#MHAW2021 - Are we doing enough?
Mental Health Awareness Week 2021
I’m going to share quite a personal story that will help you to know me a little bit better, and its one I am proud to tell, but putting it down into written form has seemed far more challenging than talking about it (which I do all the time)!
My business, Anchor Wellbeing, is all about stress management in schools. The messages I deliver are applicable to everybody in any walk of life, but my target is the Education system and anybody at all that is in contact with it. My reasons for all the training and the change from my nice secure teaching job, to starting out on my own comes entirely from a story that started when I was at school myself and has grown and grown over the intervening years to now.
Back when I was 16 I was diagnosed with depression. It was largely linked to my exams and the fact that I (like most of us) put totally unrealistic expectations on myself, but in truth (and with the amazing power of hindsight) started much earlier than this. I figured I just needed to get my exams out of the way and normal service would be resumed. Turns out I was a bit wrong about that.
Ok, a lot wrong.
Over the years – 23 of them, which is many more than I like to admit – that early diagnosis has changed and developed. Largely thanks to the progress made in mental health, it now stands at ‘High Functioning Generalised Anxiety Disorder’*.
Blurgh – so many words! What that means, in a nut shell, is that my anxiety can be about absolutely anything, at any time. I might be able to identify what has triggered it, but often it’s just there, with no discernible cause. The ‘High Functioning’ part means you’re unlikely to find me frozen in fear, but rather I might appear pretty successful, together and calm. The thing I’m most often told when people find out about this part of my personality is ‘I never would have known! You always seem so happy’! The high functioning part can make it super difficult to get help and support, because I don’t demonstrate the ‘typical’ symptoms of anxiety like taking time off work, or avoiding social situations.
It has taken most of those 23 years for me to accept it as a part of me, and not fight it. To be open about it and what it causes me to do or feel or think. I have been medicated for it, I’ve been counselled through it, I have researched it, and I know I’m likely to do all of these things again. I know it better than I know my best friend – and far better than I know myself. Despite all of this, it still has the power to knock me off my feet and darken days, weeks and even moths at a time.
SO…I’m sure you can all understand what Mental Health Awareness Week means to me. Every year I spend a week in May posting about it, talking about it with anyone who will listen, generally banging the gong. I get totally obsessed with it.
In 2017 Prince Harry made a series of public admissions regarding his grief at the loss of his mother and the impact of the mental health support he sought as a result of this. As his wedding approached and ultimately rounded off MHAW I got to thinking about what a huge impact on awareness he has had. Along with his brother and sister-in-law, Prince William and Catherine, the Heads Together campaign was born and is doing an incredible job of highlighting the damage that unresolved mental health problems cause our society. From a personal point of view the linked ‘Mentally Healthy Schools’ initiative is invaluable as a tool for schools and staff.
It all got me wondering whether awareness is enough. This year Mental Health Awareness Week is 20 years old, and nobody can deny that a reduction in the stigma regarding mental health issues, and the public conversations breaking down the barriers around the topic is crucial. But we still have so far to go.
After reading a brilliant article by Dr Kate Lovett (Dean of The Royal College of Psychiatrists), I did a bit more research. I found out that 10 million people in the UK are affected by anxiety disorders. That seems like an awful lot of people to me! I also found out that only 15% of those with mixed anxiety and depressive disorders are receiving treatment. There are so many campaigners, charities, and advocates for the improvement of mental health services – The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, Lady Gaga, Bryony Gordon, Dr Alex George, the list goes on – and yet a mere 21 pence is spent on research each year for every person affected in the UK. Waiting times are long, services are sparse and like so many treatments, access is often a lottery. This situation has only been heightened and magnified by the global Coronavirus pandemic of the last 12 months.
And so the question becomes, what physical impact is all the awareness having? While I love ‘Mentally Healthy Schools’ as a resource and a leap in the right direction, I can’t help but think its another burden on already overstretched school staff who are increasingly expected to be master of all trades. What other professions are in the same boat? An overstretched and under funded NHS perhaps?
In the last week I have noticed a marked increase in school staff seeking ideas for how they can ‘do’ Mental Health Awareness Week. I have been dismayed. From one young teacher asking how she can get the most out of a stand alone one off lesson on how children can take care of their wellbeing, to another who claimed mental health and wellbeing as ‘…my jam at the moment’, it seems that we are still not at the point of prioritising this in schools, but rather feeling like we should ‘do’ it as it is an ‘interest week’.
The truth is, addressing mental health and wellbeing in schools is more, so much more, than ‘mugging’ other staff (have you all seen the chocolate filled mug doing the rounds?), or putting some ‘inspirational’ quotes up in the staffroom, or jumping on the ‘take what you need’ bandwagon, and only doing these things for the week. It’s about more than planning some ‘nice’ activities for the kids and trying to do some little bits for the staff. We know from research that in order for there to be peak wellbeing for children, it needs to be peak for staff first. Truly addressing Mental Health Awareness Week should result in a fundamental ethos shift. Recognising what you already do, and building on it to have staff in peak condition, so they are at their very best to meet the many needs of the children. High quality mental health and wellbeing of staff in schools will reduce sickness absence, stress, overall illness, and improve outcomes for the children.
And so, as at this time each year, I am reminded that I can use my voice and my platform to bring about change and share the messages of hope too. I am once again encouraged me to ‘give back’ and think about what I can do for those who are not fortunate enough to be able to afford my services.
As we head into June and on towards July, I am revitalised. Change takes time but we have all seen the growth in acceptance and understanding. It thrills me to think that, more than ever, steps are being taken, organisations are growing and support is out there! We are part of a future, where every person matters and makes a difference. We are the change that we wish to see in the world.
If you are struggling, please get whatever help you need.
If you are in crisis please contact:
https://www.samaritans.org – Tel: 116 123 - 24 hours a day to provide emotional support for people who are experiencing feelings of emotional distress or despair. The new helpline number is free of charge, and won’t appear on phone bills.
For information and advice:
https://www.blurtitout.org – a personal favourite, The Blurt Foundation is a social enterprise increasing the awareness and understanding of depression.
https://www.7cups.com - Free, anonymous and confidential online text chat with trained listeners, online therapists and counsellors.
https://www.mind.org.uk/ - The mental health charity
https://www.rethink.org/ - clear, expert, accredited advice and information
https://www.time-to-change.org.uk/ - a growing movement of people changing how we all think and act about mental health problems.
* it is important to note that not all healthcare professional recognise ‘High Functioning’ as a part of a generalised anxiety disorder diagnosis. I am very lucky to have had a doctor who has known me all my life and was in a position to make the distinction.