Today we have a thought piece by Ellie Haberlin-Chambers, one of this year's Brand Ambassadors. The opinions and thoughts within this piece are personal to the author and must not be treated as dogmatic of GUCFS' thoughts and feelings.
The aim of Mental Health Awareness Week is two-fold: to raise awareness about emotional and psychological self care, and to consequentially reduce the stigma surrounding mental health. Why mental illness carries this stigma is a complex matter, and not for this post - but we need to recognize that the shame attached to mental health problems often leads people to suffer in silence. Ignorance about the causes and symptoms of mental illness, as well as about the availability of treatment perpetuates the myth that the health of the mind is less important than the health of the body. That’s outrageous.
Health officials are realizing that just like physical health, prevention of mental illness is hugely important. This can be initiated by understanding the significance of our own emotional wellbeing which is so often overlooked. So what does emotional self-care look like? And who educates us about how to look after ourselves in this way? What is the mental health equivalent of ‘eating 5 a day’? What strap line can the government formulate for this one?
Education around mental health has often been a matter of luck: a child is left with only their family and caregivers to model what to do when they feel sad, angry, rejected, jealous, left out, frightened or worried. In contrast, physical self-care has a more consistent approach and by the age of 7 a child knows that the basic response to a cut is to clean and cover the wound with a plaster; they would have seen the school nurse do this; they would have seen it on television. Maturity extends our response and we demonstrate competence and confidence in helping another who is physically sick or injured: we assess whether they need a basin or a plaster, water or a clean tissue, paracetamol or an ambulance.
So why don't we know what to do when we see emotional suffering? Why do we expect someone to just “get over it”? Why do we minimize someone's suffering before even asking them where it hurts? When we do find the source, we often judge their pain as if it isn't real. It’s implied that if they just tried harder they could 'pull themselves together', 'pick themselves up’, 'chill out', 'calm down' and 'stop feeling sorry for yourself'’. We reinforce the message that to be vulnerable is not a good look. Don't be sad. And don’t let it show.
Anyone who has ever felt that they didn't fit in or who felt that they weren't good, attractive, tough or clever enough; anyone who has ever loved and lost and ruminated over the disappointment and rejection knows that emotional injury can be just as crippling, equally as painful and as real as any physical ailment.
Not looking after ourselves emotionally is dangerous. When faced with rejection, the first response can be “well, I deserved it. I wasn’t enough.” This can trigger a downwards spiral wherein self-esteem, the emotional immune system, falls to pieces and leaves us defenseless to resist infectious negative thoughts. As the symptoms of a psychological wound are ignored they mutate in the same way as they would if a physical wound went untreated: the infection spreads and develops.
Unfortunately people often sit with these deep-seated feelings for months, or even years, before speaking to someone or seeking help. Not feeling as though you can speak out is allowing the stigma around mental health to win. It allows depression to be normalized, to be deeply unhappy to be ok.
Knowing ourselves is a key part of mental wellbeing: finding out why we habitually respond in the way we do helps us to realize that our feelings are not random but are a response to something which hurts (for good reason); this knowledge helps restore self respect and increase self-esteem; we can then develop strategies to reframe a situation and regulate our mood; by extending our repertoire of responses we discover that we have more control over our lives. We become robust and resilient. We become our own best friend rather than our worst enemy.
Finally, I wanted to say how wonderful it was to see Stella McCartney at her Paris show earlier this month ask her models to come out for the finale and dance: immediately the models transformed from being extraordinarily beautiful and unapproachable into people with whom it looked possible to have fun; they became ordinary and all the better for it. And, as their bodies moved, they brought the clothes to life. The fashion industry gets has gained a bad reputation since the rise of the strikingly skinny supermodels of the 90s- but changes are being made, and these are very exciting.
On the theme of emotional well-being, the mood in the room changed and the atmosphere was one of joy. I thought how lovely to see, and important to remember, the many ways that we can use our body - that we can decorate it and make it beautiful but that it is designed to move: to carry us through life, to work and play, to be strong and flexible, to love and nurture. I hope, this Mental Health week, we all remember this.