Insights into mental health, including some misconceptions
Conversations around mental health are becoming more visible now, particularly with social media and high profile people (including royalty) talking about their struggles with mental health. Yet there is much to learn, and there are a lot of misconceptions about what mental health is.
There was a powerful episode of Holby City on BBC 1 recently where two doctors (Sacha and Rick) were talking about the stress that they were under. Rick was initially very dismissive, telling his colleague that it was a normal part of their job and that he would soon be okay. Sacha had been suffering for a year, yet no-one had noticed until he reached breaking point and had become suicidal. It was so powerful to see Sacha on the edge of a building ready to jump and Rick, who had suddenly realised just how unwell his colleague was, reached out his hand and his heart. It was a close call. This was fictional, but sadly there are all too many real stories which have similar themes.
The reality is that we all have mental as well as physical and spiritual health, and it is important to be aware of this and to take care of ourselves. Sometimes we think that these areas of our health are not connected, yet they are powerfully and inextricably intertwined. Some physical pain has emotional roots as pain and distress is stored in the body.
Mental health is as complex as our physical health and each person's unique set of circumstances and environment will make a difference to whether they acknowledge their pain and how they deal with it.
Mental health is not limited to a particular group of people. At different times in our lives we may struggle with stress, loss, anxiety, relationship breakdowns etc, which all affect our mental health and sense of well-being.
People are living with an enormous amount of pressure and it is noticeable that one of these areas is around physical image. We seem to be searching for a body image that we imagine is perfect. I can't help wondering who sets these expectations. People go to extreme lengths to look a particular way in the hope that this will make life better and increase their self-esteem and acceptance by other people. It occurs to me that there may be increasing levels of anxiety trying to achieve what is actually impossible because no-one has the perfect body. I suspect at some level we all know this, but the search can become addictive.
It also seems to me that society expects us to only present ourselves as successful and that anything else is not acceptable. People try harder and harder thinking that it is weakness to be vulnerable or not strong, and so repress their distress until they reach breaking point.
They may then try to cope with their pain with risk-taking behaviours including self-harm, and misuse of alcohol and drugs.
Here are some misconceptions about mental health:
- Only weak people are affected by mental health.
- You must be strong and not let anyone know if you are feeling worried.
- It is a mistake to express your emotions.
- If I feel low then all I have to do is try harder and pull myself together.
- How can I feel low when I have so much money and can buy anything I want?
- It's best not to let people get too close in case they find out who the real me is and then reject me.
- Men don't cry.
- Strong women don't cry.
- Am I going crazy? I don't even know what's wrong me.
- Am I going to feel like this forever?
- What will my wife/husband/partner/friends/family/boss think if I tell them that I am struggling?
- All people with mental health difficulties are violent.
- It is not right to discuss my mental health with professionals.
- If only I had more faith/prayed more I wouldn't feel so bad.
(This list is not exhaustive.)
I would imagine that if we have something physically wrong we will seek help. We may think that mental health is invisible - it isn't, the effects are very visible - in our thoughts, feelings, response and coping strategies. All too often there is a sense of shame for struggling to cope and feeling overwhelmed with the many challenges of life.
It is so important that, if we have lost our sense of peace and equilibrium, we take some time to consider what we need and how best to access this.