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.
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.
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.
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.