This week is Mental Health Awareness Week, and the Mental Health Foundation is leading the campaign with the message of cultivating good mental health, developing resilience, and learning to thrive rather than just survive.
I think this is such an important approach to start talking about. Recently, in the UK especially, there has been a growing awareness of the extent of poor mental health among the population, and a movement to encourage more people to talk about their experiences so that others feel more able to start a conversation and ask for help. Once this is happening, the logical next step is to get more of us developing strategies for coping with the stresses of everyday life, working through and coming to terms with past experiences, and looking forward to a more positive and mentally and emotionally healthier future.
Heads Together, the mental health awareness campaign spearheaded by Their Royal Highnesses the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, and Prince Harry, was the official charity of this year's London Marathon, and in the lead up to the day itself, all sorts of people, from the Princes themselves, to celebrities, and 'ordinary' people, shared their stories in a series of videos linked by the message that it's #oktosay. On marathon day itself, thousands of runners wore blue Heads Together head bands around the course to highlight the message, and the BBC produced a two-part documentary tracking the tales of ten people with varying mental health struggles as they trained to run the marathon, using the physical exercise, as well as the group bonding, as a coping mechanism to find strength within themselves to begin to move on with their lives.
I found the Heads Together marathon campaign personally resonant, and is why I'm getting behind this Mental Health Awareness Week.
I've suffered several bouts of depression over a number of years, and still struggle with low days and anxiety, low self-esteem and a tendency to internally catastrophise thoughts or events that might never happen. I worked with a counsellor for over a year, and later another for a few months, and found this experience incredibly cathartic and important for my own recovery. I felt that I didn't have anyone else I could talk to about how I was feeling, and experienced some cases of being told to 'pull myself together' and 'get over it' which just made me feel even worse and like I was a failure for not being able to cope with stuff that other people clearly found easy. Depression changed my behaviour - I felt quite literally overwhelmed a lot of the time, like I just couldn't deal with one more little thing going wrong, and it made me lash out, become angry, even though it wasn't immediately obvious to the people around me that what I was most frustrated with was myself. I withdrew from friends and family as a way of (as I saw it) protecting them from my craziness, and I left jobs because I wasn't able to keep the mask on well enough and function professionally - the cracks started to show but I didn't feel understood or supported. I went on antidepressant medication for a period of time, experiencing sleepless nights, heart palpitations and body shakes as the chemicals made their way around my system, and then low level tremors for a full six months.
But the drugs and the talking did help. They got me to a place where I could think more clearly and understand that it was my reactions to different situations that were causing all the noise in my head and the physical symptoms, and to start to come to terms with the fact that just because I cope and react differently to other people doesn't make me a worse human being, or worth less. With the support and encouragement of my wonderful counsellor I also joined a local choir, which I still go to every week, and even though walking in the first week was absolutely terrifying, it's given me some of the best times of the last few years, and continues to be a fantastic release, mental challenge, and social opportunity. I also taught myself to knit during this time, and that's been a hugely therapeutic hobby, a creative outlet, even more of a mental challenge sometimes, and a mindful break from thinking.
I don't personally believe that depression can ever be fully cured, but I know when I can sense it growing again, when I feel that black cloud rolling in, but I also have better tools now for living through it, or even keeping it at bay. Sometimes that looks like a quiet day doing nothing except reading a book, sometimes it's going for a walk or a swim, sometimes getting more sleep, sometimes seeking out inspiration and connection through the wonderful Instagram communities I've made contact with.
I would absolutely love to run the London Marathon just once, but I know that I would need huge amounts of support to do it safely and successfully. I haven't so much as run for a bus for years, and struggle with chronic pain as well as niggles from old injuries, meaning the physical training I would need to put in would take a long long time. But the mental preparation would be just as important - working on my own internal stories about what I'm capable of achieving. So for now I'll hold off the running, although I'm in awe of everyone who did complete the marathon this year.
I was fortunate enough to be volunteering at a water station on the day, and we were privileged to receive a visit from William, Catherine, and Harry as they toured the course cheering on the runners, helping us hand out water (and getting sprayed in the process!), and supporting the Heads Together teams. It was an absolute honour to meet them, and it will be a memory I'll treasure.
So that's why I'm sharing my story this Mental Health Awareness Week - to add my voice to all the others opening up and joining in the conversation. To explain a little bit of what I've been through and maybe encourage just one other person to seek a friendly ear or professional help for their own struggles. To join the positive momentum building around this population-wide issue, and to say that there is hope, there are ways of feeling better, and that simply surviving from day to day doesn't have to be the only way, we really can learn to thrive.
I haven't written this blog or shared my experience for sympathy, or pity, or for you to tell me how brave I am, I've written it purely to be honest and open and to add mine to the whole breadth of possible experiences and struggles. Everyone's situation and reactions and approach to dealing with things will be different, but none are less valid or less real to the person suffering. If you're having a tough time, I would really encourage you to talk to someone - whether that's a friend or family member, a stranger in a cafe, a professional counsellor or therapist, or a mental health charity is up to you, but please don't suffer in silence or alone.