“Not until we are lost do we begin to understand ourselves.”Henry David Thoreau
After a close family member of mine almost lost her life to suicide, I started to pay more attention to information about mental health and illness. Up until that point, it rarely crossed my mind, if ever. As a HUGE horror fan, I had seen the classic depiction of mental illness in film – usually featuring an asylum or psychopath or both – but little did I know at the time, how wrong those depictions actually were.
At school age, we are taught quite a lot about our physical health. We’re told what foods are good and bad for us. We’re told about the quality of a good night’s sleep and let’s not forget the prevalence of PE on everyone’s timetable. (Horror flashback to the blue gym knickers and communal showers of the 90’s).
However, well-being was not on the curriculum back then, and even though well-being is starting to form part of the education system in some schools, the science behind mental health and illness is still very far from where it needs to be.
In 2019, I was offered the opportunity to train as a mental health first aider through work. I jumped at the chance as I generally believed, as the saying goes… if I knew then what I know now… the difference I could have made. I wanted to know the ins and outs of mental illness and possibly help to save someone before they got anywhere close to crisis point. Little did I know how much that training would change my life.
The training, provided by Mental Health England is a two-day course that teaches you a whole host of additional skills. Skills that I now believe are not only useful to everyone but crucial. I learned how to really listen to people. How to give them my undivided attention and give them the space they need to really open up. I learned about a plethora of mental health conditions ranging from the common, like depression and anxiety, right through to the more complicated, like multiple personality disorder, schizophrenia, and the worst outcome of them all, suicide.
The trainer (in my case, as it varies) was a clinical psychotherapist. She had spent time in psychiatric hospitals and used her own historical experience as examples when talking to us about the ins and outs of specific conditions. We learned how different medications work and she even told us about the chemicals used in over-the-counter medication as well as some shocking truths about what is available without prescription.
We learned that more women are diagnosed with mental illness than men. However, more men self-medicate via alcohol and drugs and sadly, suicide is now the number one killer of men aged between 18-30. It makes me wonder that if men were not told to ‘man-up’ so often, would this still be the case? Perhaps we need to start seeing more pictures of crying men in the national press. Photos like the recent image of Nadal and Federer as many of us seem to be ok with crying at a funeral and nowhere else. As a woman, I apologise when I cry. And I am a big cryer. Always have been.
It certainly made me consider the way in which I parent my son. I now make a conscious effort to tell him that tears are healthy and emotions are normal. Sadly he may be picked on a school for believing me but I live in hope that we as a species can start to un-pick previous bad behaviours.
I walked out of the sessions on both days needing time to digest everything I had just heard. It was tough to listen to and painfully heartbreaking case studies lingered in my mind for weeks afterward. I’ve always been fascinated by human behaviour – in fact, I can not think of a topic more interesting than what we as a species get up to. This course changed my future path. I changed my job from marketing and new business to marketing and wellbeing. I started working pro bono for charities and I’ve since trained in wellbeing strategy, and wellbeing consultancy and now even gone into higher education to learn more.
I have learned that we have been broken by our own evolution – or lack of it. Our world has evolved around us but the human brain is still such a complex organ. The amygdala for example, is a part of the brain that processes our emotions. If we’re in a situation that causes us distress, major or even minor, the amygdala sends a message to the hypothalamus that reacts by pumping adrenaline into our bloodstream allowing us to prepare for fight or flight. This is usual among all mammals.
For human beings, it used to come in handy. Specifically when we had such predators as saber-tooth tigers to fear. It gave us the energy we needed to escape and quickly. However, we are now top of the food chain and many of us, thankfully, will never be in a situation where we fear for our own lives. That part of the brain however is still very much working in the same way it always has. Unfortunately it now allows our bodies to overreact to stressors that are not life-threatening – traffic jams, work deadlines, family arguments, debt…the list goes on.
Over time, this chemical can have negative long-term effect on our bodies and our health. It can cause physical symptoms like high blood pressure, and research has also recently linked it to obesity. However, the phycological effects are exactly as you would imagine. Anxiety, stress, depression. Mental illness is not just an emotional issue. It’s a chemical issue. And one that we are not in control of without support. The stigma around mental illness and its treatments is still rife. However, if you consider that it’s a chemical issue, taking another chemical to control it makes perfect sense. Understanding how to trick our brains into thinking differently via therapy or other holistic treatments also helps to make it make more sense.
As someone now in the throws of a Psychology master’s, I am very aware of the complexities of psychiatry. The stigma within the health community is rife, let alone the stigma within society. However, if we all knew a little more about how our bodies and our brains work together, are we not more capable to make sense of our mental health?
I didn’t even realise I was suffering from a mental health condition myself until I undertook the first aid training. I was functioning but I wasn’t well. Postnatal depression can go on for so long after such a huge life change that many of us believe this is just a new norm. I did not for one minute consider it to be part of a fixable problem. In fact, not a single mental illness is life-threatening. Yes, the effects of untreated mental illness can be devastating and suffering without support can significantly lower life expectancy. But unlike physical illness and disease, a mental health diagnosis itself will not kill you.
To top it all, we’ve all just been through a huge existential crisis with the pandemic and the result is now a global mental health crisis – a crisis that has been predicted to cost the Global Economy $6trillion by 2030. To put that into context, in 2010 the cost of mental health-related issues was $2·5 trillion. That will be an increase of 140%!
If we’ve learned anything from this, education on mental health and illness needs to significantly improve now. I am certainly not saying we all need to do a degree or MSc in psychology but if you get the chance to train as a mental health first aider, or your company already offer this training – take it. Unlike physical first aiders, I don’t think we only need one or two on-site within families and businesses. Mental Health First Aiders or those who learn more about mental health and illness make better line managers. They make better leaders. They make better parents, siblings, and friends.
They make healthier human beings.
Understanding mental health is the best way to combat mental illness.
In my opinion anyway.