The Whyable Weekly

Mental Health Awareness Week — London, May 8–14.

How are you feeling today? Are you feeling okay?

Except for our nearest and dearest, these are questions that we rarely ask one another let alone ourselves personally. Outside our private homes, whether it be at work or out in public generally, we do our very best at portraying a stable, consistent state of general well-being and happiness such that everyone appears to be a-okay all the while holding in the more silent underlying turbulence of our emotions.

Last week London celebrated Mental Health Awareness Week with numerous events being held around town, the agenda being to not only raise awareness but to also educate and provide academic insight into the current state of mental health and wellbeing. To give you a quick snapshot into this, a recent report published this March by the Mental Health Foundation here in the UK has found the following:

  • Only a small minority of people (13%) report living with high levels of good mental health.
  • People over the age of 55 report experiencing better mental health than average.
  • People aged 55 and above are the most likely to take positive steps to help themselves deal better with everyday life — including spending time with friends and family, going for a walk, spending more time on interests, getting enough sleep, eating healthily and learning new things.
  • More than 4 in 10 people say they have experienced depression
  • Over a quarter of people say they have experienced panic attacks.
  • The most notable differences are associated with household income and economic activity — nearly 3 in 4 people living in the lowest household income bracket report having experienced a mental health problem, compared to 6 in 10 of the highest household income bracket.
  • The great majority (85%) of people out of work have experienced a mental health problem compared to two thirds of people in work and just over half of people who have retired.
  • Nearly two-thirds of people say that they have experienced a mental health problem. This rises to 7 in every 10 women, young adults aged 18–34 and people living alone.

The conclusions of the report state that current levels of good mental health are disturbingly low and that our collective mental health is deteriorating. The report also found that poor mental health is not evenly distributed; “If you are female, a young adult, on low income, living alone or in a large household, your risks of facing mental ill health are higher.”

These findings are indeed concerning and only amplify the urgency for raising both awareness and education around mental health. One very good event that I attended this week was held at ThoughtWorks to promote the podcast “Men Talk Health” run by Davey and Damien. Both men revealed to the audience their own personal stories and battles with depression, anxiety and dealing with suicidal tendencies. As Damien himself says:

“Although I have always felt open when talking about my own battles with mental illness; I know not everyone can. I believe that when everyone gets involved in a conversation where we talk about mental illness we’ll move closer to breaking away from the stigma which surrounds it. That’s exactly why this podcast is so important.”

What became evident throughout the conversation was that the more we hold our emotions in, the more we “bottle it up”, the greater the risk we are at falling ill to or suffering from one or more forms of mental illness such as depression, nervous anxiety, persistent stress, low self-esteem, just to name a few.

Why is it so hard to talk about our feelings?

Offloading our emotions onto others is difficult partly because the human sympathetic system does a very good job at arousing the same or otherwise similar feelings — the function of mirror neurons — in the people who hear and receive our emotional situation. Listening to and receiving other people’s emotional states is rarely easy, mainly because we feel a humane sense of responsibility and/or a desire to help and support them, especially if their situation is to some extent fragile or worse, their life is at risk. Inversely, there is a natural tendency of feeling selfish, or worse, weak, when we offload our emotions onto others. And when the implicit social norm is one of being a strong, confident individual in a competitive, dog-eat-dog world, the thought of appearing weak and emotionally fragile must be quashed no matter how bad we feel. Hence we just bottle it up and get on with life, ignoring as best we can the rising swell within.

A problem shared is a problem halved

Whatever our reasons are for withholding our emotions, we’ve all experienced the cathartic relief that comes with being able to express our feelings to other people. Sharing our problems has the figurative effect of halving them, hence we feel lighter and even happier once having done so.

Only in recent years has there been a concerted effort by charities, health organisations, schools, hospitals, governments and other independent activists to not just raise awareness but also break the deep-seated social stigma attached to mental illness as mentioned by Damien above. This stigma creates something of a sociological barrier — a brick wall of sorts — whereby we cannot speak as openly as we need to, such that whatever one feels on the inside cannot be released and dealt with by those on the outside — the other side of the wall — who want to help us but cannot reach out to do so. Only a focused and collective effort by those around us, that being our immediate community as well as our social institutions and organisations, have the power to dissolve this barrier so as to allow our inner emotional world to come in contact with the outer world of friends, family, work colleagues and other people who care, even strangers who we meet in the course of seeking help. This is why social and community events like Mental Health Awareness Week are so important, for the help and support being given is proving to be immensely powerful in terms of overcoming the social barriers and other difficulties for dealing with our emotional situations wherever they happen to arise. Through all of this I heard many people attest to the fact that open, honest conversation with other people willing to listen was for them the difference between life and death.

The moral of the week is therefore this: more than just acknowledging it, we must actively speak more openly and easily about our mental health both personally and collectively, whether it be in the work kitchenette or down at the pub with mates, and to feel more comfortable with asking the questions — how are you feeling? Are you feeling okay? As I’ve learnt, this simple act could save somebody’s life.

For more information on mental health here in the UK plus some international organisations, some links are provided below.

Mental Health Foundation — https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk

Action for Happiness — http://www.actionforhappiness.org/

Authentic Happiness — Founded by Dr. Martin Seligman-https://www.authentichappiness.sas.upenn.edu/

World Well-being Project — http://wwbp.org/

International Positive Education Network — http://www.ipen-network.com/

Mind — a mental health charity — https://www.mind.org.uk/