This week is Mental Health Awareness Week, something that first took place in 2001, and has since gone on to raise awareness of a range of topics related in some way to our mental and emotional wellbeing, such as body image, stress, anxiety and relationships. This annual discourse of inestimable importance is hosted by the Mental Health Foundation and supported by an increasing number of charities, including The Royal Foundation’s Heads Together campaign, led by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.
It reaches millions of people every year, providing messages of hope, understanding, and unity, reminding us all that we’re not alone in struggling with certain thoughts and emotions, and that there is help available. It plays a vital role in shining a light on what has, until recently, been seen as a dark secret, one that people were afraid to admit to or talk about, despite it being one of society’s most long-standing and widely-affecting ailments. And by doing so, it is helping to generate and encourage an increasingly open dialogue, essential in improving the health of the nation. Mental health is, after all, merely the other side of the coin to physical health, something which we’re far more willing to talk about, both in ourselves and in those we love. Why shouldn’t we talk about both sides equally or, more to the point, the coin as a whole?
In the midst of a global pandemic and a continuing national lockdown, our mental wellbeing as both individuals and a society, is being thoroughly tested, put through the ringer, in fact. And is it any wonder? Our routines have been obliterated, social interactions all but removed, loved ones remain physically distant from us, for many of us our sense of purpose has been put on hold, work- and life-goals paused, changed or abandoned. We wouldn’t be human if we didn’t all experience ups and downs in this bizarre half-life we find ourselves trapped in, through no fault of our own.
Perhaps this year then, Mental Health Awareness Week is more important than ever. It is likely that more of us are suffering from depression, anxiety, stress and countless other forms of worry, panic, sadness and desolation than ever before, as we wait, often feeling helpless, for our lives to start back up again, for some semblance of normality to return.
But we needn’t feel helpless. We can, and indeed are, helping each other. And in doing so, we’re helping ourselves. This year the theme of Mental Health Week is kindness, and it perfectly taps into the overriding national spirit of the moment. We have seen some moving and spectacular acts of kindness across the nation over the last few weeks, kindnesses that will live long in the memory and only serve to remind us how, when push comes to shove, we are not only a tolerant society, but a supportive and caring one.
And these kindnesses aren’t simply disconnected, finite acts, they have lasting and beautiful repercussions. In promoting kindness, the Mental Health Foundation highlight an important aspect of it which is often overlooked; the act of being kind to someone, not only benefits who you’re being kind to, but can boost your own mental health, lowering stress and cheering your mood.
Such assertions aren’t merely the desire to spread good cheer, or a genial attempt to get people to be nice to each other, they are scientific fact. They are talking about, and citing, scientific research by esteemed psychologists, published in peer-reviewed journals, findings which are bestowed with the credibility of rigorous scientific testing. It is unequivocal: kindness benefits everyone.
So, whilst the country may be struggling with our present living conditions, it is, intuitively and compassionately, helping itself to heal: it is, the people are, we all are, acting kindly, looking out for each other in ways we haven’t before: shopping for those that need it, calling people we don’t normally call, saying hello to strangers more than normal (and it doesn’t even feel weird, it feels nice!), giving to foodbanks more, demonstrating more tolerance with the knowledge that we’re all coping in different ways. And, in a weekly act of overt and genuine appreciation, we come together and applaud those that show kindness the most, when we lean out of our windows and step out of our doors to clap for the selfless NHS staff and carers of the country.
Just imagine if, out of this terrible, unimaginable situation we find ourselves in, we can sustain some of the generosity and kindness that is suddenly and gloriously prevalent, so it simply becomes a way of life. Wouldn’t that be an incredible legacy to drag out of this Covid hole, and such a boost for the mental wellbeing of our wounded but ever-resilient nation.
The government (in a rare case of competence) was quick to establish an emphasis on our mental wellbeing early on in the lockdown. They encouraged us to exercise as much as we could, to create and stick to new routines, all in an effort to safeguard our mental wellbeing. I wonder if such an emphasis would have been made as little as ten years ago, such is the progress that has been made with regards talking about mental health over the last few years.
It is testament to organisations such as the Mental Health Foundation, Heads Together, Mind, and many others also achieving a remarkable impact, that mental wellbeing is finally being seen not as something taboo or frightening, but as something we can talk about, something we should talk about, and hopefully something we’re all more aware of in ourselves and in others, as we look to help each other through these extraordinary times.
For more information about Mental Health Awareness Week, please visit the Mental Health Foundation’s fantastic website. They also offer a range of guides and resources for anyone interested in mental health, including specific resources for coping with life under lockdown.