When I was a little boy, I would join thousands of other children on Mother’s and Father’s Day with the same tedious question: when is it children’s day? “Everyday is children’s day” was always the response from my Mum, as she suppressed a sigh and broke into a smile.
As I am much older, I now enjoy the annual hilarity (please note the heavy sarcasm) of the many, many tweets from men – including ITV breakfast presenters – on International Women’s Day as they head down the same childishly, painful road. Of course they could just look around them in their respective workplaces – ideally their boardrooms – to see evidence that far from every day being men’s day, every week, month and year have belonged to men since the dawn of time!
I pick up my pen today to reflect on another annual event; a day designed to draw attention to one of the most important issues facing the world; an issue that doesn’t care who you are, what your job is, how much money you have, how gorgeous your husband, wife, partner or children are, how happy your life has been. It is the issue of mental health. The issue that now dominates my life for good and bad.
In the same way that I am reluctant to embrace new year’s resolutions – believing that if something is important to do, why wait for the 1st January to do it – I always feel in danger of tokenism when making much of these one-off days or weeks. But I am a realist. I know that awareness days, wellbeing weeks and events like Stoptober months used to focus on mental health or other issues do work; they work in giving people permission to speak up; opportunities to have safe conversations; a platform to launch a discussion amongst family, friends, work colleagues or between complete strangers. Such moments are precious – at times life-saving – and should never be dismissed.
Neither should we dismiss the role played by celebrities – from all ends of the alphabet, including Princes or Dukes – and TV programmes and films – which paint pictures that people can engage with. The characters they represent can be something distant enough from the viewer – a safe distance to prompt a question or thought about someone on the screen – as if – in the words of my friend and inspirational mental health campaigner, Angela Samata – they were “asking for a friend”.
Whatever it takes to help us start the conversation about mental health should be grabbed with both hands. Grabbed and never let go. That is why we should embrace tomorrow’s World Mental Health Day.
My experience of sharing my own lived experience – on social media, in person, and on my blog – has prompted dozens of people to reach out to start a conversation with me. Once people made that first, difficult step, the rest of the conversation flows naturally. We find a way. My experience is that the hardest step is the first one. The first words that come out are the most difficult to choose and to give a voice, but once we start we often cannot stop.
Even on my best days now life can be tough and there are moments every day when I just need to be alone – when talking is the last thing I want to do. My primary and secondary school teachers would find that hard to believe judging by their school reports that reference my willingness to speak out in class, chatting through lessons or my “talkativeness”!
Now, sometimes, the hardest times for me can be when I am with my parents.
Like many people who suffer with depression, anxiety and/or other mental health conditions, we don’t want to share our burden and be really honest about how we are feeling because it can frighten those who care about us. If they knew how dark our thoughts can be – how low we can feel – they may not get to sleep that night or any other night again. We try to protect them. We try to avoid talking about it. We don’t want them to worry. We don’t want them to feel guilt or to feel it was their fault. We don’t want them to see us cry. Or see us sitting in a ball on the kitchen floor as another panic attack leaves us fearing for our lives.
We don’t want to talk because we fear they will not be listening. Not because they don’t love us unconditionally but because they do. They don’t want us to feel how we feel – they want to make it go away – they want to take our pain from us and make it theirs. They want to provide answers. But often the best thing they can do is to listen; to ask us open questions; to sit with us whilst we talk and just be with us. Their gift to us – and our gift to anyone who needs help and the space to talk – is just to be there to listen. No judgments. No anger on their behalf of the unfairness of what is happening to the person they love. No desperation to come up with solutions. Just listening. Just helping us by creating that precious space to be heard above all the noise of daily life.
Telling my parents that I had depression and that living my perfect-looking life was proving very tough was almost harder than having the depression itself. It was tough because I knew how much it would hurt them and how upset they would be for me. It was tough because it took me two goes – the first time I wasn’t direct enough and the shock meant I wasn’t heard. Take two worked better but was still very painful.
But I don’t for a second regret it. I don’t regret being open about how I feel with them or on my blog and elsewhere. It has helped me immeasurably and the slow, painful process of talking has got a little easier each day. That doesn’t mean I don’t still struggle some days to talk or that those around me always know what to say. But after the first step, the second, third and fourth were that bit easier.
I have been incredibly lucky that as I have taken each step, my amazing wife has been there to hold my hand and has picked me up each time I have fallen. I cannot to this day think about our wedding vows and the promises we made to each other and not get a little choked up. In all the darkness of the last few years she has been this unfailing bright light. The light that has kept me going.
At the risk of cliche overload: the person who moves mountains begins by carrying away small stones. Plant your small acorn. Walk before you can run. Start as you mean to go on. In other words , turn to the person next to you and start talking or turn to the person next to you and start listening.
It may help you; it may help them; it may save a life; it may become a turning point for you, for them or for both of you. Once you take that first step – once you utter that first word – it gets easier. On this WorldMentalHealthDay, think about taking that first step. You will not regret it. I didn’t.