On World Mental Health Day an opportunity presents itself to reflect on some observations borne out of personal experience and professional practice.
So, those observations.
‘Mental Health’ isn’t just about treating a problem
My background saw mental health (or the need for support with it) as an indication of weakness or failing.
My treatment was immediate, some of it hit and miss, and went on a whole lot longer than anybody expected.
It wasn’t that it treated a problem so much as it fuelled my curiosity.
With curiosity came awareness. And awareness helped the search for answers. Answers drive further questioning.
make good mental health part of our everyday lives
Nobody questions the social norms of good eating or regular exercise. We strive to improve our physiological health (even if we don’t necessarily achieve). Many articulate a taboo about approaching everyday mental health with the same vigour.
The brain is an engine
For the most part, the engine functions without us even realising.
Just because it functions doesn’t necessarily mean it’s doing so at the optimal level. The engine functions thanks to a range of automatic processes. Some of them are useful; some of them less so. Being prepared to interrogate what works and what doesn’t, and then take evasive action is what it’s all about for me.
aim to introduce incremental change
Small steps often and regularly. The first step for me is often merely being aware or ‘noting’ what’s going on. The step after that is assessing how that thought or action is serving me, and if it’s not, what needs to change.
Thoughts are not facts
This has been the big one for me over the past twelve months.
I know I ruminate a lot. That’s why I sometimes wake up at 4am wondering why a particular email hasn’t been replied to, or obsessing about the anticipated shame, and the certainty of, my bank account having a zero balance in the future.
On one particular occasion about six months ago while my partner was contentedly snoring beside me, I mounted a personal intervention to kill the rumination.
There seemed little I could actively achieve by picking over ‘what ifs’ while the sun was still beneath the horizon. I was worrying about something that hadn’t happened and probably wouldn’t, and in the case of the email, something that I had little control over anyway.
I remembered that I’d read somewhere that there was a big difference between thoughts and facts.
The facts about the situation were, quite simply, that I had sent an email and I was waiting for a reply, and that I had enough moneyt in my bank account to see me through until the next invoice was paid.
Everything else in my head at that moment in time was a thought based on an assumption or a perception. Therefore it was complete bollocks.
Shortly after that I fell asleep.
Identify the story you tell yourself
I’m someone who has spent most of my life thinking that I’m late to the party.
That translates into this idea that I have to pack loads of things into my day if I am to succeed. Because if I haven’t thrown enough paint at the wall I’m less likely to succeed (whatever success means in the context of what I’m working on at a given time).
I’ve also translated the term “hard work” as something which is measurable by the amount of pain or inconvenience it brings about.
Both of these beliefs have motivated and de-motivated me, fuelling action, drive, and commitment at the same time as underpinning destructive self-criticism.
Comparisons don’t help
I spent twelve years at the BBC. I always wanted to work there. I set myself the goal of getting to work there.
When I got my first job there I was looking for the next one. When I got that one I was looking to the next job. The second best job I was in was for just six months. People were surprised when I announced I was moving on to the next opportunity. One person was even annoyed.
I was happy to be at the BBC. I was constantly comparing myself to others. The ultimate goal was to work on an event where I could get a credit in the programme (others in broadcasting strive for an on-screen credit). It wasn’t to be; somebody else got it instead. I spent the rest of my time at the BBC thinking I’d failed because of it. No word of a lie.
Sure. It hardly sounds like a hardship. But I recognise now, 18 months on, that this mindset – one of scarcity rather than abundance – powered a near-constant state of dissatisfaction.
That motivated me and helped me acquire the skills I have today, but there were some draining aspects to the experience. Not least the assumption that whatever I did next could only be embarked upon if I secured a higher salary.
What no-one really tells you when you, when you embark on your professional career, is that the higher up the pay-scale you go, the fewer opportunities there are to increase your salary.
Eighteen months on I earn a quarter of what I earned at the BBC. I am more proud of that fact than I am of the majority of the time I spent at the BBC. Now I have freedom to choose, time to develop ideas, and the ability to maximise the impact I need to have in order to secure the work I want to do.
Importantly, I don’t actually give a shit what other freelancers earn or how busy they are because everybody in the working world I now occupy is entirely different.
analyse and strategise
Evaluate the data you have at your disposal (you may need to set about capturing it if you don’t have that data to hand already).
A strategy will emerge once you’ve arrived at some data-driven insights.
That’s the case in digital production work. It’s the same with mental health.
It’s helped me no end over the past six years. And because it’s a framework which has helped me, its underpinned my coaching work – part of freelance career now – with managers, execs, and teams.
The positive effects of that work are reflected in feedback I receive from them. That feedback positively reinforces my thinking around my work.
Good mental health is never done
I go back to my original point. Mental health is not only something that needs to be ‘treated’.
Mental health is an ongoing process and it comes from within.
It is as much a part of my day to day work, as the revenue-generating activities I engage in.