IT'S OK NOT TO BE OK - #MHAW17

The human brain, what a marvellous organ cocooned up there in my balding head; driving every thought, every movement and importantly ensuring I never forget the time I stayed up all night, aged 15 and won the Champions League with Wolves on Football Manager – good times.

But, despite the brain’s genius, unfortunately there’s a huge flaw. And that flaw? Mental illness.

Mental illness can affect anyone, including us steak chomping, lager guzzling, muscle-baring alpha males (I’m actually vegetarian, I drink wine and I’m a complete weed, but you know, that doesn’t quite get my point across). If it’s not you, it’s likely someone close to you is struggling right now with their mental state. It’s a huge issue and one that many, especially men find difficult to talk about. We’re supposed to be stronger than that, right? Able to shake off the first sign of emotional trouble with a trip to the boozer to watch the rugby, that’s our medicine. Actually no, and such dated attitudes have left many men suffering with anxiety or depression, with no outlet. It might be work, difficult relationships, the complexity of life or perhaps it’s impossible to pinpoint the issue, but it’s important to face whatever mental unrest there is.

With Mental Health Awareness Week (8th – 14th May) upon us, I thought I’d touch on my personal experiences with mental well being.

Mental health issues hit me hard in my 20s. My problems began with an incredibly difficult relationship. At the time, I couldn’t see it but on reflection years later, I was emotionally tormented by my then girlfriend. After years of problems we split and I was alone, not eating, not going to work, not sleeping and not enjoying life – it was a dark time.

Thankfully, with the support of my family, close friends and doctors, things slowly improved. Cliché I know, but time is a great healer. I didn’t have a eureka moment when I suddenly felt like running through a meadow of wild flowers, the improvement took a while. Talking to people helped me to think more rationally and I developed coping strategies such as writing things down and setting myself short-term achievable targets to lift my mood. But that ridiculously complex organ I mentioned earlier; the brain, still troubled me occasionally. For me, I needed a fresh start, so moved away from where so many of my negative experiences took place and headed for London where my mind could be busied by creativity, culture and fun. The help I received plus new things for my mind to focus on thankfully all culminated in me being a lot happier.

Of course, like many illnesses, there are lapses and I still experience low moments, even now - but that's ok. Some last a few minutes whilst others might last a lot longer. My mind seems altered by those past experiences and at times I can struggle. It doesn’t take much to knock my confidence or make me feel anxious, but thankfully, I can come out of it the other side with good coping strategies. If I’m struggling, I know the best thing to do is talk about it, and that’s fundamental to all of this; talking. It might be with a family member, a counsellor or a work colleague, but to share that you’re not quite right does help; otherwise it's dangerous to bottle up so much alone. 

Thankfully, perceptions towards mental health are now changing and society is recognising that it’s ok to not be ok. The key is finding help that suits you, whether that’s through counselling, friends or medication, no one needs to suffer alone, even us brutish men. Like a lot of illnesses, it might be there for a long time, but here’s the good bit; with help it can be managed. I was barely surviving all those years ago, but now I’m thriving.

I’m no doctor (despite often being forced to wear my daughter’s Peppa Pig stethoscope), but the strategies below help me:

•    Admit you’re not feeling ok. 

•    Talk to someone – a friend, a family member, a trusted work colleague, your doctor or the Samaritans.

•    Be open to suggestions that might help such as counselling and/or medication.

•    Write things down. Those thoughts are better off out of your head.

•    Try some sport. Get those endorphins going.

•    Don’t expect an overnight change. Time is a great healer.

•    Short term targets – this can be as small as having a shower, or just leaving the house, but they'll help you get back into a routine. I used to fill my diary as much as possible so I had something to look forward to; anything from a family dog walk, a pub lunch, a gig or going to a football match. Being able to see my diary and know I could make it to the next exciting date, was a big help.

•    Don’t give up.

Oh by the way, that triumph with Wolves on Footie Manager... I was sacked the next season for finishing 16th. Now that really is depressing!
 

FOR MORE INFORMATION: go to https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/campaigns/mental-health-awareness-week