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What does mental health mean?

Whenever I turn on the television or read the newspaper I seem to find a rash of articles talking about a mental health crisis, particularly among the young. The period of the pandemic has unsurprisingly increased anxiety and isolation. I do not doubt that lockdowns and uncertainty over jobs and security hugely increase the pressures on families and individuals. The difficulties of home schooling place demands on parents and the lack of social interaction is difficult in a different way for children and particularly teenagers. It has been a perfect storm.

And I have experience both personally, although a long time ago, and amongst family and friends of mental health problems, principally depression and anxiety. Mental health is a huge issue and has for many many years been treated as somehow less important and less deserving of resources than physical illness. Right now with the NHS reeling from the demands of the pandemic I have no doubt that mental health services are stretched to their limit.

And in that context I am interested in what we mean when we talk about mental health. I wonder if we are in danger of labelling loneliness, worry, stress and low mood as mental health issues when there is a difference between grief and desolation at the loss of someone you love and depression; between the stress of worry about losing your job and anxiety; between the loneliness and isolation of a teenager shut up in their room and depression. It is not simple and there is a continuum where the reactive response to a challenging situation can move across into an unshakeable anxiety or depression. But life is and has always been full of difficulties as well as delights. Our parents and grandparents struggled with poverty and war and unemployment. How did they find the resilience and determination to cope with what life threw at them? Most of us will experience money problems, illness, bereavement, loneliness, concerns about ourselves and those we love. How do we learn to navigate the dark times and to keep going when life is hard?

My concern about the blanket use of the term "mental health" and the ease with which we ascribe our low feelings and anxieties to "mental health issues" is that it can undermine our agency, our resilience and our sense of our ability to cope. It can leave us feeling not that we have a problem but that we are the problem. And that leaves you helpless.

There is a point where medication and talking therapies are either the only or the best answer. But in the earlier stages of difficulty and distress there are many ways to build your resilience and to help yourself when times are hard. I am almost afraid to write these because I do not want people to think that I am belittling mental health problems but I simply want to enumerate some of things that, over sixty seven years, I have found that help me to keep going, to maintain my equilibrium, to wake ready to face a new day when times are hard. I have no idea if these are simply personal to me or if other people use the same strategies, or have other strategies which work for them. I would love you to tell me how it is for you. Here they are then, many of them apparently frivolous or trivial, not everyone's answers but mine.

Exercise. Any sort of movement is good, from a gentle walk to a run. The simple fact of moving your body is good. Running with its amazing sense of achievement makes you feel strong and alive, perhaps particularly when you most don't want to go.

Yoga. Yoga in particular seems to soothe the soul. I have a great teacher whose classes are mostly gentle and restorative but always with one brief section where you work really hard, often astonishing yourself at what you can do. Afterwards I feel as if I have been ironed out.

Being outside. Sunshine on your skin, or rain. Wind, clouds, birds, flowers and most especially trees. The difference for me between a day spent inside sitting in a chair and one with some time outside, sitting or moving, is significant.

Tiny good things: a cup of good coffee, wearing a pair of favourite socks, standing under a hot shower, eating a perfect poached egg.

Solitude: half an hour in a scented bath.

Company: a walk with my husband, a cup of tea with a friend, time with children and grandchildren.

Sheer bloody minded persistence. Sometimes the only thing to do is to keep on keeping on. This too will pass.

What about you? How do you care for yourself especially when times are hard? I would love to know.

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