Breaking down the barriers to mental health starts with breaking cycles that make you over look how you’re really feeling.
We’ve all been there. When things start to pile up, the juggling act balancing work, family a social life whilst trying to carve out some time for you. Add in few nights of broken sleep and to be perfectly frank, you feel just a bit sh*t.
Your phone bleeps. A text. It’s a friend you haven’t seen for a while, they want to catch up but first; “how have you been?”
Right there a decision has to be made; do you reply honestly?
Do you tell them that things are piling up, that you can’t seem to switch off and quite honestly No you’re not alright?
But hang on…
I guess in the grand scheme of things you are okay, someone somewhere has it worse of course so you shouldn’t complain, right?
So you don’t. You reply; I’m fine, things are great, let’s catch up soon.
And so the cycle continues.
Why can’t I say what I really mean?
What is it about opening up about how we’re really doing that has become so difficult?
Maybe it’s because we don’t send letters anymore. The physical act of connecting pen with paper and letting our true thoughts and feelings connect with others.
Could it be that technology has taken out the personal touch that sending someone a letter gave. You wouldn’t take the time to write to someone unless you really wanted to know how they were.
In comparison, most people can send a text nowadays without really even looking at the screen and predictive technology can even put the sentences together for you.
Whatever it is, the cold truth is we need to get better about talking about our mental health and wellbeing.
Talking about mental illness
There are some fantastic resources available to help people talk and support someone who is experiencing mental health illness, which I will link to at the end of the article.
I would recommend everyone to read at least one of them to help their understanding of supporting someone who is struggling with their mental health.
No one is too far away from someone who is mentally unwell. The only way we can start to address the stigma facing mental illness is by educating as many people as possible about it. If you are reading this and wondering what I’m referring to when I talk about wellbeing, you may want to read my previous article on ‘what is wellbeing?’ before getting stuck in to this.
This article is not about focusing on how to talk to someone with a mental illness (although many of the points will overlap) it’s about starting to talk everyday openly about how we’re really doing.
This doesn’t mean we need to start pouring our deepest, darkest secrets to everyone we speak to, or going into great lengthy monologues of our bubbling emotions when someone you barely know asks after you.
It’s about being able to speak openly to people who we value or spend lots of time with like our oldest friends, partners and even work colleagues.
So how do you do it? Where do you start when trying to talk about how you’re really feeling?
Here’s 4 ways to help you begin
- Pay attention to your own wellbeing
- Make ‘fine, good or alright’ a swear word
- Make time to talk
- Listen and ask questions
Pay attention to your own wellbeing
You’re never going to know how you’re feeling if you constantly ignoring yourself, glossing over feelings with remarks like “I’m fine”.
Paying attention to your own wellbeing, if you’re not used to it, can feel a little unnatural. When you become so used to pushing away those nagging feelings it can feel strange to finally give them air time.
Mindfulness is very big at the minute and for a very good reason, it’s effective and backed by science to help. It’s built on the principle that we all need to pay attention to what’s going on inside your body and mind. To recognise negative emotions and understand how they can manifest into physical sensations.
That might not sound like your cup of tea, but give it a chance.
Have you ever noticed how tense your shoulders or neck can get when you’re feeling stressed? Yes? Well then, you’ve experienced a physical effect of an emotion.
You don’t need any equipment to try mindfulness, the most you’ll need is a phone but even if you don’t you can still practice a mindful moment.
There are many ways you can get into mindfulness, the most common is through guided meditations (there are free apps like calm or headspace). You can combine it with stretching and yoga or even do it while you’re having a walk. Mindfulness is such a valuable tool that it can fit in with anyone’s life. All you need is some time and practice.
Make ‘fine, good or alright’ a swear word
Here is a challenge for you:
For the next few days, don’t try to change your reply to people when they ask how you are but pay attention to how many times you reply with “I’m fine” “I’m alright” etc.
Then ask yourself ‘Were you really okay or fine?’ or did you not even think about it when you answered.
These go-to responses are programmed into us so before we’ve even had a chance to really think about it, we’ve replied. This habit can make it really difficult to actually open up to someone close to us and results in so many missed opportunities to say ‘I’m not fine, can we talk?’
One of the reasons that I think mental health has become so stigmatised is because of this illusion that has built in societies over the many generations and centuries that being anything but fine is weak.
At home, with friends of in the office for one week ban the following replies:
- I’m fine
- I’m alright
- I’m good
Not only will it make you stop and think about how you’re really doing, but it surprise you how many people aren’t just fine all the time and also how willing people are to stop, listen and offer support or help.
Make time to talk
Time is the most expensive thing we own. Unfortunately we don’t always spend it so wisely. I’m sure if you were told you only had one day to live you would fill it with people who mean the most to you, not scrolling on social media and working overtime.
Yet, on average people spend around 145minutes (over 2hours) per day using social media and a study in 2018 found that 44% of workers in Birmingham, felt that they had to take overtime through fear of being judged by bosses.
Over 50% of workers aged 18-34years felt they had to stay late to avoid looking like they weren’t working hard enough. This meant that in 2018, the average UK worker would clock in around 10hours of overtime per week.
Combined with the ever growing addiction to likes and hashtags, the average adult in the UK can spend an entire day working extra hours and staring at their phone.
If given the choice to do this or spend time with people who are important to you, the likelihood is you’d pick the latter. Putting in boundaries around your free time and making sure you prioritise spending time with people you can really connect with, you can give yourself (and them) real, quality time to talk and listen.
Try setting aside a few hours a week to call or meet up with someone. If you meet in person, leave your phone in the car or in a bag so you’re not distracted and can really listen.
If you call on the phone, don’t be doing something else at the same time and not really paying attention to the other caller. Sit down, grab a cuppa and engage in the call.
Listen and ask questions
How many times has someone said to you ‘I did try to tell you, but…’.
So often the signs that we or others might have something to talk about are in plain sight but we’re too busy to spot them. This isn’t something that is done on purpose, it’s the result of the ever-changing, constantly-moving world we live in.
Conversations are full of filler phrases and noises to make it sound like you’re there but actually you’re thinking of what you’re doing next or even doing something else whilst talking.
When someone is feeling a drop in their wellbeing, they can become overly vigilant to the actions and unspoken behaviours of others.
That ‘uh huh yeah’ tells them you’re not listening.
The scrolling on a phone while they look at you tells them you don’t want to know.
To break this cycle we need to be aware that it happens without us knowing and start actively trying to break it.
Next time you’re talking to someone about how you or they are feeling try these tips:
- Take away distractions; don’t have your phone close by, turn off the TV, sit facing each other
- Pay attention, really try to listen to what is being said
- Ask questions to give opportunities to talk more. Try things like ‘that sounds really stressful, how are you managing with that?’ or ‘How are you feeling with all that going on?’
Starting to talk about wellbeing might not come naturally to everyone. By making small changes to how we talk to others we change how wellbeing and mental health is viewed and spoken about.
Breaking down barriers to better wellbeing and acceptance that we all have mental health one conversation at a time.
Resources to talk to someone experiencing difficulties with their mental health
Mental Health Foundation share some tips on supporting someone with a mental health condition
MIND offers support on how to discuss your own mental health with friends and family
Beyond Blue gives some advice for parents or adults concerned about a young person’s mental health