This week is Mental Health Awareness Week here in the UK. And with one in four people suffering from anxiety, depression or stress, it’s a wonder we need to raise awareness – you’d think that everyone knows. But they don’t, or people know it’s ‘a thing’ but don’t understand it.
I used to be like that. I couldn’t quite grasp why friends on the edge, those taking anti-depressants or people who didn’t want to get out of bed, needed help. I was in the school of ‘think positively, pull up your knickers and get on with it – this is the real world.’
Of course, it’s not that simple. It’s never that simple – and never more so than following a pandemic that’s seen people isolated, sick and suffering the loss of loved ones. We all could do with being a little kinder to ourselves, as well as to others.
Some of you may know that my son Oli had a stroke when he was 13. It happened 12 years ago – today, actually – and we don’t stop celebrating that he’s here, he survived and – fantastically – he recovered with little deficit and has gone on to do marvellous things.
(I still touch wood – I’m tapping my desk as I write this.)
Not everyone is as lucky as we’ve been. Running a Facebook support group for over 800 parents of young stroke survivors, I witness on a daily basis the pain, suffering and unconscionable terror that my fellow ‘stroke parents’ contend with. You can’t understand unless you’ve spent a night wide awake at your child’s bedside, focused on every breath for fear it’s their last. To some degree I counsel these people when they join the group – and my main message is to look after themselves too, as shock and horror catch up with us eventually.
At the time, a few friends suggested that I should speak to a counsellor. I dismissed the idea as ridiculous, after all, I’m a strong woman, fairly wise, well educated, respected enough to have been invited to a reception with the Queen and various events at parliament. I’ve spoken on the radio, appeared on TV and given presentations (mainly on social media marketing) to audiences of hundreds. I’m the one who counsels everyone else and people turn to for advice on any number of things, from business to love to health to baking – and everything in between. Why would I need to be counselled??
I’m going to skip a few years here, as your time is precious and I appreciate you reading this article. The fact is that it took almost nine years for me to accept that I needed professional help.
I’m hugely lucky to have a wonderful family and a large circle of very good friends; I couldn’t ask for better support and more love. But one event in 2017 caused me to crumble and I was mentally flung right back in 2009 when Oli had the stroke. No one could understand, least of all me. But a fantastic NHS cognitive behavioural therapist called Diana stepped in and taught me to recognise that ‘that was then and this is now.’ She gave me coping mechanisms so that my overworked amygdala didn’t automatically think my son was going to die when he failed to answer his phone because he was at work / in the cinema / on a date. She made me aware that I did have anxiety issues within the confines of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) but that this could be overcome.
Diana treated me, and I got better. I still go into panic mode occasionally. Since my son Ben joined the Met as a detective and goes to work in a stab-proof vest, my concerns have shifted weight. I now panic if I hear of a police officer injured in the line of duty anywhere in the world, just in case he was sent off on a secret mission to Africa or Venice or New York and forgot to mention it.
This year’s theme for Mental Health Awareness Week is nature and the environment. Since acquiring a puppy I spend a lot of time outdoors – I can definitely say that taking a break from the computer and being in the fresh air is therapeutic.
Anyway, my point is that everyone suffers from stress on some level at some point in their lives, and there’s no shame in admitting it. We can all stand up and be counted and, by doing so, maybe one extra person will ask for the help that they need, and that will make it worthwhile.
I first posted a version of this blog in 2019; this one’s slightly updated. So if you feel like you’ve heard it all before – sorry about that – but it never hurts to reinforce an important point.