I grew up in an age when received wisdom was ‘big boys didn’t cry, feelings were something to keep to yourself. Emotions were something girls had and boys didn’t need’. It’s perhaps captured in an old joke about the newly married Highland Presbyterian minister who said to his wife on their wedding night; “I love you. If that changes I will let you know, otherwise I won’t mention it again”. If we can’t talk about positive feelings like our love for others, what chance is there for us having the space and opportunity to talk about feelings which have a less positive effect on our wellbeing.
Whilst thankfully things have changed a great deal culturally in Scotland, there is still an undercurrent of stigma and judgementalism about being able to talk about how we are feeling, especially when we are feeling like we are broken, or are heading in that direction.
Its why having a designated week like #MentalHealthAwarenessWeek is so important. It is another contribution to breaking down those old stigmas, those false truisms which have blighted many a life and replace them with a sense of honesty and authenticity; declaring ‘its ok not to be ok’. This isn’t just about offering services and signposting support. This is about building a brand new culture of compassion and kindness. A culture where, when any of us are struggling with how we are feeling, there is support to access, and if we speak about what’s on our mind, what’s hurting our inner wellbeing, we know we’ll be perceived as being fully human by being honest and truthful, and not somehow damaged goods or weak, somehow less than whole.
Interestingly, even the very act, the very thought of what I am about to write epitomises why we still have a fair way to go to create this new culture we all need. It should be straightforward to write the next sentence but even thinking about writing creates a knot of fear in my gut. But here goes. Three times in my life I have found myself so struggling with my emotional wellbeing and in a space where I was grappling with depression that I have needed to go to counselling. There – I have said it, and if needs be I will say it again.
Three times tells me this is a lifetime condition but one I do not need to be ashamed of. Three times tells me it takes time to unpack the roots of these challenges; it’s not something I can pop a pill and fix. Three times tells me it was and is a journey worth travelling.
The theme of this #MentalHealthAwarenessWeek is kindness. What has helped me travel this journey has not just been the wisdom and patience of my therapists; who have each, in their own way, helped me heal and grow stronger for which I will be forever grateful. It was also been the extraordinary kindness of the friends and, most recently, the colleagues whom I was able to tell. They did not try to sort me or fix me, nor did they judge me or reject me. They simply listened, held my words in their hearts in ways which meant I knew I was not travelling alone. Their kindness touched my soul and helped me through my fear. Their awareness of what I needed was not a service or a solution; it was simply the kindness of companionship in a troubled time. This is a gift which I which I will always treasure for it helped change my life forever.
And one final thought: kindness is not just the individual acts we can do for one another, as important as they are – there’s a bigger picture here too, about how our society is shaped, how we treat one-another. I could not agree more with Lee Knifton, director of Mental Health Foundation Scotland, who said recently: ‘Kindness as policy has to be about ensuring dignity and respect for people’. For many of those we support at Cyrenians, mental health challenges will be common – there are clear links between homelessness, poverty and poor mental health. #KindnessMatters, and there are many people who will not have access to the kind of support that sustained me in a period of difficulty. As we continue through this crisis and into the ‘next normal’, let us make sure that everyone gets the support they need to lead the life they want to live.