What 2018’s Mental Health Month theme means to one of the WayAhead team members.
Sometimes when things are bad, when my emotions are exhausted and overwhelming, when my eyes are puffy and red from crying, on the lowest days, despite all the feelings, I can, even in a small way, feel some comfort in the knowledge that I have connections. That I have people I can talk to who will make me laugh, or smile, or even just say “that sounds awful” – it seems that even the worst days are made bearable by knowing that I can connect with others. But that hasn’t always been my world. I remember so clearly being in a room full of people, all having fun, and feeling utterly lost and hopeless because I was so lonely. So alone. Despite doing things which are “fun”, having no one to share it with, whether I wanted to or not, in-person or on the phone, the fun things felt empty somehow.
Loneliness has been shown to have as big a health impact as smoking, and, importantly, the perception of your own loneliness is more important than whether you see people every day, or are “objectively” alone. If you feel lonely, that’s real for you. You can be surrounded by people and feel lonely, or you can be on your own and feel connected to others, but if you experience loneliness, you likely know the pang of the realisation that there’s no one to share things with.
The theme of this year’s Mental Health Month is Share the Journey, and whilst this might, for some, mean sharing a specific mental illness journey, it’s mostly about the journeys everyone can share – the moments of social connection, of seeing and being seen, of feeling valid in the eyes and hearts of others. Something we all can benefit from, something that can improve our mental wellbeing no matter whether we have a diagnosed mental illness, or just coping with day-to-day life.
If loneliness is a sickness, the remedy is connectedness. We might connect with others to “cure” our own loneliness, or to prevent it in someone else. Like many positive actions, it benefits the gifter and the giftee – sharing a cup of tea with a friend who has had a bit of a rough time will help them feel a bit more connected, but it will help you as well: the connection, and the reward of the comfort you’ve given another.
And while conquering loneliness might seem too big a task to imagine, sharing small things does make a difference, chips away at the mountain, carves paths to wellbeing.
Part of the Mental Health Month campaign this year is a series of postcards showing some of the small things people can do to increase social connectedness – Share a cuppa, a meal, a task, a song, a yarn, a hug – and the images show a wide variety of situations, including connection between people and animals (animals can be a great source of connectedness). If we can take small steps to connect with others, it does make a difference, however small. The postcards can also be written on and sent to someone – who doesn’t love receiving some snail mail?
As a teenager, I had a few pen pals and seeing the envelopes, frequently brightly coloured or decorated with little drawings, gave me such excitement. I’ve recently taken up pen-palling again, and holding people in mind as I write their letters, waiting expectantly for the reply, taking joy in each other’s life in such a concentrated way makes me feel I have connections all over the world. And whilst I know that pen palling isn’t for everyone, I think it’s the small connections that can have the most impact. Things that don’t feel like a burden, that are easy to do. Some people find connection in speaking to a room full of people, sharing their journey of mental illness, giving others connection and understanding through the power of contact – and that’s hugely important. It’s important that we hear more stories of all parts of the spectrum of mental health. Some people might find individual or group therapy the best way for them to share their journey. But social connectedness is important for all of us – and it will look different for each of us.
The more we work on our mental health when we are well and the more connections we build when everything’s fine, the stronger we will be when things get a bit rough and the bigger our safety net will be if we fall.
Sharing the Journey needn’t be difficult, but the rewards can be momentous.