The theme of 2017’s Mental Health Awareness Week was thriving or surviving. When I first read this I was immediately drawn to the word thriving, a word that fills me with optimism and excitement about the potential the world has to offer. Immediately I cast aside survival as a negative message that I didn’t want to focus on.
I recently realised that my natural instinct to try and fix things has perhaps led to me missing at least 50% of the awareness message. Awareness is not about solutions, it’s about giving some insight and however hard those messages are to deliver it is surely my responsibility as a mental health ambassador to try and do so. So I would like to talk a little about survival and what that means in terms of mental health.
The first time I heard thrive or survive was on Chanel 4’s “The Island” with Bear Grylls. 12 contestants marooned on a desert island with nothing but basic tools and the clothes on their backs. The challenge was not just to get through, but to actually enjoy it. To eat well, to create a comfortable living environment and a happy community. I watched an episode where the tail end of a hurricane hit the island, dumping inch after inch of miserable battering rain on them. No proper shelter, no proper clothing, unable to go and hunt for food, barely able to keep a fire going and worst perhaps, inaccessible even by the rescue teams. It was utterly miserable and in that real life moment, any thought of thriving was lost and it became a single battle to get through that bad time. It is a great example of how life is, and how mental health can be.
My own mental health is an ever changing landscape. There are times when I do indeed thrive. During these times I can really rip into life and live each day to its fullest potential, laughing, joking, getting things done, the life, soul and energy of the party. But it’s not always like that. Several times a year, every year for as long as I can remember, my mental health will slump and the cloud of depression will loom overhead. In these times it’s often all I can do to get out of bed in the morning. I retreat from the world and everything from washing my face to taking the kids to school becomes a struggle. As I’ve grown in my awareness I find I have an increasing number of strategies that can help me to predict and manage these bouts. I lean more heavily on relationships, try where I can to get out more, stay off social media. These interventions help but they aren’t about thriving or “snapping” myself out of it. Surviving in these moments isn’t a choice under my conscious control. I don’t choose to be depressed or anxious any more than those poor people on the island chose to be battered by relentless rain. It’s what life throws at me, and I do what I need to get through until the time passes and the sun comes out again. Some people may come out of it and never get hit by a hurricane again. For others, who live in their shadow, its about rebuilding and trying to be better prepared for the next one.
Perhaps I can be forgiven for focusing on thriving. The reality of survival isn’t that cheerful and who wants to be seen as the harbinger of doom? We all want to hear the positive messages. But this is mental health AWARENESS, not mental health utopia. In amongst the positivity we should perhaps quietly acknowledge that a lot of people are just surviving and in fact may not need a bundle of ideas just now to get them thriving. Let’s celebrate the successes but remember that the bigger task is in supporting the ever increasing number of people who are suffering from a mental health issue. How you survive is what empowers and enables you to thrive.
by Tony Sigrist