Wednesday 7 October 2020

Mental Health for All in an Uncertain World

Organised by the World Foundation for Mental Health (WFMH) and observed each year on October 10, World Mental Health Day (WMHD) is an opportunity to raise awareness of mental health issues and to mobilize efforts in support of mental health. This year’s theme is “Mental Health for All: Greater Investment — Greater Access.” In the words of WFMH president Dr Ingrid Daniels:

Mental health is a human right — it’s time that mental health is available for all. Quality, accessible primary health care is the foundation for universal health coverage and is urgently required as the world grapples with the current health emergency. We, therefore, need to make mental health a reality for all — for everyone, everywhere.

You can read Dr Daniels’ full statement and find further resources including a downloadable information pack on the WFMH website. A joint release on WMHD 2020 by the World Health Organization, United for Global Mental Health and the WFMH is here.

Individuals and organisations will mark WMHD in their own way. Here in the UK, mental health charity Mind’s Do one thing campaign invites us to take one small step towards fostering a more inclusive and open attitude to mental health:

Making positive change can seem so hard, especially during uncertain times. And sometimes, it can be hard to know where to start. Whether you want to take the first steps towards getting some help or learn more about helping those around you. [...] Whether it’s going for a walk, learning a new skill or doing something creative, taking the first steps to[wards] getting support for yourself, or reaching out to someone else; take the opportunity to do one thing this World Mental Health Day.

This blog post is my “one thing.” As I write I’m thinking about what mental health means to me, my role in the workplace and beyond it, the impact coronavirus has had on me and those I care about, and what the future might hold for us all. Two words characterise it all for me: uncertainty and change.

Whatever our individual situations it’s fair to say very few of us were prepared for the impact of coronavirus. Our lives have, quite simply, been turned inside out, and there is little certainty about what lies ahead. I’m fortunate that my job in the IT sector has not been at risk and I’ve been able to work from home. It’s not been easy but compared to the many whose lives have been severely impacted — including some of my closest friends — I have been lucky. No, that is incorrect. I have been and remain privileged, to enjoy a degree of relative security.

Nevertheless, lockdown and the ongoing restrictions have affected me more deeply than I imagined they would. I’ve had far more voice and video calls than before lockdown but I sorely miss meeting friends in person. I’ve only managed to meet one of my local friends, once, since the start of lockdown in March. I missed my local coffee shop desperately when it closed for lockdown. That might seem ridiculous but it was very much part of the fabric of my life. I used to visit seven days a week and count several of the staff as friends. I’ve spent two lockdown vacations at home instead of going away, and am about to begin a third.

More fundamentally, I’ve struggled with working from home, especially when it became clear things are unlikely to return to how they were before the pandemic. I became more stressed and anxious than I remember being in many years. As restrictions eased, I’ve returned to the office three days a week. This has helped my mental health enormously but there’s no guarantee I can continue doing so indefinitely. Like everything else, it is contingent on events beyond my control — beyond any semblance of control at all.

An unforeseen change was announced at work last week. It has nothing to do with the pandemic but it will affect everyone in the company. I found it interesting how colleagues responded to the news. Some, myself included, approached it as something which may bring positive change and opportunity. Others reacted with dismay, as though the future holds nothing but distress, disruption, and harm. It’s not that one response is right and the other wrong. For each of us, reality will probably lie somewhere between those two extremes. It was nevertheless a lesson in how our response to unforeseen events can affect how we — and those around us — feel and behave.

I’m writing this at a table in the coffee shop I mentioned earlier. I’ve just been chatting with my friend and fellow mental health blogger Aimee Wilson of I’m NOT Disordered.

Hi Marty. What are you up to?

Hello! I’m working on a blog post for WMHD.

I am too.

I’d be very surprised if you weren’t!

Lol good point!

I’m going to mention last year’s WMHD event in Cullercoats that I went to with you. Who could have imagined so much would change in a year?

I know. It’s a little bit scary

It is, yes.

Organised by Launchpad North Tyneside, the Cullercoats event was “planned and developed by a dedicated group of volunteers made up of service users, survivors, carers, workers and people with a general interest in mental health.” I attended with Aimee and members of LEAPS (Listening Ear & Positive Support) which she chairs. There was a full programme but the highlight of the day was Aimee’s talk. As I wrote in my blog of the event:

Almost the entire room was quiet and focused as she shared her lived experience, the success of her blog I’m NOT Disordered, the benefits and pitfalls of social media, and how all of us can play a role in supporting those we care about.

That day meant a lot to me. For months I’d faced doubt and uncertainty about my role at work and beyond. I found it hard to remain positive, as friends who helped me through those times can attest. The event, and Aimee’s talk in particular, renewed my focus. For the first time in a long time, I felt I had a place and a voice amongst people working for change in the mental health arena.

I’m fortunate to work for a company that is committed to building a compassionate, diverse, and inclusive culture. I co-lead the mental health and wellbeing working group and contribute to the company’s broader diversity, inclusion, and wellbeing initiatives. As I wrote in February for Time to Talk Day, “my involvement in the mental health and wellbeing working group has become the single most rewarding aspect of my job, eclipsing the technical role in personal significance.” With support and engagement from the very top of our organisation, we responded creatively and passionately to the challenges lockdown brought to our company and colleagues. I’m proud to have played a part.

This might all seem a long way from WMHD’s aim of “[making] mental health a reality for all — for everyone, everywhere.” It’s true that workplace initiatives of the kind we’ve championed are no substitute for professional mental health and support services. That said, I believe that encouraging a more open, inclusive, and caring culture takes us in the right direction. This is more important than ever with so many of us working from home, connected by phone and video calls but lacking the social dimension we’re used to in the workplace.

It is not only in the workplace, of course, that the impact of coronavirus is felt. Individually and as societies and nations, we are only beginning to grasp the long-term consequences for our mental health and wellbeing. We all have a role to play in mitigating the dangers, in supporting each other, in caring for each other. The challenges can seem overwhelming but we each bring our lived experience, talents, and gifts, to the game.

My nine-year transatlantic friendship with Fran has taught me a great deal about relationships that never or rarely include meeting face-to-face. I believe this has stood me in good stead handling lockdown and the ongoing restrictions that prevent me from meeting my local friends, family, and colleagues in person. I miss face-to-face contact but I know that connection and caring are not measured by how many times we get together in person.

I’ll close with Fran’s message of challenge and hope from the epilogue to our book:

It may not be easy but you can help someone make a life worth living. Maybe even save a life. One little bit by one little bit. A smile, a wink, a hello, a listening ear, a helping hand, a friendship all work together to interrupt the grasp of illness. Be open and honest, with your friend and others you meet. Judge not, for misunderstandings abound. Acceptance, understanding, and kindness can pave another way. Let’s.

Caring is one thing we can all do. You. Me. Everyone. And not just once a year on World Mental Health Day, but every day.


Photo by Chris Lawton on Unsplash


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