My Thoughts on Mental Health
by Julia Cassell, Brigstow Institute Coordinator
With mental health week coming up, I started thinking about my own association with mental health, from a personal perspective, having struggled from time to time over the years, from the perspective of a past volunteer with Samaritans and from a work perspective. I thought I’d share a few of my thoughts with you.
Sometimes, when you’re struggling with your mental health, it can feel like it’s obvious to everyone, like you’re doing badly at everything you do, because you’re feeling bad when you do everything. Often though, it really isn’t obvious to anyone else. Outwardly you seem fine, you’re interacting with people just like you normally do, working just like you normally do, seeming to everyone just like you normally do, when inside you’re broken. It’s astonishing how well people can appear to be doing when they’re broken inside and it can be absolutely impossible for them to speak out and let anyone know that they’re broken.
I think that everyone’s experience of mental health or mental ill-health is very personal, and each person is the expert in their own condition. Everyone is different. What feels like a problem to one person can be okay for someone else. One person’s way of coping might look bad, or dangerous, to someone who copes differently. That doesn’t mean one coping strategy is right and the other wrong or better or worse, it just means different things work for different people.
Over the years, I have found some things that help to keep me on an even keel. Walking, preferably, but not necessarily, near trees or water is lovely but for me that loveliness lasts just for the time I’m there, it doesn’t really carry on feeling lovely afterwards. I absolutely love singing in choirs. Both the choirs I’m in have managed to keep going via Zoom during the pandemic, which took some getting used to, but I’m so glad I persisted with it. Again though, the good feeling doesn’t last for long afterwards.
For me, the two things which have made the biggest difference are eating the diet (for me) and mindfulness. I find that if I eat anything with a high carbohydrate content, it affects my mood a lot and I find myself less able to cope with any level of stress, so I’ve learned to steer clear of that type of food and it has helped me enormously.
Before I did an 8-week mindfulness course a few years ago, I felt like my life was pretty negative, that not much good happened, so when the mindfulness course required me to write down three good things that happened each day for a week, I thought it would be impossible, but it wasn’t, lots of good things were happening all the time. I just wasn’t noticing them or remembering them or relating them to my life somehow. When I was asked the next week to write down three bad things that happened every day, I thought it would be easy, but it turned out I couldn’t do it, because nothing bad was happening. That exercise made me realise I seemed to have got stuck in my historic difficulties and not moved my mental state into the current ‘everything is fine-ness’. Focussing on what was really happening and writing things down really helped me.
Since the course, my commitment to daily mindfulness meditation has varied, which is why I was so glad that the University’s Staff Counselling Service offer Breathing Space, an online mindfulness meditation, a few times a week. Joining in with that has really increased my commitment to daily meditation and with it my feeling of wellbeing. With that and with the correct foods, I feel better now than I’ve felt for a really long time.
I spoke to a lot of people with mental health issues when I was a listening volunteer with Bristol Samaritans for seven years. In the same way that different coping strategies work for different people, talking about how you feel is incredibly helpful for some people and not for others. Talking to a stranger gives you the freedom to be completely honest about how you’re feeling, in a way you can’t always be when talking to family or friends, for fear of upsetting or worrying them.
One of the things I particularly liked about volunteering with Samaritans is that Samaritans don’t give advice. I don’t feel that I’m an expert in anyone else’s problems. I feel that people know their problems and themselves much better than I do, so any advice I could give would probably be things they’d thought of themselves already, so not giving advice sat well with me. That’s not to say that not offering advice is easy. It’s hard to offer nothing but being with someone in their difficulties, figuratively holding their hand while they suffer. You can’t take their pain away, but you can share it with them for a while and perhaps because you cared enough to do that, maybe, just maybe, their pain was slightly less at the end of the call than it was at the beginning.
Seven years of not offering advice has left me feeling that advice can be quite disempowering unless it’s actually asked for. I know that if I feel someone is assuming that I haven’t thought of a particular solution, or worse, make me feel bad for not finding their solution some kind of miracle, I end of up feeling worse than before. My advice then (ha ha) is to give advice sparingly and only if it’s asked for.
A last note about this kind of volunteering is that volunteers can benefit just as much as the people who are struggling, and who call in for help. For nearly seven years it often felt like an honour and a privilege to be involved in those phone calls and listening to what some people go through really puts your own life into perspective. In the end it stopped feeling like the right thing for me and I’m glad I don’t do it anymore, but I will always look back at it with real positivity.
Thinking about mental health from a work perspective, I realise I need to consider my Brigstow perspective and my EDI Choir perspective.
I’m part of the University’s Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) choir, which started as a research project, funded by Brigstow back in 2017, and which we’ve managed to keep going with several different small funding awards from around the University. We’re quite a small group, led by Emma Smallwood, and always on the lookout for new members (staff and students are welcome). We’re online at the moment but hoping to get back to face to face singing when we can.
As a group, we’ve written five songs about issues that people might struggle with around the University. Do You Want to Hear My Voice is about physical barriers to accessibility; Don’t Assume You Know Me is about hidden disabilities; Stand Up Speak Out was written for the Stand Up Speak Out campaign against microaggressions at the University , A beautiful song written by one choir member whilst struggling with mental health issues and Tomorrow Starts with the Sun, which is a song we wrote to give us hope through the pandemic. I love being part of the choir! Many people find creativity to be very helpful for mental health.
As far as Brigstow itself goes, we are a small and like-minded team who care about people and care about the difficulties people might have, not only with mental health but with juggling work, home, family and life in general, so our aim is to be supportive and enabling. I hope that we’re approachable and that people feel comfortable to ask for our support and that we give it in a way that empowers and appreciates everyone’s differences and everyone’s feelings. I find myself counting my lucky stars that I found it so difficult to get a job when I was made redundant from my previous job. If I’d found a job earlier, I would have missed out on being part of Brigstow and part of my favourite ever team of people!
A few final words:
I recently watched a TV programme with Roman Kemp talking about his mental health issues. He mentioned that when you ask someone if they’re okay, the first time you ask just feels like an exercise in politeness, but if you ask a second time, it really makes someone realise you want to know how they are, that you’re there for them and prepared to listen.
We all get things wrong sometimes, we don’t mean to, but we do, we have our own ‘stuff’ going on, but caring enough to ask twice how someone is doing, and to listen, without trying to find solutions, even if we don’t do it quite right, that is the right thing.