Debra Allcock Tyler: Being knackered is not the same as a mental health epidemic

The assumption that negative feelings indicate a really serious problem can have unintended consequences

Recently, I was asked what I was doing as a leader in our sector to combat the mental health epidemic that is pervading our nation. 

The problem is, I don’t subscribe to a narrative that there is such an epidemic. 

There absolutely is a crisis in the provision of mental health services, but I don’t actually think our fellow citizens are all on the verge of major breakdowns. 

While I would never seek to downplay the fact that people do experience serious mental health problems, there is a pressing need for clarity when we are talking about mental health. Right now, I think we’re mostly just knackered.

As regular readers will know, I have a long-term mental health condition. 

One of the coping skills I have been taught is how to tell the difference between perfectly ordinary feelings of overwhelm and upset in response to a bad day or a bad situation, and those that are going to send me down a rabbit hole of serious depression requiring intervention and medication.

The current narrative seems to be that any feelings of worry, anxiety, stress or lowness aren’t good and should be feared. 

But here’s the thing. It is completely normal to feel it’s all too much. To feel tired, down and a bit teary, and to want to crawl under a duvet and not come out for a couple of days. 

That doesn’t necessarily mean you have a serious mental health problem. It most likely means you’re tired, down and a bit teary and need to crawl under a duvet for a couple of days! 

Experiencing negative emotions is completely ordinary, and absolutely OK. Just like physical pain is your body’s way of telling you to be physically careful, these emotions are one of the ways our mind has of telling us to look after ourselves. 

They are useful emotions and we must stop scaring ourselves and others about them. 

Having a really shitty day and a bit of a meltdown does not mean you are unwell. It probably just means you’re awake! 

So often, all we actually need is an ear and a cuddle (or the virtual equivalent thereof) – not to be shipped off for therapy or meds because the rest of us are scared of bad feelings.

Scaring people into believing that experiencing negative feelings is an indication that they have a really serious problem, has unintended consequences. 

It diverts resources away from those whose conditions are long term and potentially life threatening.

It also scares people into keeping quiet, because they don’t want to be labelled as being unable to cope. 

And if they don’t share, we won’t be able to help establish whether it really is just tiredness, or something that needs professional help.   

So, for those of us in our sector worrying about whether we are managing the mental health of our colleagues well enough – stop it. 

You can’t manage someone else’s mental health – just like you can’t manage their weight or their arthritis.

What you can do is make sure the environment is safe for folk to share their overwhelm. 

Encourage people to take time off to weep and sleep without turning it into a narrative about a mental health crisis. 

It is brutal out there right now. If you’re not tired and weepy in these circumstances, that’s probably more of a worry! Looking out for each other is often enough.

Debra Allcock Tyler is chief executive of the Directory of Social Change

Topics:
Management

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