Outside the usual gloom and crisis of global politics and war there seems to be a steady stream of talk in the media in the UK, and arguably around other Western nations, of the need for us to focus on our mental health and happiness.
In the UK, the young Royals are spearheading a campaign to end the stigma surrounding mental health. The London Marathon was run for the first time with mental health as its main beneficiary.
Along with this, we have seen published endless statistics and case studies of lived experiences of mental ill health, not to mention the steady stream of celebrities, pointing to a dire neglect of mental health in most parts of the world – certainly in the UK.
I remember very clearly 15 years ago when I first got hit by a tsunami of anxiety. In the prime of my life, I had no idea what was happening to me and certainly had no language, skills or people I felt comfortable to share my feelings with. That episode culminated into a mental breakdown after over a year “on the run” and me being picked up off a pavement in Sydney and shipped back to a treatment centre in London. I was lucky, many are not.
Forward 15 years and it does seem that finally the stigma is shifting as more people are realising that they do not have to live with this mental pain that is so debilitating and arguably far worse than any physical pain. The first step is indeed, reaching out and just talking or sharing the negative feelings affecting one’s life and happiness. Healing can only begin at this stage and far better to begin this process as soon as possible rather than waiting to be brought to one’s knees. The longer this mental pain is left to cause havoc, the harder it is to unwind. Which is why it remains so important to focus our efforts on prevention, particularly in schools. Giving children permission and encouragement to share painful emotions or thoughts, without judgement is vital. We must provide the environments and services to support this growing demand among our youth.
More than that we must be creative about how we go about this process. Using the example of the hairdresser. We are more likely to share intimate thoughts or feelings with our hairdresser than we would in an NHS drop-in centre or even with a GP. The same applies to digital services, hospitals and even charity services – innovation is vital to match this new discussion as we tackle the stigma with mental health.
I often look for an open church where I can seek a higher power than myself for guidance and relief. My prayer, turns to meditation and often to tears as I seek comfort in the knowledge that things are not in my control but are being shaped by a higher power. In the addiction and recovery world, which works so well as a group community of sharing, there is a big emphasis on this ‘higher power’ – for me this takes away our constant desire to control and teaches us to embrace wholly our weaknesses and strengths in the safety that whatever happens we are protected. For me the church provides sanctuary from my thoughts, peace from the chaos of the outside world, a place to connect with my community and to reach out to God for understanding, as an infinite source of love.
My hope is that the narrative can now change from one of stigma to one where we can discuss some of the many practical things we can do to be the best possible versions of ourselves. There has never been a more pressing need for us to equip ourselves with a mental toolbox of skills to match the challenges of our time.
We must remember that as human beings we are all unique. The “one size fits all” approach simply does not work in this space. We all get our inspiration and sense of well-being from many different areas of life. In the UK our approach to mental health remains archaic with medication and CBT therapy the limit of our resources. We can learn from other countries, such as in Scandinavia, who not only offer other ideas for well-being at GP level but also run their government, societies and culture in such a way that has the happiness of their people at the heart of their policies and decisions.
Put simply, someone struggling with poor mental health may get a better sense of well-being from a community inspired event such as singing in the local choir than taking an antidepressant every day. In the same way meditation, yoga or tai chi could create a sense of stability and peace that CBT therapy does not. Helping others, exercise, starting a new hobby, joining a team, digital detoxing, better sleep, diet and even cold water swimming are some of the examples of areas we can focus on towards achieving better mental health.
Head Talks is a new platform that aims to open up the conversation about mental health and get more people talking about their experiences. Head Talks is for everyone; it is a place to turn for others’ experiences and what has helped them.
Through his work for The London Speaker Bureau, Oliver Chittenden has worked as a speaker agent to many of the world’s most inspiring individuals for the past 15 years. In 2008 he wrote the book, Inspire – Courageous People of our Time, featuring many of the UK’s most celebrated heroes. He also edited The Future of Money published by Random House in 2010. In 2016, Oliver launched Head Talks, a non-profit online platform aimed at providing filmed talks to educate, inspire and engage those interested in mental well-being.