Mental Health is an important buzz phrase at the moment in lots of circles, so we are making a difference to the many stigmas, fears and worries that are often attached to having poor mental health. Celebrities and high profile people are beginning to share their own personal struggles with poor mental health which tends to generate a lot of publicity and can help start much needed conversations in the media. But there is still a long way to go yet. It’s great that people are starting to realise how important mental health is and talking more openly about it but this is really only the beginning of the journey to better mental well-being. It is, however, a crucial step nevertheless.
For me, looking back on where I was to where I am today, I can see that my desire to become a counsellor, support others, write the successful mental well-being programme ‘Safeguarding Me’ for children and become an author, comes from my own story of ill mental health. Without the support of therapy myself, my life would have been lost many years ago. No exaggeration. I totally understand that there is still a stigma around seeking out therapy for many – I get that because I, too, was once a cynic – the strongest cynic out there, probably. But reflecting back on where I was and looking forward to where I am now in terms of my mental health, therapy truly helped to save my life.
Many clients who come to me have an underlying sense of shame and this includes shame about having a mental illness itself and/ or shame attached to not being able to ‘sort themselves out’. I know in years gone by that I was so ashamed of the state of my own mental health, I did whatever I could to hide it from others. I’d do anything to distract from it, act out to try and keep it hidden, rebel against it, cover it up using whatever means done the job. Carrying shame was exhausting and painful (to myself and others) and led to a constant stream of negative, deep rooted thoughts and behaviours, repeated like a scratched record, in my sub-conscience.
For me, it began as far back as when I was a little boy although I would not have understood anything about mental illness back then. It wasn’t until I was referred to a mental health hospital to be assessed at the age of 17 that it came into my awareness and, by then, I had already caused enough damage to myself and others. I didn’t stick with the therapy that was recommended to me when I was a teenager, the shame of needing it too much to process, the stigma I attached to it overwhelming – how weak I must be to need someone else to ‘sort me out’. What would other people think of me? They’d surely think I was weak, too. Starting the therapy had been because others had said I should, not because of what I thought I wanted or needed. I soon gave up and thought it hadn’t worked and hadn’t helped. Of course, looking back now, I just hadn’t given it a chance. I thought I knew better. I didn’t. It wasn’t until I was in my thirties that I eventually sought out help again.
There are plenty of children out there just like me, who do not know what to do or how to do anything about it. So, who is telling them that there are many positive ways forward that are freely available to them if they are willing to take up the offer?
What is urgently needed is for young people to have the facilities and the avenue to go down if they are feeling mentally unwell. They need to know that being mentally unwell is not a weakness or something to be ashamed or embarrassed about. It’s common place. But even before all of this, they need to be made aware of the many different facets that mental health presents itself as so that they can spot the signs in themselves and others. It needs to be taught and discussed in line with how we talk and discuss our physical health. If we were suffering with a common physical condition, we’d visit a doctor or buy a remedy. Do we always do the same when it is our mental health that is suffering in some way?
More often than not, young people, particularly those in the care system, come with multiple, unresolved trauma or circumstances – many of whom won’t even recognise that their behaviour is an outcome of these. What supports them is you – your empathy, your acceptance of who they are and your time in recognising that they are still valued and respected even when things aren’t perfect. Unwanted behaviour does not have to be accepted. Looking behind the unwanted behaviour, to the vulnerable young people themselves, is essential. This will support the building of trust and with trust comes a sense of safety. This then gives a direction and pathway for the young people to explore their mental health more openly. Like I said at the beginning, the stigma and silence around mental health awareness is slowly dissolving but there is still plenty that can be done.
Encourage them not to hide from what is happening inside their head. Teach them to recognise the signs in themselves and in those around them. Support them to open a conversation with someone they trust, or a health professional. Take time to take care for your own mental health, and encourage them to do the same. Explain that it is worth the effort to ‘sort it out’ and give yourself healthier mental well-being.
I know, because I did it. ◆
Gary Anderson is a counsellor, whose passion to help others comes from his own experiences of trauma and mental health. He works with young people, and has created the ‘Safeguarding Me’ programmes, which give children the awareness and confidence to discuss mental health openly.
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