World Mental Health Day is observed on the 10th October every year. Organised by the World Federation for Mental Health and supported by the World Health Organization, the purpose of this day is to raise awareness of mental health issues around the world and get people working in mental health, talking about the work that they do.
Each year a specific area of mental health is identified to focus on – this year the focus is on suicide prevention. The World Health Organization reports that “every 40 seconds, someone loses their life to suicide” and what’s more, suicide is the principal cause of death for people aged between 15 and 29, making it an issue that none of us can ignore. These sad and shocking statistics are perhaps the reason why the world’s attention is directed towards suicide prevention this year. The aims are to:
- Improve awareness of the significance of suicide as a global public health problem
- Improve knowledge of what can be done to prevent suicide
- Reduce the stigma associated with suicide
- Let people who are struggling know that they are not alone
You can get some tips on the small but important differences that each and every-one of us can make to promote mental health in the WHO’s “40 seconds of action” campaign – it’s well worth a look as there is a poster that can be printed and pinned up at work to mark World Mental Health Day, and who knows it could really help someone who is in need.
As a psychologist, I work with people in the NHS and privately who are struggling with their mental health. I also work with companies and schools to promote mental health, because raising awareness that mental health is part of our overall health and well-being and something relevant to each and every one of us, is such an important message to get out there.
From time to time I work with people who have suicidal thoughts. These thoughts can often lead people to feel ashamed that they are thinking this way, and sometimes people tell me that they worry about speaking to others about them which can increase their sense of isolation. Being heard in a non-judgmental space by someone professionally trained to hold and work with distress can be the first step towards making changes, although I appreciate that taking the first step towards support can be such a difficult thing to do when people feel this way.
When I work with the friends, relatives, and colleagues of people who have died by suicide, I hear about feelings of disbelief, guilt and regret that they did not know that the person they cared about was struggling with their mental health. I find people try to replay conversations in their minds to see if there were any clues as to the suicidal intention and to make some kind of sense of what has happened. The “what ifs…” tend to be haunting and the reason that people seek my help. I can only hope that through Mental Health Awareness Week and World Mental Health Day, through the good work that numerous mental health charities do and through initiatives like Mental Health First Aid, the language of mental illness moves away from being taboo and shrouded in prejudiced ideas towards a topic that can be openly discussed in a respectful and human way.
Perhaps as the public become aware that we all have mental health and are therefore all vulnerable to mental illness in the same way we have physical health until we become physically ill, we can start to gain confidence in speaking out without the fear of judgment and do so before we reach the tipping point and become overwhelmed.
Just as with physical illnesses, there are many different diagnoses of the mind, each with associated symptoms and characteristics that provide a means of having a common language. However, it can sometimes be more helpful to think about mental health and mental illness on a continuum. We are all different. Our genetics, our life experiences and our personality will all shape how we interact with the world around us and how we think about and respond to the stressors that we experience along the way. Because of our differences, we need to have awareness of our own normal, we need to be our own barometer, noticing changes in ourselves in terms of how we are feeling – if our moods are changing, if our behaviour towards others seems different somehow. Often these changes can be a signal that our own equilibrium is slightly ‘off’, and it might be a first sign that we need to take a bit of extra care of ourselves or reach out and seek some help. I find it interesting how most of us are able to notice when our body doesn’t feel quite normal and seek help with that from our GPs, but for numerous reasons, we are less inclined to do so with our mental health.
Whilst we need to take care of ourselves, we also need to look out for those around us. Once again by knowing others we might notice a change in them. If we do, maybe we can extend an invitation of support by a simple act of kindness such as bringing a friend or colleague a cup of tea to know that you are thinking about them, who knows this small gesture might be what they need to seek some help by realising that other people care. I am absolutely not advocating that we all try and turn into therapists or become insensitive to the private lives of other people by prying too much, but we don’t have to avoid or ignore changes either, there is a balance here and sometimes we will get it right and other times get it wrong but by doing something we can all develop our emotional intelligence and understand where that balance is.
I sincerely hope that putting the subject of suicide into public awareness this Mental Health Day starts to open a dialogue away from stigma towards support. I hope that those who are struggling might get some reassurance to know that they are not alone and do not have to endure their struggle in isolation. I hope that people start to be comfortable with the language of mental health so that they can offer small gestures of kindness or have the language to seek help themselves if it is ever needed. Most importantly it’s essential that all people realise that there are people around who can help, and indeed choose to do so as a vocation because we care.