The thunder outside is so loud that the walls of my Airbnb room are shaking. It’s almost 9pm in Austin, Texas, and the house I’m staying in is buzzing with chatter as its student residents begin to pre-game for a night out, honouring the graduation of one of their housemates. I’ve been in the USA for a week now, covering two states and three cities (four if you count a hurried layover in Atlanta, Georgia) and this afternoon I arrived in Austin after a three-hour Greyhound trip from Houston.
I need this break. Three weeks in total as I cross country to visit friends, attend Maker Faire in San Francisco, and just spend some quality time with myself. If you’ve never taken a solo vacay, I highly recommend it. Doing it alone allows you to step outside your comfort zone and discover a braver, more independent version of yourself that you may have felt lacking. I know I certainly have. While I live alone and have done for two years now, I always ensure a decent wedge of quality time with friends and family. It’s safe. It’s familiar. And all too often, it’s a welcome escape from the alone time that can sometimes feel a little too overwhelming.
Last year I accepted that I have anxiety. I knew I’d had it for years, but in September I finally gave it a name. Giving any sort of condition (whether it be a mental health, a medical or otherwise) a name allows you to not only face it but to get help and support from others who understand it. I have anxiety. And now that it has a name, I can look online for advice on how to overcome anxiety attacks, look for local support groups that specialise in anxiety, or even admit to friends and family that the reason I have suddenly pulled out of an event is not because I can’t be arsed but more likely because my anxiety is simply too much to bare and I just need a bath, my bed, and Eccleston episodes of Doctor Who.
(Though sometimes I just can’t be arsed and that’s totally okay too.)
In the USA, May is recognised as Mental Health Awareness Month* and at some point during one of my public transport excursions this week I noticed the railings of an elementary school plastered with handmade posters. Each poster was brightly coloured with a positive message hand-drawn in large letters. ‘You matter’, ‘You are loved’, ‘There’s always help if you ask for it’, and so on. And reading these messages lifted me, despite not feeling all that low to begin with. It lifted me because how wonderful is it that children are having this discussion? While many may feel confused by their thoughts or unable to talk freely at home, a welcome safe space exists for them in the classroom. It was heartwarming to see and I hope more schools across the globe take similar action to break the silence regarding mental health concerns in young children, allowing them to more freely discuss their emotions without the fear of judgement or ridicule. That didn’t exist when I was at school in the nineties. There was still this sense of simply not talking about it in the hope it will go away. And now, as the conversation finally begins to take place in public forums, across social accounts and in the classroom, people label my generation as snowflakes and weak. But there’s no escaping the fact that as the conversation happens more and more, the rates of suicide in the UK are dropping. So I’d much rather we be open about our feelings and seen as weak, than bottle everything up and take drastic alternative measures.
And FYI, we’re not weak, just so you know.
Talking is good. Words are wonderful. And I guess what I’m trying to say here is:
– Bad days are okay. We all have them. But instead of letting our bad days overwhelm us, and the guilt of negative feelings make us feel worse, simply accept that today is allowed to suck and let tomorrow be brighter. And if that feels too impossible a task to complete, it’s time to ask for help.
– Give things a name. Get help and advice in order to give whatever is overpowering you a name. Names should never be feared – they are your first step in getting support and moving forward.
– Support charities that provide help and advice for people with mental health problems. While you may be able to cope without the need for professional support, there are countless others who simply can’t. And if you want to give to charity but would like something in return, check out In Music We Trust, a clothing brand that donates 50% of it’s profits to Mind, the mental health charity.
– If you aren’t in a position to donate financially toward mental health organisations, why not instead offer your support in the form of a cup of tea, a sofa and a hug, opening yourself up to others as a shoulder to cry on. People with mental health problems don’t need the answers, they just need someone to talk to. So if your friend, family member, or loved one isn’t having the best of days, ask them if they’d like to talk. And instead of telling them what to do, ask them what they think they should do next. We all work in different ways and what might be the obvious step for you may not be achievable for someone else.
Anna Akana’s video on offering unsolicited advice is a great start in understanding just how unhelpful your helpful intentions can sometimes be.
– And lastly, and this is by far the most important takeaway from this blog post, remember that no one needs fixing. They are not broken. They may tell you they are but that doesn’t make it true. Mental health problems, as with eating disorders, grief, long-term health disorders, and that damn sprained ankle you twisted at fifteen years ago, are with you for life. Getting help is not about finding a fix. It’s about finding a means of supporting your foundations and handling the occasional wobble further down the line.
*And in the UK, it’s currently Mental Health Awareness Week. Thanks, Charlie.