Tuesday this week was the nominated day for not one but two awareness raising campaigns; world mental health day and world homeless day. For many reasons it is appropriate that these two campaigns should be marked on the same day. We know there is a high incidence of poor mental health amongst those who experience homelessness, one study suggesting an incidence of around 45%
Poor mental health is one of the most difficult things to deal with, yet it impacts so many of us. Studies suggest 1 in 4 of us will experience some form of mental health challenge each year. I know this from personal experience. Twice in my life I have found myself in need of support in the form of counselling to get me through the darkness I was seeing the world through. Like many others, I would use the metaphor of “struggling with my demons”, something which remains with me to this day. I still now, every day, need to be deliberate in nurturing my inner wellbeing or I know I may find myself back in the same place of struggle.
Yet it’s only in recent years I have felt able to speak about this part of my journey. For too long I have bought into the myth about men, in particular Scottish men, priding ourselves in “not doing feelings”. From “big boys don’t cry” to “man up” the narrative is “keep it in, don’t be vulnerable” – with the threat being that somehow we’ll be less of a man in other people’s eye. It is a myth which is just nonsense yet has a very real and damaging effect on so many men, and, as a consequence, on those around them: family, friends, colleagues, communities.
In so much of our work at Cyrenians, we find ourselves journeying with folk dealing with the challenge of mental health issues. And as a consequence, we see the connection between those struggles and how folk then end up experiencing homelessness. We see how those mental health challenges themselves become a barrier to not just accessing support but, often because of the stigma (and often fear) attached to those mental health challenges, folk even being able to make the human connections which would create the informal support which is key to recovery.
In our Learning and Work programmes, where we journey with folk into employment, often the biggest barrier for them is not ability but capacity to relate and confidence to believe in themselves, both of which have roots in mental health challenges. I remember talking to one woman who’d been on a market led training programme who told me the reason she believes she got a job following the course was because we “built a community around her” which had lifted her out of her sense of total isolation. A young person on our Key to Potential programme spoke to me of how they’d never had “someone they could depend on to always turn up and be where they said they would be” – it made them feel they “mattered” for the first time in their life. In Learning and Work our objective might be employment but our biggest impact is often on people’s mental health and well-being.
We can help many more folk and ourselves as well if we all choose to talk about mental health every day rather than just one day in the year. We need to learn to nurture and value our inner wellbeing as much as we value the more visible or apparently social acceptable parts of our lives.
12th October 2017