We are hearing a lot about mental health in the media at the moment with ‘Heads Together’ adding Royal ‘weight’ to the awareness campaign. Seeing high profile faces talking about their mental health struggles is having a real impact on us all. I am sure that I wasn’t alone in being moved to tears at some of the stories and the progress made in the BBC ‘Mind over Marathon’ series. To see people crippled by anxiety and with non existent self esteem go from hardly leaving the house to being at or running the London Marathon amongst crowds of people was an incredible sight.
So what can we take from this and apply to our own lives?
I think that there are 2 clear messages for us all.
The first is that poor mental health is something that we can all struggle with. It is not purely about extreme cases where people are institutionalised to cope on a day to day basis. Mental health is a wide spectrum that goes from feeling great all the way to really struggling to cope and to go on. It is about more than medication, it is about finding ways to cope with whatever we are facing and to support each other in doing so. Anxiety can affect anyone and could be someone worrying about a presentation at work for example to them being unable to function with extreme anxiety affecting and overwhelming everything they do.
We need to talk about our mental health and to eliminate any stigma in seeking help. We should be able to access support when we need it and not to be afraid to do so. One message that really came across in the documentary was that if help had been available at an earlier age then it would have been easier to cope and to deal with the issues. No one likes to feel different and especially not as a teenager. However that is the time when you can feel most vulnerable and in need of help. If we can encourage people to talk about how they are feeling and be open then they can find ways to deal with how they are feeling and coping strategies to deal with the darker days.
The second message for us all is that exercise is an effective way to help yourself on a daily basis. The words that I scribbled down during the documentary were ‘community’ ‘structure’ ‘endorphins’ ‘coping’ ‘strategy’. These were used to describe what exercise can do to help. Participants said that they could feel a little bit of weight being lifted. The feeling was that with the running they were leaving their problems behind. The marathon plan for them was the transition between then and now and their path to the future. And that put simply is the power of movement.
Our bodies are meant to move. We feel better when we get outside and walk, run or cycle. You connect with yourself and find a balance between your body and your mind. I certainly use exercise to deal with stress and it is when I am out walking the dog that I find clarity on what I need to focus on and the actions required. Moving, stretching out and getting breathless take you away from how you are feeling and change your focus. It is a release and as you can go further or do more it can generate a real sense of achievement, of progress. This can be really powerful particularly if you are struggling to cope in all other areas of your life.
The social aspect is key too. The ‘Mind over Marathon’ programme was described by those involved as a chance to ‘pull together’ and to ‘be ourselves.’ There was the sense that they all understood and supported each other. Whilst not everyone will have access to specific programmes, joining a walking or running group or a class can achieve a similar sense of belonging and community. Dealing with anxiety can be isolating and having support and a reason to go out can really help. Joining in and starting can be daunting but the benefits will far outweigh these concerns in the long run.
If only there were more initiatives like this one rather than an over reliance on prescribing medication as the solution. Whilst medication is an important part of the care package, their needs to be more direction towards the use of exercise and social interaction as part of the solution. We all need education on how to look after our mental health and what we can do if we start to feel overwhelmed. Managing the issues as they arise is far more effective than dealing with complete meltdown some way down the line. We all have a responsibility to take good care of ourselves and our health – both mental and physical. We must also take care of each other and have the opportunity to talk and deal with our emotions openly.
If you missed the ‘Mind over Marathon’ series then please watch them on the BBC iPlayer. It is well worth watching. I would love to hear your thoughts and about your experiences. Take a minute to look at how you are feeling and at those around you too – family, friends and colleagues. This may well be a good time to start that conversation……..