Mental Health Awareness? I’m Over It

Two weeks ago (yes, it is June, yes, time is exhausting) was Mental Health Awareness Week. The theme of the week was kindness, designed to tie the numerous acts of kindness and flourishing communities that have emerged during the Covid-19 pandemic into the broader idea that kindness can enhance the mental health of individuals and communities alike. 

There is significant scientific evidence that being kind and receiving kindness can be beneficial for our mental health. Volunteering online, checking in with friends and families, dropping some hygienically-baked cake off for a neighbour – all these activities can boost your self-esteem, foster a sense of connection and create a sense of purpose during this mad time. The kindness theme is also designed to emphasise the importance of being kind to yourself by taking a break from social media, dancing around the kitchen or taking a long bubble bath. ‘Now is the time’, the Mental Health Foundation website reads, ‘to re-imagine a kinder society that better protects our mental health’.

It is a lovely idea. ‘Awareness’ and ‘kindness’ are not terms that should be dismissed – my own recovery from anorexia and depression owes much to a growing awareness of the deeper roots of eating disorders, to the kindness of others and to my own attempts to practice self-care. It owes more, however, to my therapy sessions, my dietician, my parents’ ability to send me to a private clinic while I waited three months for an NHS counsellor to become available. It owes more to my daily dose of anti-depressants than it does to a boogie in my bedroom or flowers from a friend. It owes more, in short, to money.

There are two problems regarding the glorification of ‘awareness’ and ‘kindness’ as mental health treatments. The first is a gap in understanding when it comes to what these terms mean, and the second is that both are futile without adequate funding.

In popular discourse, mental health awareness means a chat. It means knowing that at any one time, 1 in 4 people are suffering from a mental health condition, knowing that mental health is something we all have, knowing that it should not be a source of shame. For those suffering acute mental health problems, awareness means something else. I can only speak from my own experience, but perhaps it would be helpful to outline what awareness means to me. 

Every morning, I wake up and consider not taking my medication. I take it. Every meal, I consider not eating enough, or taking a secretive trip to the toilet afterwards in order to purge. I eat enough, and I do not purge. Every time I eat, I calculate the calories I have consumed – and every time I exercise, I calculate the calories I have burned. Every minute of every day, I am aware that my brain is not well, that it has thoughts that seem entirely separate from myself. I am always aware of my anorexia and depression. And I am always aware they may never leave me.

I face a similar disconnect when it comes to how kindness is understood in relation to mental health. The Mental Health Foundation website highlights ‘doing something you enjoy’ or ‘doing something for a good cause’ as ways to practice kindness towards yourself and others. These are, of course, acts of kindness. But when it comes to helping someone going through a mental health crisis, sending them some chocolate or getting them to volunteer should be viewed more as lovely bonuses rather than foundational acts of kindness. When I was ill, self-care involved valuing myself enough to brush my teeth. The acts of kindness I remember are my mum sitting with me while I spent 30 minutes eating a banana, or my counsellor kindly but firmly telling me I was facing hospital admission if I continued to exercise. They were not well meaning gestures – they were critical to my survival and recovery.

The second problem is that no amount of ‘awareness’ and ‘kindness’ is equivalent to sufficient funding. Fears that lockdown will trigger a mental health crisis are well documented, but our obsession with the consequences of Covid-19 risks ignoring that even without a pandemic, NHS mental health services are in dire need of additional funding and support. In December last year, the BBC found that while nine out of ten patients have their first appointment within six weeks of being referred to NHS mental health services, that gap between appointments is growing, with one in six patients waiting over ninety days between their first and second appointment. Schools are increasingly likely to bring in private counsellors to support children who cannot access NHS services, and the scattergun approach to funding has created a postcode lottery when it comes to surviving a mental health crisis. 

We have become so aware that everybody has mental health that we have forgotten that some people have serious mental ill health. In general, talking to a friend is a wonderful way to support your mental health. In the midst of an episode of psychosis, anti-psychotics and paid, professional treatment are critical. In general, playing some happy music and baking a cake is a lovely form of self-care. In the middle of a bulimic binge-purge cycle, cognitive behavioural therapy and nutritional guidance are crucial.

Absolutely, bake that cake. Buy those flowers for your mum, socially distance with a smile. Be kind, be aware. Be aware that these things are not treatments, they are not cures. Be aware that the only way out of our mental health crisis is adequate funding, and know that the negative consequences of austerity are still being felt by those in need of mental health support. Be aware that kindness is not, and never will be, enough. 

The Difficulties of Picking an -ism

During my first year of university, I studied a different -ism every week. I looked at socialism and conservatism, wrote essays on environmentalism and Thatcherism, read pages on feminism and liberalism. I found the dedication of individuals to their chosen ideology varyingly confusing, admirable, daft and logical. But most of all, I found their certainty enviable. 

For as long as I can remember, I have called myself a feminist. I have tried to check my privilege, tried to be an ally for the LGBTQ+ and BAME communities. I spend most waking hours listening to podcasts, trying to understand events in Russia, the minutia of Brexit, what language might cause offence and what the hot takes on Love Island are. I have been on anti-Brexit marches and attended climate crisis lobbies, signed petitions and written to MPs, empathised and criticised figures from Margaret Thatcher to Jeremy Corbyn. I have voted for three different parties, learnt about the difference between body positivity and body confidence, staged mini plastic protests in Waitrose and agonised over the environmental impact of an avocado.

‘People’s March’

If I sound confused, conflicted, eager to please but unclear on how to do so, it’s because I am. I can’t work out which political and social issue I should be prioritising. For years, feminism has been my priority, my specialist topic on Mastermind (or my 2am drunken lecture for whichever poor sod I’ve cornered in the stairwell). My feminism has matured with me, becoming more intersectional and complex, but it has always been something of a calling card.

Three years ago, however two new topics began vying for top spot on the hallowed list of Lauren’s Political Priorities. Xenophobia and division in Britain – for which Brexit was both a catalyst and a cause – dominated the news and my conversations. I have obsessively followed the unfolding drama, listening to Brexitcast with a level of devotion that my therapist might deem unhealthy. In the same year, I was diagnosed with anorexia and depression. Mental health became a passion project – I embarked on recovery, ran a marathon and raised money for Mind, wanged on about mental health to anyone who would listen. Feminism and overthrowing the patriarchy remained my main concern, but my energy and attention were increasingly divided.

Climate Crisis lobby

But then all of these concerns – from the existential to the everyday – were enveloped by a climate crisis. I began to have anxiety dreams where I was the polar bear on the shrinking ice cap. I was paralysed in supermarkets trying to work out if loose tomatoes from Spain had a smaller environmental impact than packaged tomatoes from Kent. Did Brexit matter if we were heading for environmental oblivion? Could I balance my need to lessen my rigid diet with my desire to eat less meat? Did the equal distribution of unpaid housework and emotional labour matter if the planet was about to go up in flames?

I feel guilty for attending an anti-Brexit march because it involves a two hour train journey. I am conflicted when I spend time assessing the carbon footprint of tofu because obsessing over food is something I am gently trying to move myself and others away from. I worry that I am ignoring issues such as female genital mutilation when I write essays on the importance of feminism within liberalism, because the former is of vital importance while the latter is an academic indulgence. In my fear that I am not doing the right things for the right causes, I end up doing nothing for anything.

In a world of cancel culture and social media, when every political position you have held and supported is recorded, lauded and crucified, it is easy to assume a position of concerned ambivalence on the major issues. Virtue signalling is rife, as is the green-washing of fast fashion and the commercialisation of feminism. But if you want to do more than vaguely support a cause, it is difficult to work out where to channel your finite energy, time and resources. 

I wrote this piece, in part, to help myself out of this conundrum. If anything, I have only succeeded in confusing myself more. But perhaps in a time of political, social and climate chaos, the only option is to be confused but do your best. I can be a feminist and not always get things right. I can be active in the fight against the climate crisis and sometimes eat my grandma’s roast chicken. If we are afraid of backlash, of missing the ‘woke’ boat, then we will never make a difference. But multiple imperfect steps, by multiple imperfect people is how progress is made. If I can’t commit to a preexisting -ism, perhaps I can create my own patchwork quilt of intentions, beliefs and actions that will help make the world a better place.

Mental Health Awareness Week

Wonderfully, this year’s Mental Health Awareness week coincides with the start of my exam season. The exam period is to mental health what January is to physical health, but instead of a barrage of flu strains, hangovers and chocolate overdoses, the onslaught consists of sleep deprivation and intense pressure to succeed, all within the shadow of ‘your future’, which for four weeks appears to depend solely on how quickly you can scribble down an essay.

Last year, exams pushed me dangerously close to the precipice of a relapse. A return to therapy and an unpleasant few weeks dragged me back to normality, but the wobble made me very aware of how complex my mental health is. While I had predicted heighten anxiety, and possibly a quick spell in the fog of depression, I hadn’t anticipate such a full-throttle resurgence of some anorexic tendencies. This unpredictability defines many people’s experience of mental health conditions and can make everyday life difficult. Someone suffering from generalised anxiety disorder may predict that an exam or job interview would trigger heightened anxiety and they could therefore take steps to manage the situation. However, sometimes the heightened anxiety is present from the moment the person wakes up, with no obvious trigger, making preventative steps practically impossible. 

Over the last few years, attitudes towards mental health have changed markedly, and the taboo is lifting. But while some conditions – such as depression and anxiety – are increasingly escaping the stigma, other mental health conditions are still discussed in hush tones, or simply not mentioned at all. Over the last year, greater attention has been paid to the prevalence of self harm and eating disorders among children and young adults, and advocates such as Bryony Gordon and the Channel 4 comedy Pure have been instrumental in increasing understanding of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). But other conditions – such as the other nine diagnosable personality disorders – are yet to be acknowledged and accepted in public discourse.

Charly Clive, star of Channel 4’s ‘Pure’. The programme is based on Rose Cartwright’s real life struggle with Pure O, a type of OCD

Mental health awareness is still in its early days, so it is unsurprising that there is a level of universalisation and simplicity that is not always helpful. Triggers are seen as linear – stressful situations trigger anxiety, sadness can spiral into depression and social media pressure triggers eating disorders. Logic follows that if you can avoid these triggers, you can avoid poor mental health. But triggers are individual to the person. Social media is not a huge trigger for me, whereas the possibility of failure is a big old issue which I still struggle with. Stress can trigger depression and sadness can trigger anxiety; usually there is a knot of triggers that are almost impossible to separate. Some conditions do not have triggers – schizophrenia is thought to have a strong genetic element, and people who have body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) are more likely to have another mental health condition such as OCD or generalised anxiety disorder.

This simplification of triggers is also present in attitudes to treatment. Self care is frequently advocated as a way of ensuring everything is hunky dory in the mental health department, while drugs are demonised as a last resort, a temporary measure. I don’t mean to be dismissive of self care. At my worst, self care was cleaning my teeth and getting out of bed; usually, self care is eating my vegetables and an early night. I value self care hugely, but it is not treatment. My treatment is cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), and taking my anti-depressants. And within my CBT sessions, maybe 5% is discussing my body image and social media; they are unhelpful, but they are not major triggers for a decline in my mental health. Exercise is a fantastic form of self-care, but as someone who has danced around exercise addiction, it is not always suitable. Baking a cake may be therapeutic but it is not always healthy to demolish the whole thing or aggressively feed it to others while not eating a crumb of it yourself. 

My favourite self care expert

In the same way that being white, or cisgender, or wealthy, or male, provides a certain level of privilege, I am conscious that I have a level of ‘mental health privilege’. I have low level anxiety, easily medicated depression and was lucky enough to receive treatment for anorexia very quickly. People with schizophrenia, types of OCD, BDD and other less well understood mental health conditions are frequently misunderstood, misdiagnosed and remain heavily stigmatised. I fit within a socially acceptable idea of mental health, I have relatively predictable triggers and self-care does help with some of my symptoms. But it is important to remember that this is not the case for everyone. We should not kid ourselves into thinking that the stigma surrounding mental health has disappeared. It is not our job to become experts in every mental health condition, but being willing to learn, understanding nuance and acknowledging our own ‘mental health privilege’ can help us move beyond black and white triggers and treatments to a more holistic understanding of mental health.

How to Overcome Procrastination

The festive season is coming to an end. The Bountys’ lie dejected in the Celebrations box. The fairy lights will soon be neatly packed away, waiting to reemerge next year in an inconceivable tangle. A sense of foreboding returns as work, school and university responsibilities shake us rudely awake from our Betwixtmas slumber. I have once again taken to idly scrolling Instagram for others’ New Year’s resolutions; such are the traditions of January.

January, for me at least, is an entire month of that anxiousness you feel before public speaking or an interview. You are stressed because of an upcoming event – in January’s case, the entire year – but bored because nothing is happening right now. It is precisely this feeling which drives me to procrasti-baking. Whilst in school, I was a procrastination connoisseur. I would miss deadline after deadline, often because I was terrified that my work would not be up to scratch, the solution to which was simply not doing the work in the first place (or so my therapist said). It is a blessing and  a curse; I am now excellent at deep cleaning my room and bullet journalling, but I do have to keep a check on it. Unfortunately, university is not so forgiving when you hand in a piece of work four weeks late alongside a beautifully crafted story about how your laptop broke and the printer ran out and your dog ate the essay entitled ‘Is Heathcliff misunderstood in Wuthering Heights?” (Spoiler: no.)

Jokes aside, procrastination is not as fun as it appears. I was frequently filled with an appalling sense of dread as deadlines approached, and my procrastination was often simply  trying to bring myself down from the edge of a panic attack in the school toilets. It was not that I did not want to do the work, but that I wanted to do it perfectly and the thought of not doing so was paralysing. But you simply cannot procrastinate at a professional level and succeed in other areas; it is a full-time job.I am not exaggerating about the therapist. It was a major talking point in our chats about eating disorders, anxiety and depression – I tried hypnosis, Cognitive Behavioural, Therapy Dialectical Behavioural Therapy,…procrastination was always in there somewhere. And from all these fun, joyous sessions I picked up a couple of tips which have made my procrastination manageable, however tempting blissful ignorance might be.

1.Write a list

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Credits: http://www.rawpixel.com

I’m not going to tell you how to do it. Some people say biggest thing first; some say easiest. Some say write a ‘To Do’ list and then a ‘Done’ list; some say write one every day, week or month. However you write your list, it really does help. My dad would often describe my stress and anxiety as a wall. As one, solid, towering object it was insurmountable, but if I broke it down into individual bricks, it became scaleable. Of course, I frequently use list writing as productive procrastination – advanced procrastination where you do small ‘productive’ things to avoid a looming deadline, but lists tend not to be infinite and so this only works for a limited period of time. You really can break tasks down to the minute level if you need. Essay To Do lists , for example, often included:

  • 1. Title
  • 2. Introduction
  • 3. Google (insert complicated term)

etc, etc.

2. Do SOMETHING

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Credits: http://www.gratisography.com

It’s all fine well writing the list – now start it. It doesn’t need to be the first bullet point. It doesn’t need to be the most important task, the most terrifying one, the most urgent one. Once you make a start on the list, it seems less scary. After you’ve crossed off ‘write title and date’ you can start on ‘make bed’ and before you know it, you’ve crossed off ‘hand in history coursework.’

3. Buy the Forest app

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Credits: http://www.behance.net

Or any app, but this one worked for me. Each time you want to focus on a task, but your phone keeps telling you that Urban Outfitters have a sale, or that your mum has texted, or that your group whatsapp has imploded in a discussion conducted entirely though Kardashian gifs, simply tap on the app and viola. A little tree will be planted, and the longer you ignore notifications (or better yet, turn them off) the more intricate and beautiful your tree will be. If you do succumb to the call of technology before the tree is fully grown however, it will perish and you will be forced to live with the guilt of killing such a divine being. As an added bonus, as you are growing your adorable forest of lemon trees and cacti, you can also plant a real tree in a real forest, and cross ‘help the environment’ off your ‘To Do’ list as well.

4. Procrastinate efficiently 

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Credits: http://www.rawpixel.com

If you can’t go cold turkey, there are some things you can do to reign your procrastination in. Find a thing that is still ‘productive’ and has a limited time period to distract yourself before you face up to the main task. My favourite is procrasti-baking, but it has to be something relatively quick, like cookies or brownies – no Bake Off showstoppers for me. At university, I’ll go for a walk or listen to a podcast. Most people have some admin shoved in a drawer that could be filed away. As long as what you are doing is at least pretending to be productive and has a short time frame – thirty minutes at most – you can start to ween yourself off the thrill of endless hours pointlessly and pointedly avoiding eye contact with that essay.

The Naked Truth

Kat Harbourne and Jen Eells have a podcast. On that podcast, they interview women, from all walks of life about all sorts of things. Its much like several other podcasts that I listen to, except that when they interview their guest, they’re all naked.

It might sound like an odd premise for a podcast. After all, the listener can’t see Kat and Jen or their guest, there’s no live audience to ogle the naked flesh; it is easy to assume that the nudity is a gimmick designed to make The Naked Podcast stand out from the crowd. But after listening to any episode, it becomes clear that there is much more to this podcast than meets the ear. The guests bare all – flesh, stories, emotions, musings – and within a few minutes of derobing, they often sound as though they had known Kat and Jen for years. Even more interesting than the reactions of the guests is the development of the hosts throughout the series. The nerves of the first episode have long since vanished, replaced with a love and respect for their bodies that is not forced, is not artificial, is not saccharine. It is not present 100% of the time – body positivity activists are incredible people, but occasionally it can feel that if you do not love all of your body all of the time, you are not truly body positive. Kat and Jen are honest about their insecurities and open about the journey the podcast has led them on. In the first few episodes, they talk about the slimming group that Kat has joined; by the most recent episode, they are asking their guest, Mary Mutch, to be more forgiving towards her own body.

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The Naked Podcast

Each episode kicks off with the three Naked Truths. These are:

1.How would you describe your body?
2.What are you proudest of your body for achieving?
3.How do you feel about getting naked right now?

When I started thinking about this post, I wasn’t sure whether or not to answer these myself. But the very fact that I started getting uncomfortable when made to consider my own body and my relationship with it convinced me that these are important questions, not only for me, or the guests on The Naked Podcast, but for anyone who covers up in the gym changing rooms, or avoids their naked reflection in mirrors, or has ever tried a diet. So I’m going to answer the first two Naked Truths (the context of the podcast is sort of important for the last one, so I’ll save it in case I ever manage to sit naked with two lovely ladies from Sheffield.)

How would you describe your body?

There are numerous ways to describe my body. From an objective perspective, I’m about 5’6 and blondish. My knees are scarred from hockey pitches, I’ve got slightly rough skin on my arms which I am constantly being told off for messing with. I’m a healthy BMI (Body Mass Index) for my height and age (although I’m undecided how much store I set by BMI.) I have a straight line of moles on my neck and a very faint birthmark on my lower back. But before any of this, when I am asked to describe my body the first word that comes to mind is deceptive. I don’t always trust my body, I can’t always accept that what I see in the mirror is a reflection of reality. Sometimes it is too large, sometimes too small, often the wrong shape. Sometimes I am happy with what I can see, sometimes I am frustrated – I am rarely at peace with it, but increasingly I can maintain a ceasefire instead of all out war.

2. What are you proudest of your body for achieving?

I find this question easier than the first. I don’t need a consistently positive relationship with my body to recognise that it has achieved a lot in the past three years, despite my best efforts. The obvious – but no less truthful – answer is that I am proud of my body for getting me through a marathon. It got me through the 26 miles, and it got me through the hundreds of miles that I did for training. It healed injuries, dealt with the Beast From the East and coped with every mistake I made, from nutrition to training to clothing. But I am also proud of my body for getting me through my eating disorder. I abused and bullied my body, I denied it the fuel it needed to function. I pinched, pulled and pummelled it, forced it to devour itself in order to exist. And yet it survived, and I will always be proud of my body for that.

Find The Naked Podcast BBC Sheffield, The Naked Podcast, or follow them on Instagram at @TheNakedPodcast and Twitter at @TheNakedPodcast