For this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week, we asked pupils, alumnae and staff to share their thoughts on mental wellbeing. In this double bill, two of our alumni, Sue Hurst and Lou Laggan, share their tops tips on managing mental wellbeing.
Sue shares her personal perspective on mental health…
Over a year that has been dominated by COVID-19, lockdowns, tough restrictions,the closure and reopening of schools and businesses, and general uncertainty, there has been an increasing awareness of the importance of mental health and discussing this difficult issue publicly. Long overdue in the opinion of many; for years it has been a silent but growing problem, and one that has carried such a stigma that people were afraid to talk about it openly. Not anymore.
I had suffered from depression periodically before COVID-19. I felt I was coping with restrictions, as I had family support, albeit mostly virtual. Then I suffered a huge personal loss in October, which hit me like a train. On top of restrictions, and no apparent end to the bad news and the rising number of cases and deaths, it was like entering a dark tunnel with no light at the end of it, and I finally admitted that I was depressed again. To tackle the problem, you first have to admit there is a problem. I sought help, knowing it would be a long process.
I don’t want this article to be discouraging. In fact, I really want it to be quite the opposite. Out of a very low period in my life, I have managed to find some amazing positives that I want to share with you. They are all very simple and mostly obvious things, but that doesn’t make them any less important as pieces of advice if you are having problems with mental health, as we all do on occasions.
Firstly, talk about what is bothering you and how you feel. Do this with someone you trust, whether this be a family member, a good friend or a health professional. This person will be different for everyone. Sometimes a family member can be too emotionally close to you and you need someone more detached and objective. Whoever you choose, make sure you open up to them. It’s a cliché that a problem shared is a problem halved, but clichés often tell the truth.
Secondly, keep in touch with friends. Text, message, WhatsApp, phone or see them in a socially distanced situation if there are restrictions, and face to face if there are not. A good friend is one who listens if that is all you want, or gives you advice and reassurance if that is what you need. A good friend will support you when necessary and also know when you need some alone time. My recent situation has shown me how lucky I am to have built up some truly wonderful friendships from all periods and areas of my life. These people have listened to me and helped me and just simply been there when I needed them. You can also reminisce and laugh with friends and laughter is a great healer. A hug, when we are allowed them, is one of the best mental health tonics there is! A pet is also a friend, and one who won’t judge your appearance or what you say, but will love you anyway; the bonus is that you can hug them as much as you like! I have a cat, who is very cuddly and who has no sense of personal space, and he has been a great source of comfort too. No wonder pets are used in many kinds of therapy!
Thirdly, treasure your family relationships. Family are generally the ones who will be there for you however you feel, and who will love you no matter what. Never go to bed on an argument; life is just too short to hold grudges. My close and extended family have been simply amazing this last year.
Exercise and fresh air are important. COVID-19 has driven more of us to walk every day, as for a long time it has been the only thing we have been allowed to do! Walking with family and friends and neighbours has been a lifesaver for me; not only do I get fresh air, exercise, and talking therapy, but I have also taken the time to look more closely at the scenery around me and appreciate small details that I never noticed before. If walking isn’t your thing, then do some sport and try jogging, bouncing, playing tennis, yoga, dancing, cycling, swimming or some form of aerobics. Being energetic gives you energy and releases endorphins and makes you feel more positive.
Finally, take time out of every day to relax and do something you enjoy. I personally don’t like the expression ‘me time’, but we do all need to switch off from worries and busy lives and chill. For me, my pleasures are reading, cooking, seeing my family and friends, shopping, travelling, and going to the theatre and for meals out. I am also a local tour guide. These last five activities haven’t been possible this past year, but they will be again at some point in the not too distant future. They are things I am really looking forward to doing again.
And that is where I am going to end. To look after our mental health we all need things to look forward to, so do some planning ahead and enjoy the anticipation of fun and celebrations yet to come. These can be small things like a haircut (can’t wait for mine!), a night out with friends, a trip to see a film, or a night in watching your favourite box sets with your favourite people, and enjoying the laughter and the unhealthy snacks! Above all, learn to appreciate the people you love, share your mental health problems with them and listen to them in return. Don’t bottle things up, and seek help when you need it- there are so many kind and caring people out there. It is vital that, having opened the door to recognising mental health issues, it becomes a natural topic to discuss openly. Then, perhaps, we can develop more support for those who need it, in their personal lives and at school, college or work, and by doing this ease the burden and stress we all sometimes feel.
Lou shares her experiences and tips on good mental health…
A graduate of Central High, I enjoyed many years in the banking sector, before training to become a professional coach – spurred on by my own experiences of poor mental health.
I was diagnosed with clinical depression when I was in my 30s, back in the early 1990s. However, with hindsight, I realise now that my episodes of depression began many years earlier, when I was in my early teens. When I was first diagnosed I was offered a course of CBT, and I was very lucky to have the most fabulous psychiatric nurse who didn’t practice the sickly-sweet compassion approach – he was very challenging and I learnt an awful lot from him that really helped. But one thing it didn’t do was to quieten my inner critic and, even though I was enjoying a successful career in banking, I never felt good enough. Over this time, various episodes of depression creeped back in until I experienced my worst ever episode about eight years ago. Thankfully, that’s the last episode I’ve had – but I’ve had to put in a huge amount of work to keep myself mentally well.
Here’s how I did it…
Reach out for help
This first step is so important. It can be anything – a friend, your GP, or a wellbeing session. When I was in the grips of my last depressive episode I was off work for a year and I reached a point where I couldn’t function. I wasn’t washing, dressing or eating properly and I rarely got out of bed. I struggled to access therapy through the NHS due to the waiting lists however, when someone mentioned mindfulness to me, I booked onto a class.
I hadn’t left my bedroom for the four weeks leading up to the class but somehow, on that day, I got up, got ready, and went to the session. I was so glad I did.
It wasn’t a standard mindfulness meeting, it was very much going back to the origins of it all and it was the first time I was treated as if I wasn’t broken. I barely contributed in that first class and at first I didn’t know how to react to it, but somehow the group leader knew that and held a safe space for me. It was my first step on the road to recovery.
Train your inner-critic
Your inner-critic does have a purpose. However, in lots of cases, that voice in our head becomes too over-protective and actually causes us harm.
One thing I learned at that mindfulness class was to welcome the negative voice in our head that was causing the problem. We were told to picture ourselves sitting in our front room and to welcome the voice as if we welcomed the guests to our home.
Growing up, it was a running joke that if anyone came to visit my Dad he’d generally fill them full of whisky, so I decided to welcome these thoughts by making them a gin and tonic! I began to realise that the voice was part of me and was ultimately trying to protect me, but I broke the pattern by seeing it in this new light. It gave me the space to jump in the shower or get outside for a walk. I began to transform my inner critic into my inner cheerleader by being kinder to it.
Of course, we needed that voice in history – it kept us safe from the sabre tooth tiger and the modern day version of that is work stress. So now my inner critic takes on its true role. For example, I have challenges with mobility and it jumped to my rescue when I was thinking I could make it to the other side of the road before the car became too close. My inner critic said ‘of course you can’t – you can’t even run!’ So now, when I embark on something new, it becomes almost a sense check for me rather than an over protective parent.
Pat yourself on the back for a job well done
This is something we hear a lot, but in my experience, we should be celebrating the things we’ve achieved that make us happy, not other people. So while a new job or passing an exam is obviously brilliant, I’ve also found value in acknowledging some of the smaller things in life.
One of my achievements was making a cake. I picked the most difficult one in the book – a champagne bucket cake – and attempted to recreate it. It looked fabulous from the front, but round the back the icing hadn’t set and it looked a bit of a disaster. However, I took a photo of it (from the front!) and I am still filled with pride every time I look at it. I might not have made a perfect cake, but I tried something new, I kept at it even when I knew the outcome wasn’t going to be great and besides – done is better than perfect.
Don’t take life too seriously
We need to find light-hearted fun in our lives – and as adults, we should feel free to be a bit silly at times if it helps our mood. As mentioned, I found the fun in addressing my inner critic by offering it a gin and tonic! But I’ve also found relief through the fun of the teddy bear community. When I joined Twitter I came across accounts tweeting as teddy bears and I thought, well that’s rather odd! However, I decided to join in and have some fun with it. That account became the only voice I had for a while and, because it wasn’t me per se, there was no pressure. Plus, I exchanged silly and funny messages with other bear accounts and it really kept me going. Now the bear shares his #bearwisdom® as part of my business.
Plan self-care into your day
These days, self care is the non-negotiable part of my daily routine. I structure everything else around my daily meditation – those periods that won’t be interrupted for anyone or anything because they are critical to helping me be me and perform at my best.
Remember how important self-care is to every other aspect of your life – and prioritise it accordingly.
Today, my mental health is good. It’s not perfect, and recovery is never linear, but I’m in a good place and I’ve learnt so much more about myself and how to mange my ups and downs. I urge anyone who is struggling to reach out for help, to chat to a friend or loved one and to explore a wide range of activities and support that can help you find the light again. I’m living proof that it can be found.