Breaking the stigma on mental health

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Often when we talk about mental health, we instantly think of mental health illnesses like anxiety and depression, when in fact, it encompasses good mental health too.

Here, Melanie Peak, People and Money Systems Trainer in the Service Excellence Programme, shares her thoughts on mental health stigma, and why we should all be thinking of our mental health as a spectrum.

So what do we mean by mental health? Well, it is our overall emotional and psychological wellbeing. It governs our ability to cope in certain situations and can be influenced by many factors. How much resilience we have can play a huge part in this. Resilience develops over time, based on our learned behaviours and our lived experiences. So what one person can cope with, another may struggle. We may also gain strength through our support network. But again this will be different for each of us.

Our mental health, much like our physical health, exists on a spectrum from health to illness. We all appear somewhere on this spectrum. And in fact, we move up and down it on a daily basis. More frequently than that even, as we are influenced by the events that unfold during our day. So if we are having a good day, chances are we will be moving up the scale, and so it stands to reason if we are having a bad day we may move down the grid.

And yet despite us all having mental health, for many, it is associated with mental health issues such as anxiety and depression. This carries with it a stigma that has been very hard to break free of. And this is causing society a huge problem.

You see, for most of us, we don’t suddenly find ourselves drop from the highs of health down to the lows of illness overnight. Obviously, there are some occasions where this could happen. For example, if a loved one was to suddenly pass away, or we were the victim of crime, or maybe we have just been diagnosed with a serious health condition or injury. These unexpected traumas could result in a rapid decline in our mental health. But they are also likely to be the areas where support is readily available to catch them. Bereavement counselling, victim support, and specialist health professionals for example.

But for the majority of us, we won’t suddenly find ourselves at the bottom of the spectrum. Instead, it will be a gradual decline over time. And this is a huge benefit. It gives us plenty of time to react and put measures in place to stop us from falling. It gives us the opportunity to identify that those around us, both loved ones and colleagues, may be struggling so that we can reach out and provide them with the support that they need. And yet instead, for many, they are too frightened to speak up. Scared about what others may think of them if they admit they are struggling to cope. Often fears of losing jobs or missing out on promotions. Or we are simply too busy in our lives just to stop and give our mind what it needs.

So let’s have a quick comparison. If I had a headache, I may take paracetamol to get rid of it. If I had persistent headaches, I may look at my work environment, for example, ensuring I took more breaks from the screen and that the monitor was positioned in the right place ergonomically. I may go to an optometrist to get my eyes tested. Or a doctor for further investigations. I may even look at getting the acupressure point in my ear pierced in an attempt to prevent migraines. So even for a relatively small physical ailment, there are lots of options that I may explore to resolve them. And would I be too ashamed to tell people that I had a headache? Of course not.

And yet with our mental health, we often ignore it and hope it goes away. But like our physical health, there are many things that we can do. Simply fuelling our bodies with a nutritious diet, exercise, and plenty of exposure to natural daylight can have a huge impact on our physical and mental wellbeing, for example. And yet, we often find ourselves sitting at our desks grabbing a quick bite instead of taking some time and space during our lunch break.

Self-awareness about how you are feeling right now and being able to act on that with some self-care can be the difference between maintaining a point of health or dipping down into illness.

Let’s look at another example. You have been asked to do something at work that has caused you a lot of anxiety. To the point, you are now having panic attacks at the thought of it. You find yourself thinking about it at night and it is now causing you to have disturbed sleep so you are exhausted and run down.

But there is a better way of managing this. By having a discussion with your manager and telling them how you feel. They can offer you support. Does the task need to be completed in that way or is there an alternative approach that you feel more comfortable with? Can they provide you with the training to give you the confidence to overcome your fears? Simply by discussing how you feel, you are able to work together to identify solutions without you reaching a point where you are not coping.

When you try to deal with a problem by yourself. When you mask how you are feeling and what you are going through. Often it will feel like there is no way out. That you are trapped. And day by day, your body will lose its reserves to cope. We need to reach a point where we can openly talk about how we are feeling and what we need to feel differently. We need to accept that our minds need looking after too. And sometimes, we just can’t see the solution but by simply talking things through, it can make the world of difference.

So it is time to break the stigma about mental health. Because we all have mental health. And this fear of talking about it is driving so many of us into illness. Causing issues that could have been prevented if we had only taken the time to recognise that we were on the gradual decline into illness.

So please stand with me! Let’s stand together. Let’s stand for the conversation. Let’s stand for self-care. Because we all have mental health and it is precious. So we need to take care of it. And each other.

It’s time to break the stigma. My name is Mel and like all of us, I have mental health.

Mel writes about mental health regularly for her blog, the Balanced Mind.