Let’s not get cynical about mental health

We have heard a lot about mental health in the COVID age. In some cases, we may have heard too much. We have heard politicians and other opinion leaders use ‘mental health’ as a way to push various opinions. I’ve seen Twitter posts during R U OK week saying ‘don’t you say RU OK’ to me. I wonder if we are getting cynical about mental health? Is talk about mental health becoming part of cancel culture?

Keep that kitchen clean!

There are many statistics about mental health but it is true to say that most of us (if we are honest with ourselves) are being ‘mentally’ affected by the pandemic. This effect may not be extreme such as depression or acute anxiety and it may not be necessarily negative. For instance, I have become overly fussy about cleaning up the kitchen – this is annoying for my family but hardly a cause for hospitalisation! My wife has become very zealous about learning French online. However, in many cases, the pandemic is affecting our mental health in ways we rather it didn’t. 

Just say hello – it can’t hurt

What are some of the experiences we are going through now that are affecting us mentally? For one thing, I notice a real decline in friendliness with our weak ties – people we just casually meet. I go for a walk along the same route every single day. When the lockdowns started in 2020 there was a real effort in people, including myself, acknowledging each other as we passed as strangers. This sort of thing rubs off on others and the more you do it the more natural it becomes. However now, in 2021, I’ve noticed a real drop off in that. People are keeping to themselves or in some cases displaying anger and resentment as they pass.

Not today sorry, have to watch another episode

Another form of mental health experience we are suffering can be referred to as ‘social isolation’. That is, we have become so used to being stuck at home with ourselves or our immediate strong ties, that we are way out of practice with meeting others, even in an acceptable, socially distant way. And what’s more, we don’t actually want to go outside and meet others. We get anxious if we have to we break our internally focussed, lockdown routines such as watching episodes of our favourite shows. If we are working at home, we are happy that we don’t have to dress nicely or worry about our shaving. We are ok with checking our emails late before we go to bed and as soon as we wake up. We think it is now normal to just talk when we are asked to on a video call. This is a bad place to be and an indirect effect of our pandemic related anxiety that may last way into the future.  

Who do we think we are fooling?

I heard an expert say recently that mental health is all about uncomfortable feelings. For some this discomfort leads to clinical disorders like anxiety and depression. However, for the majority, we experience them to a mild degree but more often than we like, or want to admit to. Some of us experience mild anxiety every day. It might be waking up with our heart racing when we hear that buzz on the phone (hint: don’t have it near your bed!) Or that anger when one of the kids interrupts that important meeting (hint: they have a sixth sense). 

Many of us obfuscate our own feelings by transferring them to others. Men in particular. ‘My daughter is really struggling by not seeing her friends’. ‘My wife is going crazy at home with me all the time!’. We men are often not comfortable talking to others about uncomfortable feelings. We still have that ingrained, ridiculous idea that we need to be strong and being strong is about not showing feelings. I know it is changing. I was heartened when a group of male friends recently (in between lockdowns) talked openly about seeking help for their mental health issues. But for many the man has to be the one that is impervious to, and in control of, all the difficulties surrounding them. Who do we think we are fooling?

We’ve just got started

RUOK week has passed us, but let’s keep a spotlight on our mental health. Can we accept and own our vulnerability? Can we accept and own the fact that we can’t work everything out and we aren’t in control? Can we talk about openly about the fact that we can’t sleep or we are addicted to email late at night or are obsessed with losing our job? Talking about all this stuff is just something we have to do, whether we like referring to it as mental health or not. Don’t become cynical about mental health. We’ve only just got started.