This week is International Men's Health Week, held each year to increase awareness of male health issues, including mental health. Here Nick Edwards, Acting Deputy Director of People and the Head of Student Support, writes about how everyone’s mental health journey is unique.
“Mental Health” is a common phrase. We speak about the stigma attached to these words and the strides made to encourage a more open dialogue about the impact that poor mental health has on society at large. But I often wonder if we truly know what we are referring to when we say, “mental health”.
The fact is that everyone has mental health - in the same way that every single person has physical health. Sometimes, our physical health is in good condition, causing us no concerns as we go about our daily lives. Sometimes, we notice niggles and aches, a pinched nerve, a small cut, a random bruise. At times, we may have more significant issues, following an accident or the diagnoses of a significant illness or condition. Much of the time we are open and share such issues freely “My back is killing me this week” “I have NO idea where this bruise came from” “My head is killing me; do you have any paracetamol”. Why, then, can we not talk about our mental health in the same way as we would a broken leg, physical illness or ailment that impacts the rest of our body?
Having poor mental health isn’t a choice. People don’t decide to be anxious or depressed. “I’ve decided to feel randomly worried about everything today” said nobody ever. But a lot of people have felt randomly worried. Or sad. Or significantly depressed. Sometimes we can identify why and sometimes we just can’t. The nature of the brain, with its various chemicals and complex processes (you can tell I’m not scientifically minded) sometimes doesn’t work the way we’d like it to, just like the rest of our bodies.
Like physical health, mental health will impact us all in different ways. It can have a daily impact in our lives as a long-term condition, which may or may not be managed or understood, which has been latent in us since we were young. It can strike as an urgent crisis, following a particular event or trauma that places significant urgent pressure on our brains ability to function. And for much of the time, it will simply exist, floating like a continuum between good, not so good and much worse, just like our physical health.
It is often said that men, especially, are not good at talking about our mental health and acknowledging where we are on the continuum at any one time. More recently, I have been considering my own mental health more, and specifically my daily place on the rolling continuum, following some recent, tragic, situations that have impacted me, my colleagues and friends.
I, for one, have always been guarded about my own mental health and only recently felt compelled to speak more openly about how it has impacted me throughout my life. I don’t really know why I personally kept things to myself. I think the main reason is the fear of people treating me differently if they found out. I also think a large part was avoidance, if I ignore it, it may go away. (Not to ruin the story, but it doesn’t go away, and this technique is rubbish).
I have anxiety and have, throughout my life, experienced depression. These manifest in different ways, and in different severities, on a rolling basis – often exacerbated at random points for no, apparent, underlying reason. I have learnt to live alongside these issues though, at times, that has been exceptionally tough, and it has undoubtedly impacted my life in ways that go beyond just my own feelings on a particular day.
My key message to everyone, and especially those more likely to keep things to themselves, is to acknowledge that you have mental health and that, at times, it will be better and times it will be worse. It took me far too long to do this in my life and it wasn’t until I was in my mid-twenties that I started to seek support with what I was going through. I also encourage people to remember that it isn’t a weakness to feel that your mental health needs attention and that some support with it may be useful. Try to talk about mental health with your friends and family encouraging them to speak about where they are with their mental health in the same way we would our physical health. I have only started taking this advice recently (and we are now a full-decade on from my mid-twenties) and find that, while scary, it is exceptionally liberating.
If you feel it may be helpful, speak to your GP about managing any issues with your mental health (just like we would for a broken bone, cut or ailment). And remember that there are a range of support services both inside and out with the University that may give you the help and support you need.
Everyone’s mental health journey is unique. There are no simple or miracle cures, there isn’t a “one size fits all approach”. Unfortunately, poor mental health (even when spoken about and treated) can sometimes have tragic consequences. Taking steps, and being active in managing your mental health, will not always be an easy journey and often won’t make these issues disappear. My hope is that by encouraging people to be a little more open, to acknowledge our physical and mental health in a similar way, we can start to make a difference beyond the impact we directly feel.
I recently had the pleasure of hosting our BeWell Podcast in aid of this month being Men’s Mental Health Month. My discussion with members of the University community focuses on mental health, stigma and seeking and offering support. I want to thank my guests Malcolm and Sam for the openness and honesty they showed in the podcast and encourage you all to check it out on your podcast provider of choice.
Today I am feeling good. I have managed to absolutely ruin my shoulder while sleeping (no idea, let’s not go there) and feel positive about the afternoon ahead. As for tomorrow…well, I won’t know that until it gets here, but feel free to ask me how I’m doing. I’ll do the same to you.