Thoughts on self-care and mental wellbeing

I was 14 when I began referring to myself as someone with a mental health problem. Nowadays, I’m very open talking about my experiences. I sometimes wonder, when I am sat around a table of my friends and the subject drifts on to mental health, whether I’m making anyone uncomfortable by being so candid. But then I remind myself that when I was fourteen, I had wished that someone would open up a dialogue. If nothing else, I would have felt a little less ‘weird’.

But it’s not just important for me, as a person with a mental health problem to be so matter-of-fact about what goes through my head from time to time.

People who have never suffered from a diagnosed ‘disorder’, such as depression or anxiety, seem to think that the discussion around mental health is one that doesn’t affect them. That it’s something beyond their experience and beyond their understanding, so they either have no interest in participating or feel it’s ‘not their place’. But mental health is everyone’s issue. Because I’m about to drop a truth bomb: everybody has a brain.

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Congratulations, because at this very second, approximately 100 billion neurons are buzzing around in your brain. I doubt that the scientific community would approve of the term ‘buzzing’, but it sounds slightly funkier than “processing and transmitting information through electrical and chemical signals”. If you have a brain, then mental health is absolutely for you.

Because mental health doesn’t simply refer to a range of scary disorders that affect a minority of people; it’s as simple as it being the health of your mind. It’s as mundane as your eye health, but people don’t ever call you ‘controversial’ or ‘opinionated’ for talking about conjunctivitis.

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The brain is an organ like any other that requires routine, exercise, rest and the occasional bit of TLC to function at its full capacity. Too many of us neglect our brain by only ever stepping outside to go to the pub or to work, by staring passively at our phones/computer screens for hours on end, for pulling all-nighter after all-nighter and still expecting it to work properly. Now, I’m not being entirely moralistic and uppity right now. It’s currently 3am, so I’m actually a massive hypocrite.

I’m not saying that you have to become Jessica Ennis in order to look after your brain. But we all need to give our brains a break, or we might suffer consequences that are entirely avoidable.

Now, hold up. By ‘entirely avoidable’, I do not mean that all mental illness is avoidable. I, like many people, have a disorder that couldn’t have been remedied by any amount of running, sleeping, meditating or conscientious eating. For  this reason, I’m an advocate of using the terms ‘mental health’ and ‘mental wellbeing’ to denote very different things. Mental health, for me, refers to a range of psychological disorders, including anxiety and depression and has connotations of treatment and medication and long-term management.

Mental wellbeing is for everything else. You can have poor mental wellbeing because you don’t look after your brain properly.

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Self-care looks a little different for everybody. My idea of self-care is wholly unoriginal and quite obviously inspired by numerous YouTube videos made by people who can afford far more expensive treats than I can. Going on a 30-minute run or a long walk at the weekend, taking 5-10 minutes to meditate every once in a while, eating food that I know is good for me, practising yoga to get in tune with my body-ody-ody etc… is as important to me as taking my medication every night.

Sometimes self-care might also mean grabbing a glass of decent wine, some chocolate and curling up in front of a Charlie Chaplin movie, or having a really long lie-in, or taking the time to do my makeup nicely. Even, at my worst, making sure that I shower every day. Totally counts.

I don’t have a self-care routine because I have a psychological disorder. I have a self-care routine because I have those 100 billion neurons we talked about earlier. Because if i don’t look after my brain, it could stop being the brain I need it to be.

 

 

Why I’m Finally Sick of the EU Referendum

The first time I heard someone say that they were already sick of the EU Referendum was over five weeks ago in a column that they wrote for the student paper. Only days before the election, I can officially say that I have reached this point.

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Now, I made up my mind a few weeks ago which way I will vote. If, between now and Thursday I hear a radical new argument which drastically changes my perspective, I am open to being swayed. But the likelihood of that happening is slim; not only because we only have a few days left, but because the range of arguments on either side of the debate is not expanding, but being whittled down to the most rudimentary, simplistic and desperate attempt to convince people. It is poor political and journalistic form all-round.

As time runs out before people put pen to paper in the ballot box, both Vote Leave and Stronger In have resorted to bringing the tackiest of political tactics on to the streets of Britain: stereotyping and belittling their opposition.

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While this is a near-inevitable part of politics which has occasionally enabled people to build entire careers off of creating a verbal caricature of their opponent in the Houses of Parliament, it’s a dangerous, irresponsible and divisive tactic in the lives of citizens – as if we needed more of those.

Between the tabloid press cherry-picking the angriest looking student or most indie-looking multimillionaire to front their depiction of Remain campaigners, places like the Guardian have resorted to stereotyping and humiliating the working class in their recent videos, featuring your average pot-bellied taxi driver spewing nonsense about immigration.

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Quite pointedly, I saw this particular video only minutes after reading an article on the Independent’s website calling both campaigns out on this exact problem. The writer criticised the Remain campaign for purposefully distancing itself from the British working class. But due to scare tactics by both Remain and Leave, this is not just an issue within the campaign, but an issue between British people.

Don’t be tricked into thinking that a ‘certain type’ of person is going to vote a ‘certain way’. For every Dave the Van Man who “wants his country back”, there is a keyboard warrior who will vote Remain on the 23rd of June based on their Facebook feed alone. Oh, and perhaps the promise that EasyJet won’t up their prices for their upcoming ‘cultural tour’ of Amsterdam.

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This post is not about which way I’m going to be voting, so I’m not going to say. But what I do want is to remind people that whittling down your opposition to an embarrassing caricature is only a useful tactic if your plan is to distract others from the crux of the issue: regardless of who wins, we’re looking at big changes.

 

On Graduate Pressure: The Door Is Not Closed

Try asking a recent University graduate in their early twenties if they’ve figured out what their purpose in life is and you might be met with a panicked look, heavy breathing, and sudden perspiration. At best, you might get a stammered response full of “maybes” before a swift change of subject. In fact, if you tried asking my fifty-three year old father that, you might get a similar response. The popular answer for a man of his age would be something along the lines of: “my purpose in my life is my children”. But the truth is that most people need a purpose independent of those around them; something that is only theirs. And in a world driven by productivity, this often leads back to job satisfaction.

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Now, I’m no graduate. I’m a long twelve or thirteen months away from my graduation. But according to a lot of people, this summer is when I need to begin preparing myself for that apparently nerve-shredding period of my life where I will leave the so-called ‘comfortable’ bubble of education that has formed not only the past three years, but my entire existence, and enter the working world. For a long time, my sole purpose was to get to University. Now that I’m here, where am I meant to go next? My plans are an odd agglomeration of skills I’ve acquired, pipe dreams from a time before I knew any better, and feasible ideas.

In a climate where young people are paying £9,000 a year to be educated to a degree level, the anxiety of making the wrong decision and invalidating your investment is equally as high. What if I pick the wrong graduate program? What if I decide I want to do a masters when it’s too late? What if I’m unhappy later on? What if I don’t have enough experience to get to where I want to be? What if I have no idea where that is?

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The primary alleviation from this anxiety links back to my aforementioned father. In September of 2015, my dear old dad became a fifty-two year-old undergraduate student at the University of East Anglia. He originally left school aged sixteen and worked as a gas engineer until a work-related accident forced him to stop in his mid-thirties. When my dad walked on to that campus late last year, he wasn’t backtracking, or returning to something familiar, he was starting over.

His desire to find a new purpose has been an underlying current of my entire life, as I was only three months old when he stopped working, but I only noticed it as I got into my late teens. His decisive action was prompted by a single question, the one I frequently think that students looking towards graduation forget to ask themselves: What’s the worst that could happen?

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Say you choose the wrong graduate program. What next? You start over until you find the right path. In fact, don’t fool yourself, you will probably be searching for ‘the right path’ for the rest of your life. A 2015 report by the London School of Business and Finance found that 47% of the UK work force would like to change their careers. Furthermore, a 2014 survey by the New College of Humanities reported that not only did a mere half of all UK students find work in a field related to their degree, but 96% had switched careers by the time they were 24.

While the loosely-named ‘graduate season’, which in fact lasts for several draining months, is frequently presented to those at the centre of it as a Monty Hall-esque probability puzzle in which only one of several doors have the evasive ‘prize’ of purpose behind it, the reality differs enormously. Once you have chosen which door you want opened, there will, in fact, be more on the other side. It might be twenty years before you get to the next door, or it might be three. When my dad first gripped the handle that would lead to his life as an undergraduate student, it was a realisation that this door was never closed, it was simply one that he had never tried to open before.

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(originally published at huffingtonpost.co.uk/blog)

All gifs: giphy.com

THE WITCHING HOUR: I’m peeved about Hollywood remaking The Craft.

I have to admit that my heart shattered a little this morning when I saw the latest victim of the Hollywood remake machine: 90s cult classic The Craft.

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I saw The Craft for the first time about eight years ago. I went through a mild obsession with the occult alongside one of my best friends when I was about thirteen and this movie was our Bible.

Dazed and Confused have praised the early creative choices, such as having emerging horror director Leigh Janiak at the helm. Meanwhile, I find the whole prospect of remakes, particularly of movies that are younger than I am, to be the laziest trick in the film-making repertoire.

I should’ve seen it coming. The Craft is probably the most inevitable choice for a version 2.0 in 2015. In retrospect, its aesthetic has nineties nostalgia written straight through it and its theme slots perfectly into a renewed interest in the horror genre (or horror-lite), recently re-popularised on television by shows such as American Horror Story and Bates Motel. The fact that its main characters are all interesting and well-written women gives it an extra feminist boost as well.

But all I can see when I close my eyes and imagine what this 21st century reboot might look like, what comes to me looks more like a parody of the original that’s trying way too hard to be edgy.

That might seem like an awfully quick judgement for a movie that hasn’t even been cast yet, but the utter laziness and blatant capitalist incentive behind remaking this classic makes me roll my eyes so hard they’re practically coming out of my ears. Mainly because this movie is younger than me, but also because of the misconception that these types of recreations are for artistic purposes.

Everyone realises that it is Hollywood’s job to capitalise on whatever trends are getting people buying at any given moment; you only need to look at the recent onslaught of live-action Disney remakes to see that.

I recognise that I’m essentially just a bitter fan-girl, but the idea of a cult hit such as The Craft, a high school flick that finally showed what it felt like to be an outcast, getting ready to be recast by a Hollywood lens feels strange and irreconcilable to me.

POP CULTURE: How to read the feminist cultural explosion

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Over the past twelve months, feminism has undoubtedly joined the ranks of 3D movies and the Big Bang of social media as one of the motifs of the 21st century so far. Less than two years ago, the most famous women in the world were discouraged from uttering the dreaded F-word in interviews for fear of alienating a portion of their fanbase, particularly the male portion. After all, had the ultra-sexed up Katy Perry of 2010 declared herself a women’s rights activist, the image associated with that label would’ve been markedly uglier and less marketable.

In mid-2015, the women topping Maxim’s Hot 100 are the same women leading the charge for a potential fourth wave of feminism (or perhaps feminism 3.5) in this decade. Calling this a feminist victory is an overstatement if I ever saw one, but there is one undeniable conclusion to this phenomenon: feminism is suddenly sexy.

However, as we have all learnt from decades of cultural exploitation in the entertainment industry, sex does indeed sell and women’s rights has become a profitable market. While our moment in the spotlight is nothing to condemn, the art of marketing a famous face can often come at the price of authenticity. We need to make sure we are still in control of how feminism is being portrayed on the main stage. So how can you tell the difference between the degradation and belittlement of the feminist movement for financial gain and a real Rosie (the Riveter, of course)?

  • Who run the world?

While the stars are the ones who get awarded the public credit for the finished product, creating a public image is a process involving dozens of people with varying levels of control. Often, the person portrayed as being in charge is the one who has had the least say. Therefore, if the portrayal of the feminist celebrity is created by a team of predominantly men, does she lose her impact?

While I realise it is social media suicide to call in to question the authority of feminism’s current queen bee, Beyonce’s relationship with feminism is one worth looking at. Having been largely responsible for rendering the debate on gender equality relevant again in pop culture, she has cemented her status as the most powerful woman in the music industry. Behind the scenes, however, it can be argued that she fails to practice what she preaches. Working in an industry where only a reported 4% of Music Producers Guild members are female and the pay gap between men and women is wider than average (a 2010 Guardian article reported that 47% of women in the music industry earn less than £10,000 compared with 35% of men), her album credits often feature only one female credit in either song writing or producing – herself. Even her female empowerment hit “Run the World (Girls)” was written, recorded and mixed by a team of men.

Does Beyonce have a responsibility as a self-proclaimed feminist activist towards the women in her industry? And does the overwhelming male involvement in creating her image of female strength raise a question of control? Of course, Beyonce is not the only woman guilty of inconsistencies in her feminist image and alongside the likes of Emma Watson and Taylor Swift, she has used their fame and influence to propel the gender equality struggle in to the spotlight.

  • Who is it aimed at?

This is where the near-infamous concept of the ‘male gaze’ gets introduced. Though incessantly discussed when studying our popular media, it never gets old in a culture that is constantly breaking the boundaries of hyper-sexualisation when we thought that there was no more that could be done.

An article in VICE Media’s ‘Noisey’ magazine at the conclusion of 2014 suggested that the two big buzzwords of the year were ‘feminism’ and ‘booty’. In the same year that Jennifer Lopez released her music video for ‘I Luh Ya Papi’, a decidedly feminist parody on the sexual objectification of women in music videos, she released ‘Booty’, her aptly-named collaboration with Iggy Azalea.

The latter video features images of the two girls totally lathered in oil writhing their bottoms together as Lopez sings “You wanna touch her”. Some would call the video a proud statement of J.Lo and Iggy’s right to be sexual and proud of their bodies. However, the expression of sexuality in this video does not appear to be an affirmation of ownership by the pair, but rather a performance for the benefit of the heterosexual, male perspective.

The idea of ‘owning your sexuality’ and being openly proud of your body is a perfectly valid pursuit often used as a scapegoat by the PR teams of female celebrities seeking to benefit from both the popularity of feminism and the continually relevant objectification required to sell their product. On occasion, a female entertainer is capable of declaring authority over her sexuality and it can be quite a powerful moment in dismantling the disturbing underlying tones of sexual exploitation that taint our popular media. But it is important to recognise the distinction between ownership and objectification.

Assuming that feminism doesn’t fade in to distant memory as another old pop culture fad of the mid 2010s, the increasing cultural relevance of the movement inevitably exposes it to exploitation by marketing and PR teams which threaten the integrity of a movement designed to protect the fundamental rights of women. As consumers, it is vital we stay in control.

Why sharing pictures of the Garissa University College is NOT helping!

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One week ago today, gunmen stormed Garissa University College in Kenya and massacred 147 students. There are people reading this who will not have heard this happened, as it has been severely under-reported in mainstream Western media. What you may have seen, however, is the shocking photographs being shared across social media of the bloodshed, some of which feature the uncensored bodies of the victims.

The lack of media coverage troublingly echoes an incident earlier in the year in which 2,000 villagers were reportedly slain in Baga, Nigeria by terror group Boko Haram, who have since pledged allegiance to Islamic State. Despite the scale of the bloodshed, the massacre was overshadowed by the killings at the Charlie Hebdo office in Paris, which had occured just days earlier.

Few would dispute that our mainstream media routinely ignores tragedies that happen in countries whose culture appears different to ours. The widespread although short-lived coverage of the execution of Jordanian pilot Moaz Kasasbeh at the hands of Islamic State militants in February came as a surprise to many as a rare exception to the rule, as the deaths of previous non-white hostages such as Haruna Yukawa and Kenji Goto the previous month had gone virtually unnoticed.

Western media has been quite rightly accused of judging the deaths of people from other cultures as being of less importance. This is even evident in the mainstream restraint to accurately cover the deaths of Americans Mike Brown and Eric Garner in 2014, instead refraining from comment to avoid controversy. At this time, social media lead the international charge for awareness and justice for two black men who fell victim to police brutality.

Once again, Twitter and Facebook are rallying for the popular European and American media to take notice of the 147 Kenyan lives lost on the 2nd of April. The issue is, in my view, the method to this very worthy cause.

While social media is a fantastic vehicule for independent, uncensored comment and gives regular people a recognisable voice in a world now dominated by the World Wide Web, a criticism of it that isn’t raised often enough is the reduction of information. A platform created for international conversation has taken the dialogue out of discussion and left us with effortless shock value. The pictures currently being shared are intended to force people to take note of the horrors that have taken place, but aren’t exactly condusive to the spread of information that is desired here as they condense the information in to a misguided ‘tribute’ to the victims rather than educating people on the massacre.

Moreover, the people sharing these pictures may unwittingly be partaking in the exact same crimes they chastise mass media for: the disrespect of non-white, non-First World lives. Returning to the subject of the beheadings committed by Islamic State militants, the videos of the European and American victims were rarely shared on social media platforms, due to the generally accepted belief that it wasn’t appropriate to commemorate someone through their murder. Instead, the victims of the Kenyan massacre have been accidentally objectified by well-meaning individuals on Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr by their deaths.

The counter-argument to this belief is that consumers of mass media should be forced to confront and therefore deal with the reality of what is happening in countries that is not their own. But this should not be done by devaluing the lives of the deceased or by reducing the tragedy to bitesized, shock value photographs. Unfortunately, although information in this form is easily consumeable, it rarely encourages discussion or opinions to form. As useful as social media can be in providing ‘the voice of the people’, for lack of a better term, this single picture only serves to feed the cultural obsession with death, violence and shock value, removing the humane or intellectual element from commemoration or appropriate media coverage.

Confessions of a Painted Lady – Tattoos and Narcissism.

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Over the past twenty or so years, tattoos and body modification in general have swiftly moved from being the mark of prisoners and seamen to becoming a legitimate fashion statement. Amid the myriad of celebrities whose careers are untouched by their body art are their millions of fans following suit. As a consequence, it appears that everyone has an opinion on tattoos. Whether the tattooed person is vindicated for ruining their job prospects or applauded for their “hip”, “fresh” or “rebellious” look, the judgement falls almost entirely on to the little drawings on their skin. Men are judged most harshly by their partners parents or prospective employers, while women are abhorred for daring to make themselves ‘unappealing’ and asked how they will look in their wedding dress.

Both the dismissal and idolisation of the tattooed folk is, to me, deeply steeped in our society’s vanity complex and obsession with appearance.

While the underlying message of many of the criticisms with which those of funny coloured skin are presented is the accusation that we do not care about our appearance, I would assert that they are not incorrect. In fact, I could not care less. A tattooed person is rarely presented as being ‘normal’ or having the same kind of beauty as the people around them. By placing us outside of the conventions of traditional beauty, society has given us the gift of seeing good looks for what they are: utterly worthless.

That is not to say, of course, that all people with tattoos are unattractive. At least, that is not my personal opinion in the slightest. It just matters less whether you are or not when everyone is telling you that you have ‘ruined yourself’. Because even if you start to believe it, you realise that your heart is still pumping blood in to all your vital organs, your digestive system is still intact – as are your limbs – and you are still a relatively kind, intelligent, well-adjusted human being. All of which will continue to happen regardless of whether you are considered ugly.

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The true sticking point of this is of course the realm of employment, which is often the thinly-veiled concern of many people who would disagree with the idea of inking their skin. And I am not going to say that they’re wrong. There are a fair few employers in the world who wouldn’t be over the moon with hiring someone with “FUCK” and “LIFE” tattooed across their knuckles or a full face tattoo. However, this is another deeply disappointing example of how embedded this narcissism is in our daily lives. A young child can be told that they must work and commit themselves in order to succeed, do exactly that and be turned away from their dream job because of what they look like. I don’t think this entirely man-made consruct is a healthy or productive model to live by and cannot believe that any parent would teach their child this in the interest of ease. After all, anything that can be constructed in society can be equally deconstructed.

Perhaps I am an idiot for maintaining the belief that my attendance and graduation from a top 10 UK University as well as my commitment to hard work and interpersonal skills will somehow override the fact that I have a few large pieces of body art, but I am prepared to be the guinea pig for this model as I am not prepared to sacrifice either my ambitions or my right to be tattooed if I feel like it.

I should think that the obvious response to my complaints about vanity would be the perfectly legitimate questions: why do you get tattoos if you don’t care what you look like? I can only answer this question from my own perspective, as people get tattooed for all kinds of reasons. And my response is quite simply because I can. In a way, I suppose that being a tattooed woman reminds me of the authority I have over my appearance. Too often a person’s appearance is controlled by outside influences, yet being tattooed somehow allows me to distance myself from that entirely and exercise my right to do whatever I want with my body. I feel exactly the same about the way I dress and do my makeup. If I were to quote Coco Chanel “fashion comes and goes, style is forever”, then my tattoos would be my very own ‘style’ and an indefinite statement of my ownership over my appearance.

Of course, someone with no tattoos or even an objection to body art might very well exercise a similar amount of control over their own appearance. Tattoos are quite simply my manner of doing so.

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Vanity is imposed on our society every single day, causing problems well beyond the world of tattoos. Tabloid magazines documenting the ups and downs of each celebrity’s weight fluctation and aging process, the fashion industry, the diet and fitness industries, the cosmetics industry and many more are rightly put in the frame for contributing to the steady rise in eating disorders in both men and women. I can only speak for some young girls, but I grew up convinced that if I looked better, then my life would somehow be better. Yet every effort I made to realise this only made me unhappier and riddled me with anxiety.

At this point in my life, I have concluded that the only way to attain true happiness with the way I look is to accept that it is absolutely worthless. Embracing the complete invalidity of any looks I may or may not possess is easily the most fun way to contend with them. And I would ask anyone who wants me to care about how I will look in my wedding dress to reconsider their definition of marriage.