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Reflections on MHAW: We've only just begun...

I am a man of vice and in my 33 years to date I’ve dabbled in all sorts of things. Fags, booze, poker and running have all featured among a number of obsessions. None too sordid, some harmful, but for sure I have certain weak spots.

Now, as I ‘blaze’ into my mid-30s as a teetotaller, I have found a new weak spot - bookshops. The moment I walk into one, I enter into a hazy and frenzied world of endless possibilities, spurred on by the alluring scents of pristine paper and ink; and enhanced by those stupid yet compelling little reviews the employees put up about their favourite books. It’s a temptation I find impossible to avoid. So on my latest visit a couple of months ago I walked out with a stack of four brand new paperbacks in spite being mid-way through another two already. I still can’t wait to find some time to read them – and I need to, before I can be allowed to indulge myself with another dangerous foray into Waterstones.

Unfortunately, for me, I’ve got other things to keep busy on, too. Other apparent priorities like arranging a wedding, sorting out our new house, playing golf for the summer and planning a holiday to Vietnam are important to ensure I have a semblance of balance in my life. And then of course, this blog won’t write itself (in spite of my attempts to seduce a number of friends and family into contributing). As you can see, time is a luxury for me at the moment.

It wasn’t helpful, then, that we also had Mental Health Awareness Week (MHAW for short) last week in the UK. Entirely through my own volition I was absolutely immersed in it. I ran activities at work, posted on and scoured social media channels, and rabbited relentlessly about mental health in everyday conversations. The traffic on this blog was been through the roof and as Katherine knows I’m a compulsive checker of my blog traffic so it was never really far from my mind.

The week at work was a particular success. A programme of activities, organised brilliantly by a colleague, involved a number of sessions related to mental health being run across the week.  You won’t be surprised to know that I put my hand up to run a couple of them. The quality of dialogue was fantastic and there are a few things I’ve been left reflecting on (cue image):

It’s all around us

A pleasant surprise was the extent to which I found colleagues willing to open up discussions about their own mental health, once invited to do so. During one session, me and 23 other colleagues squeezed into our office’s back garden to talk about “what does stress mean to you?”. I’m no stranger to talking about mental health but what I wasn’t prepared for was either the level of participation in the discussion, nor the level of disclosure. As we broke into smaller discussion groups, I found out that each of the 5 of us in our group had lived through or was living with a significant mental health challenge, for which we had all sought different forms of clinical help.

It’s not that I didn’t think mental health problems are prevalent. But until this point I’d never experienced a conversation among a group of people who have suffered through some really gnarly stuff, and who were prepared to talk about it so openly. And until this point I had no idea that these people had struggled or were struggling in any way. It was great to hear people so ready to talk and I think it was refreshing for all of us to describe our vulnerabilities so vividly and not feel judged for it.

People want to talk

With a second group of colleagues we discussed the extent to which we are collectively dealing with an increasing amount of pressure. We all work for a fantastic business where people are at liberty to acknowledge, discuss and deal with the challenges we face at work. But we are also growing rapidly and that while this brings opportunities for all of us, it can also become a stressor if we don’t manage it carefully. In this regard, MHAW couldn’t have been better timed and afforded us an opportunity to make sense of the impact all this change was having on us as people.

As our discussion wore on toward the end of our day, we started to veer into some unchartered territory, and we were also beginning to run out of time. But what was great was that as I tried to wrap things up, my colleagues challenged to ensure we continued the conversation and dealt with the issues which were raised properly. I had expected that getting people to talk about mental health would be difficult. It wasn’t. Getting them to stop proved a lot harder!

Both of these examples illustrate beautifully how mental health is something people really, really want to talk about. We just need to make the time and space to do it.

But talk isn’t enough

The biggest reflection I’ve had, and which has been repeated many times over by many colleagues, is just how important it is to keep this conversation going. My colleagues and I found it genuinely refreshing to be able to discuss the topic of mental health in open forums but there is now also a (rightful) demand and expectation that we can keep this going as a business.

What is also not enough is just to keep talking. Raising awareness is a fantastic start – but we need to act too. Unfortunately, mental health doesn’t just come and go during MHAW and there are a lot of things we need to think about to ensure we can all live the kinds of lives we deserve. Lives where we are able to:

  • Challenge and change, where possible, the pressures and demands that are placed on us in our lives

  • Learn the skills to cope with the pressure and challenges we face, in the most constructive way

  • Voice the difficulties we face when things become too much to deal with

  • Feel accepted for who we really are and not be made to feel ‘not enough’ when things do become too much

  • Find support from our colleagues, family and friends for all of the above

And so commences ‘the hard part’. What happens during one week of the year is important but what is more important is what happens in the other 51. If we are truly to lead the kinds of lives outlined above this requires cultural change, in our families, towns, organisations and as a society.

So I’m bracing myself for some hard yards ahead and I’m mustering up a good heady dose of determination to see a tangible and profound shift by this time next year. That means continuing to make time for progressing the mental health agenda – to keep talking, keep pressing and keep looking for allies to make the change we all want to see in the world. And perhaps it also means “The Shortest History of Germany” by James Hawes will have to wait a few weeks longer.

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#MentalHealth #MentalHealthAwareness #MentalHealthAwarenessWeek #Work #Stress #Mentalwellbeing #Wellbeing #MHAW

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