer to questions such as, ‘What will my family think?’ and, ‘How will my employer react?’ can be in short supply, especially if the prevailing opinion is that people with poor mental health are on the margins.

This perception is at odds with the statistic that one in four people will experience mental ill-health at some stage in their lives, showing it is most emphatically not a marginal issue. Rejecting this binary view, Mental Health England describes the true situation as a continuum on two axes; the horizontal ranging from minimal to maximum mental illness, the vertical ranging from minimal to optimal well-being. Everyone can be positioned somewhere on the two-by-two matrix created by these axes. Circumstances can move someone from enjoying maximal mental well-being and minimal mental illness to other quartiles. We are all equally prone to movement on the mental health continuum. One in four, remember.

"The experience I have had is that once you start talking about it, you realise that actually you’re part of quite a big club." - Prince Harry

Some students have flagged their anxiety about the implications of the climate emergency, echoing a recent report in The Telegraph about increasing cases of ‘eco-anxiety’. It can be tempting for adults to play down these fears, risking reinforcing stigma by not taking them seriously. However, many adults would probably acknowledge that there is much in the news (Brexit, for example) making us feel anxious and that’s before we think about what it was like to be that age ourselves (Greenham Common and fear of the two-minute warning were ever present when I was a teenager).

One of the most important recent developments has been the determination to challenge this stigma, which is the second point I take from Sam Fender’s story. Prince William has spoken of how working as an air ambulance pilot made him confront the effect what he saw was having on him. The raw emotion was building up and he had to talk about it. Prince Harry talked of how the loss of his mother left him close to breakdown and prompted him to seek counselling. “The experience I have had is that once you start talking about it, you realise that actually you’re part of quite a big club.”

These experiences led the princes to start the ‘Heads Together’ campaign, which encourages people to overcome the fear of stigma and speak about their problems. By talking about their issues openly, William and Harry used their position to give others permission to do the same.

On Saturday evening, during ‘BGT: The Champions’, Ant and Dec – no strangers themselves to mental health issues – interrupted the normal flow of the programme, telling viewers to turn to the people they were with and talk about how they are feeling. Pictures were shown of the production team holding up encouraging signs. The following commercial break was broadcast with the sound tuned down so viewers could have a conversation.

While being another powerful challenge to mental health stigma, the direction to talk to each other also illustrates the final point I take from the Sam Fender story. Even very simple gestures such as chatting about one’s work and motivations can have a transformative effect on other people’s feelings. When Sam Fender went on Five Live to talk about his music, he had no idea the impact that conversation would have on the life of someone he had never met.

So, this World Mental Health Day, what will be your forty seconds for action? Ignore your device or turn down the volume on the television and check in with the person sitting next to you on the sofa. If someone does talk to you about their feelings, reach out and be supportive. That small gesture of care and love can make all the difference.

Finally, remember there are people at St Mary’s who can help if you or if someone you care about is struggling: Form Tutors, Heads of Year, Mrs Dodsworth, the Nurses and the counsellor.