I remember being sat in a musty smelling training room with dirty yellow walls watching my colleague deliver mental health training to new mental health nurses in 2014. They were so passionate and keen to be their best to help others become their best, it was truly inspiring to see, which is why I opted to participate on this training as often as I could.
I had seen this training so many times before and could practically recite it almost word for word, but on this day I remember one slide more than any others, I remember the slide that changed my life, it flipped the switch in my brain as it vividly flashed on the bright glowing screen in all of its purple and pink glory – 1 in 4 people will experience some form of mental illness in any given year. That was the moment I accepted “I am one of the 1 in 4 – but what I would do be one of the ‘other three’ again”, and without meaning to sound like a cliché – that’s when it hit me.
There is always two sides to a statistic, we just tend to focus on the one that is presented to us and in this case most of us ignore the ‘other three’ because we are so focussed on the ‘1 in 4’. I was once one of the ‘other three’, I developed into a 1 in 4 when I started to experience emotional exhaustion and burnout which then led to anxiety, specifically health anxiety, that then developed into depression with agoraphobia thrown in to the mix.
If you are reading this and are experiencing mental health problems, you, like me, have been one of the ‘other three’ too and if you are reading this and have never experienced a mental health problem then you are still one of ‘other three’. In that training room my mind started to swirl, my overthinking tendencies went into overdrive with question after question as I processed it all: What could I have done to remain one of the ‘other three’? Why had no one ever taught me how to stay part of the ‘other three’?
Every single person in that room was learning to look after the 1 in 4, which is fantastic and very much needed but where are those that want to work with the ‘other three’? Because those people struggle too, they may just be on the verge of struggling too much. It was then for the first time that I knew what I wanted to do, because the person in that room who wanted to focus on the ‘other three’ was me.
I wanted to focus on preventing people from developing the mental health issues that moved them into the ‘1 in 4’ statistic, because talking from personal and professional experience being part of that statistic sucks. Dysfunctional stress, burnout, anxiety and depression (my areas of specialism) suck! I was miserable, each day was difficult, emotional, exhausting, it was like swimming through never ending sludge in the dark and I wanted to protect as many people as possible from experiencing it or at least reduce the amount of time they do – and I still want that.
People suffering bothers me and so many people are suffering. Realistically I have always known I can’t help everyone but to be able to start helping as many as possible through focussing to the ‘other three’ that has become my purpose, my focus, my mission. But, back in that training room in 2014 it was for personal reasons too, I also wanted to get back to being part of the ‘other three’ because for some it is possible to recover, it is possible to swim right through that sludge and out the other said, and so I created my 8 Wise™ model to help you do exactly that.
So if you want to learn how to stay out of the sludge or swim through the sludge then my 8 Wise™ model will guide you through that, leading you to improving your wellness and wellbeing so you can protect your longer term mental and physical health, because in my humble opinion, prevention is better than cure, if you are going to be a mental health statistic be one of the ‘other three’ rather than the “1 in 4”.
We can’t possibly talk about wellness and wellbeing without talking about mental health and we can’t talk about mental health unless we face the reality of what some people are calling a mental health crisis, due to the increasing mental health numbers year after year for over 20 years.
So, let’s start with some clarification, because what will become a reoccurring theme throughout this book, is that there is a lot of confusion about terminology, especially when it comes to mental health and mental illness, personally I was confused for a long time too and I grew up with someone experiencing mental health issues as well experiencing the magic of my own. There is no shame in being confused.
What I have experienced, as you may have to, is that mental health and mental illness are often used interchangeably which causes confusion, and that triggers a chain reaction in society. Confusion generates fear, fear generates stigma, stigma generates shame and shame can lead to isolation, loneliness and suffering in silence.
So, in my mind the first step to counteracting such a negative chain reaction in society is to provide clarity and clear up the confusion, starting with one simple question:
What is mental health?
Mental health refers to our emotional, psychological and social wellbeing. Everyone has mental health, it affects how we think, how we feel and how we behave. Being mentally healthy is just like being physically healthy, as it leads us to living a productive and fulfilling life.
Over the years I have always thought that if you pay for a gym membership to keep physically fit then it would help to see a therapist to keep you mentally fit too. Good mental health means we are resilient and can handle life’s challenges and stresses as well as have meaningful relationships and make sound decisions for ourselves when it comes to life transitions or simply having to adapt or make changes.
Mental health is also understood as emotional health or wellbeing, and I will cover this more in later chapters. But the most common misinterpretation is that having mental health means having a mental health problem or mental illness, when really all it means is that you are coping with your life well, that you are engaged with friends, family and work, you are emotionally balanced with effective thinking and decision making skills that do not affect how you behave in a negative or dysfunctional way.
Overall to be mentally healthy means you are making the most of your life and your potential. Just like with our physical health sometimes we have up and down days, sometimes you may get a cold which effects your physical health (I am currently writing this with a tooth ache and head cold) and sometimes you might feel a little low mood or anxious which effects your mental health.
Both scenarios tend to happen when we feel more stressed, run down, tired or have increased fears. But just like how the symptoms of the common cold may affect our physical health temporarily, they soon pass, and we start feeling better again, the same is for our mental health symptoms too, most of the time they will simply pass by.
I am sure you have all experienced a bad day when you feel sad, or unhappy, a little fearful of things or experienced a setback in some way that soon passes. This is understood as a ‘mild mental health problem’, as you have a small number of symptoms that have a limited effect on your daily life – this is a part of being mentally healthy, your ability to bounce back from these moments is mentally healthy.
For some you may find those feelings, those experiences don’t pass by quickly and they develop into either a ‘moderate mental health problem’, when you have more symptoms that can make your daily life much more difficult than usual, or a ‘severe mental health problem’ when you have many symptoms that can make your daily life extremely difficult.
It is possible to move between all three levels, experiencing each level at different times. But again just like our physical health can go up and down as we experience illness so can our mental health and it can happen to anyone, no one is immune from that possibility, but whilst one person may bounce back from a setback someone else may struggle too, just like you may only get a cold for 24 hours but for your friend it may develop into something else.
Your mental health does not stay linear, it is not like still calm waters, it reacts to the life events and circumstances you and I experience, like waves, and just like your life moves through different stages so will your mental health. So it is important to be open and honest with yourself and others when you have those difficult days, because ignoring them or hiding them can elongate them, leading you to further mental health problems and this is why mental health stigma is such a dangerous thing.
Stigma leads people to feel uncomfortable about experiencing symptoms that may indicate mental health problems and so they don’t open up, they don’t share and so if there is one thing I want you to take away from this book it is this…
It is normal to experience low mood, bad days, sad days and overwhelming feelings of stress, fear and exhaustion. You are not weak, you are not limited, you are not mentally unstable, you are simply human and it is healthy to know and understand how you are feeling, but also to talk about it openly and honestly, that is what ensures your long term mental health. So don’t feel shame, don’t hide it, let someone know and get help if you think you need it, because ignoring it can lead to longer term symptoms that are harder to manage and you want to protect your mental health just as much as you want to protect your physical health so you can live a long and happy life.