Lessons from lockdown: how to maintain good mental health in yourself and others (Introduction and Part I)
I am an organisational psychologist working with BOOST&Co a UK asset manager that provides growth capital for SMEs and scale-ups. My role has been incredibly varied over the last 4 years, but as you might imagine from just my job title, I have been very busy keeping everyone fit and well during lockdown.
To fit with World Mental Health day 2020, 10 October, I have created a series of articles about the positive changes we have experienced through the adversity of lockdown. This is my first piece.
It goes without saying that 2020 has been a dreadful year. Although I’ve enjoyed my work and have been lucky not to share the suffering that so many people have endured, I still say that this year has been hard. I have had to work hard to maintain my mental health through the stresses and strains thrown up by Covid-19, and as BOOST&Co’s organisational psychologist, I have helped my colleagues to do the same.
While thinking about what to write for World Mental Health Day 2020, however, I found myself feeling more positive than ever before. The reason is that, despite all that has happened, something wonderful has occurred: our mental health has become something that we can speak about openly. As someone who hid her diagnosis of bipolar disorder for almost two decades, I still pinch myself when I think of how discussions around depression, mania, insomnia, anxiety, compulsive behaviours and more have emerged into the open. I honestly believed I would never see such a revolution in my lifetime.
These are the topics I have chosen to cover..............
Part I: Why mental health is no longer a difficult subject
It is important that we understand the change, if we aren’t to slide back into our old ways when the pandemic is over.
Part II: Practical tips for getting us into the habit of using the mental health spectrum to judge our mental wellbeing.
Part III: Why we can often spot changes in our mental health most clearly against the backdrop of our workplace.
Part IV: Understanding how changes in our mental health can seem to others at work, to help us to convey the right message when we need to speak up about how we’re feeling.
Part I: Mental health is no longer a difficult subject – let’s keep it that way
There are many cultural reasons why we shy away from the topic of mental health. These aren’t to be ignored in the wider world, but I will stick to the subject against the backdrop of the workplace, so that I can look at the practical reasons. These include the following:
• Frequently, our symptoms are obvious to others before we see them ourselves. With pain, we feel it first every time, but we don’t have the same warning system built in for issues with our mental health.
• Our symptoms often don’t look like symptoms to others: they can resemble odd, or even bad, behaviours. This is a nasty trick of nature, but we can beat nature if we are aware of these differences.
• Symptoms usually creep up on us. They can be caused by a single event – anxiety can appear because of one fight/flight/freeze situation that was so terrible that the mind cannot readily adjust – but often they wear on, almost imperceptibly.
• Mental ill health can seem like a problem that cannot be solved: there may be no definite start to the symptoms, but there is also no definite end. As humans, we hate unsolvable problems, even those of us who like to keep our options open for as long as possible. It is unfinished business.
• Symptoms can be caused by something definite, like the fall-out of a pandemic, or they can be caused by nothing at all. If we don’t like being unable to solve a problem, we really, really hate problems that we cannot define.
• This touches on the cultural aspects, but we tend to assume that the journey from mental wellbeing to mental ill health is a one-way street. Many people believe that it requires just a single ticket, but this is, in truth, an all-destinations ticket for a journey we take back and forth throughout our lives.
Why it really is good – and normal – to talk
Previously, because of these issues, even the most enlightened among us wanted to either solve someone’s mental ill health with a neat fix or help the sufferer to push it away. If the person travelling towards the wrong end of the spectrum didn’t know what they were facing, we wanted to haul them off that train and on to the other platform (I’m warming to this theme).
We saw every issue of mental ill health as potentially severe, and as something we shouldn’t touch because we weren’t the expert. We assumed that if someone suffered depression once, that made them “depressive”, and that those with anxiety were either unpredictable and therefore dangerous or, alternatively, “just a nervy type”. It’s no surprise that this has been a difficult area for such a long time. As someone with bipolar disorder, I learned to take this as read and keep quiet.
Now for the great news! During the pandemic, we have seen an unbelievable level of openness around mental health and ill health. I’ve seen adverts dealing with the topic, I’ve seen organisations going all-out to help people who are suffering and I’ve seen storylines in popular TV shows reinforcing the message that we all experience mental ill health.
Sometimes we’re a little up, sometimes a little down, and that’s normal. Sometimes we’re a lot up, and sometimes we’re a lot down, and although this may indicate mental ill health of a more severe nature, we have learned that this is still normal. Wherever we are on the spectrum at any time of the day, on any day of the week, at any point in our lives, we can share our mental health levels with others – and these conversations are normal.