What I learnt from Mental Health Awareness Week and actions we can all start doing today

Growing up I remember hearing someone shouting loudly in the street. Often making erratic hand gestures and walking aimlessly. My mum would grip my hand tighter and walk me to the other side of the road, whispering ‘don’t go near that man, he is crazy’.

Looking back at these moments, they were my first encounters with mental illness.

This past week in the UK has been MHAW — Mental Health Awareness Week. A week aimed at dispelling the stigma around mental illnesses and talking about mental wellbeing. Finally! I see so many articles written about physical health and the importance of keeping fit. But where is all the discussion about mental health? I definitely don’t remember it being taught enough in school. The World Health Organization (WHO) defined health in its broader sense as ‘a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being’. Without good mental health we can’t be healthy. MHAW has been great to start conversations about mental wellbeing. It has been great to see my employer and fellow employees champion the cause. You might have seen people wearing the green ribbon below. I have learnt so much this week so I thought I would share some key stats and things I have learnt and discussed with others.

MHAW Green Ribbon
  1. Mental health issues are common — Approximately 1 in 4 people in the UK will experience a mental health problem each year
  2. Mental health illnesses include lots of different things — depression, anxiety, phobias, OCD, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and eating disorders
  3. Mental Health doesn’t exist in a vacuum — This may seem obvious but there seems to be triggers for mental health issues. Mental illness is often exacerbated or triggered by other issues such as illness, trauma, and stress, to name a few.
  4. Mental health stigma in different cultures — At PwC we held an event on the Mental Health stigma in different cultures and it was interesting to discuss with people how their culture viewed mental health issues. In my Nigerian upbringing, there is definitely a stigma around mental health issues. This is intertwined with beliefs about western problems, religious curses, witchcraft, drugs, alcohol etc. These misconceptions about mental illnesses, force people to feel alone and unable to confide in their friends and families.
  5. We can’t see it — Mental illness is so complicated and because it happens inside each of our heads, it is so difficult to detect symptoms unless we talk about it.
  6. It can affect everyone — Mental health issues do not affect just one race, age group or gender. They can affect everyone.
  7. According to Black Mental Health UK, people of African or Caribbean descent are 50 per cent more likely to be referred to mental health services via the police than their white counterparts. Why is the mental illness only being recognised in BME people when it gets them into trouble with the law?
  8. Suicide — Suicide is the most common cause of death for men aged 20–49 years in England and Wales. This is astonishing. I think this is so sad. We need to do more about talking about the pressures of hypermasuclinity on men.
  9. Young People and mental health issues — this was a key point for me. Half of all mental health problems manifest by the age of 14, with 75% by age 24. At university I felt like I knew some of my friends were having mental health issues but there was definitely a lack of clarity about who they could talk to or where they could get help. University is tough with exams, moving away from home, making new friends etc. More young people need to know where to get help to deal with some of the pressures they face and discuss how they feel.
  10. Work and mental health — Additionally, at work this past week I have had conversations with fellow graduates about their mental health since starting full-time work at a very large professional services firm. I had never really thought about it, let alone discussed with others how they felt. We spoke about getting used to the competitive environment and understanding how everything works as well as the times when work can feel all-consuming.

I thought I would end the post with 5 actions we can all take to helps us be more aware about mental health:

  1. Ask insightful questions –don’t ask how someone’s weekend was and not listen to their response, openness breeds openness — probe if you think someone is hiding an issue
  2. Be emotionally available — talk about how you feel with those who matter to you most, you will often be surprised how much they can relate and help you get through it
  3. Let’s keep talking about it— even though MHAW is over, we can still continue to have open and honest conversations on mental health
  4. Look after your own mental health — take some me time every week, when was the last time you chilled on your own with no electronic device?
  5. Always remember help is available — you can start by just having a chat with someone on one of the Mental Health helplines

I am so happy that something as simple as a small green ribbon can help start conversations on mental health and hopefully save lives by helping dispel the stigma around mental illness.

If you are interested in finding out more about mental health, here are some resources I recommend:
Podcasts: The Friend Zone , Black and got mental health issues? Just walk it of… podcast episode

TV: Why did I go Mad? , Laura Mvula on Anxiety

Ted talk: There’s no shame in taking care of your mental health

Reports: African and Caribbean men and mental health , Commissioning for Value Mental health and dementia pack , Fundamental Facts About
Mental Health 2016

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