Not just one week: my 5 prompts for making mental health matter throughout the year

It’s been a few weeks since my last post. I am choosing not to berate myself for temporarily slipping out of the happy routine of regular writing, whilst attributing all blame for the pause very firmly at the door of the dusty chaos that is our current domestic situation. (We are in the midst of building work.) Dusty chaos really doesn’t suit my uber-fondness (ahem, intense need) for order and “just so-ness.”

What has spurred me into settling down to write now – even whilst covered in dust – was the slight time-sensitive element to this post. The ideas had been percolating in my head over several days, and finally last Sunday (22nd May) whilst I was singing at choir, they came to a point of “making sense” (to me at least) and, at last, formed the kernels of a blog post. Ideally I would have written this post sooner, but I didn’t and that’s ok, because here it is now.

Preface over (I do love a good preface).

Mental Health Awareness Week 2016 ran from May 16th to 22nd. This is an annual week of events, campaigning and awareness-raising about the importance of talking about, supporting, and enabling positive mental health, and continuing the amazing progress already starting to happen in ending the stigma associated with mental health issues. The theme of this year’s MHAW was relationships, because lots of evidence shows that strong, good quality relationships – at work, at home, with family, friends, within our communities – are fundamental to our health and wellbeing. (For more about why the Mental Health Foundation is campaigning for a greater recognition of the importance of relationships for good mental health, have a look here.)

Thanks to the brilliant energy and momentum which have come to surround MHAW, between May 16th and May 22nd my Twitter feed was buzzing about all sorts of events, workplace initiatives, and many inspiring stories about mental health – why it’s important we talk about it and, even more importantly, do something about it. That buzz felt really pretty powerful, and I encountered it in ‘real life’ too. Various conversations I was part of or heard about during MHAW were very exciting – in their openness, optimism, and their potential for connecting people and ideas on all things wellbeing.

This all got me thinking – “So one week is great. It’s really important. But ultimately the point is that we all do more of this kind of thing more often and, well, ideally most of the time. Recognising the importance of mental health – and cultivating a society where that’s possible – needs to become ‘the way we do things: the way we are.

So I set myself a little challenge, to choose five ‘moments’ (or even just fairly banal things that happened in the humdrum of my daily routine) during MHAW 2016 which were powerful in reminding me of why nourishing our mental health is so important. The idea is that I’ll use these 5 moments as little prompts throughout the year, long after MHAW has finished, as reminders of the importance of looking after my own and others’ wellbeing. Here are my five moments:

  • I was thrilled to IMG_6202be invited to speak at a MHAW event at my workplace about wellbeing and mental health. I talked about my experiences of multiple miscarriages, and how they affected me physically and psychologically. I also talked about how being open about what I’ve gone through – and feeling supported to do this at work – has been a huge part of my recovery. I was honoured to speak alongside my lovely friend, Eve Canavan, who told her amazing story about experiencing post-partum psychosis, her recovery, and how she’s now using her experiences to campaign for better support for perinatal mental health. You can read Eve’s wonderful blog here.Talking about my miscarriages (especially to a large group at work) isn’t always easy, but I know in my heart it’s the right thing to do, for me anyway. As I’ve written about before, my experiences of miscarriage – of loss and grief and finding hope and optimism after what I’ve gone through – are a huge part of my ‘story’. The reason I wanted to speak at the MHAW event at work was precisely because being open about my experiences is fundamental to my wellbeing (it’s why I started a blog), and being well means I’m happy and productive at work. Simple, see?! I realise that not everyone wants or needs to be so open about pretty personal stuff. But for those of us who do want to be open, I think it’s important that our workplaces make this possible, and I’m so grateful that mine does. Being able to bring our whole selves to work, and all the possibilities and skills and talent we bring with us, is so important. For more on this theme, I highly recommend this fab blog post by Clare Moriarty, a senior UK civil servant, about showing vulnerability as a leader.

 

  • On the Thursday of MHAW, I went on a magical train journey with my 3-year-old side-kick. ‘What’s so special about a train journey?’ I hear you say. Well, leaving aside the fact that I actually love trains, there was something about this train journey that was different to usual: I chose to take the slow train. Yes, as in I decided that getting to our destination by the fastest possible route wasn’t a priority. We took the slow road. We travelled from Redhill to Guildford on the stopping service, through some of the loveliest, leafiest parts of Surrey. And it was blissful – green, lush, rolling hills, sleepy stations, yielding an utterly enthralled 3 year-old. So lovely was it that, after our catch-up with some very dear friends in Guildford, we chose to get the slow train on the return leg too. Don’t get me wrong – I was also thrilled to arrive home to busy, noisy, London (I love London). But that train journey was a lovely reminder of the power of being in the moment, of watching my sidekick marvelling with wonder as she took in the beautiful greenery of spring whilst humming along to the sound of the train running along the tracks, and of giving myself permission to opt out of the fast route every now and then.

 

  • One of the most positive consequences of having multiple miscarriages (and there was more than one positive, believe it or not!) was discovering the therapeutic power of connecting to others with similar experiences. I have written before about my ‘RMC ladies’ – a group of women I met online who have all experienced recurrent miscarriage. They have been a constant presence and amazing source of support over the last few months (all the more amazing given I’ve not actually met them, so I’m cheating slightly to call this one of my ‘five moments’). What justifies the mention here is that during MHAW I confirmed plans to actually meet up with some of my RMC ladies. In real life! I am very excited about this. As a former super-sceptic about meeting people through social media, I feel very lucky to have met and befriended a bunch of amazingly strong, positive, wise and supportive women, and I’m excited to get to know them in person. All hail t’internet!

 

  • I suspect I’m rather late to the party in discovering the gem that is Elizabeth Gilbert, and her lovely book ‘Eat, Pray, Love.’ Somehow, and with not-a-little serendipity, it was during MHAW that I encountered her work at last. I can’t profess to be an expert on it yet, but I was stopped in my tracks and filled with joyful resolve when I listened to her TED talk on creativity, success and failure. As someone who has long had a tendency towards setting myself ridiculous standards, this talk really resonated with me. By my reading, Elizabeth’s thesis is that to release ourselves from the shackles of judging ourselves relentlessly on our relative success or failure, we need to find and remain connected to the one thing that most ignites our heart (this is my paraphrase of her wise words!). To quote just some of her brilliant words from the TED talk: “Find your way back home again… (Find) the best, worthiest thing that you love most, and then build your house on top of it…. Diligence and devotion and respect and reverence. Whatever the task is that love is calling from you next.” The talk was very powerful in reminding me that life can actually be quite simple (notwithstanding all its busyness) – if we know what matters most in our hearts, and if through the busyness, we find enough space for what matters to us most.

 

  • Lastly and probably most frivolously, during MHAW I realised anew that I love colourful things and I will seek them out wherever they are to be found, because they make me smile. Admittedly, in this I am influenced quite a lot by my 3 year-old sidekick, amongst whose favourite things are: her pink sandals, her favourite fruity ice-lolly, her yellow lemon top, purple jelly for breakfast (why not, just occasionally), her box of colouring pencils, and (my own favourite) convincing her father to buy Mummy beautiful flowers ‘just because Mummy loves flowers.’ Simple.

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Those are my ‘five moments‘. If the ‘five moments’ idea resonates with you, I’d love to hear what yours would be. Get in touch 0 either comment below or email me lkosullivan [at] googlemail.com

For more information about Mental Health Awareness Week, the work of the Mental Health Foundation, and ways to look after your mental health, take a look here

Life beyond the browser: 5 reasons to spend less time on the internet

One of the things I love about reaching my ‘late 30s’, and the perspective this phase brings, is what I’ve come to think of “being ok with grey stuff.” I don’t just mean grey hairs. I’m much more comfortable now with things not having straightforward, black-and-white answers, and the fact that my opinions can have shades of grey: nuance, qualification, curious questioning – whatever you want to call it.

Exhibit A: My musings about technology and social media. In the past I’ve been pretty strenuous in my resistance to and suspicion of the ubiquity of social media, and Facebook in particular. At one point – STOP PRESS – I even deactivated my Facebook account for several months. In my armchair opining about social media, I would rant ad lib – usually to myself if not to whichever poor soul happened to find themselves beside me – about the various ways in which social media was most definitely a bad thing. To mention just a few of my reasons for suspicion:

  • The wasted time people (ahem, including me) spend idly scrolling through their FB and Twitter feeds. ‘Think of all the other, actually useful, things they could be doing!’
  • The oddity of ‘self-publishing’ or what I clumsily described in my rants as ‘identity creation’ on social media (the subtle impression-management, ‘what version of myself will I present today?’ dimension to one’s FB presence).
  • And probably my favourite, the idea that a moment doesn’t really exist until you post it online – what’s the point in taking photos unless you can choose the best one and show the world what you’re doing/who you’re with/how amazing your holiday is??!

Then I started to chill out a bit. I re-activated my FB profile and even set up a Twitter profile (I am now a massive fan of Twitter – the reasons why are for another post). My softening towards the idea of an ‘online presence’ is down to a few factors, but in large part because of what I’ve experienced over the last year as I recovered from my fourth miscarriage: I have found huge comfort, therapy and hope in the connections I’ve made online and in creating this blog, which has reminded me of the power of social media and technology to support, empower, and influence individuals (and maybe occasionally even the wider world) for positive ends.

lu blog pic iphoneSo where I am going with this? Well, the other week as I was typing something mundane into Google on my iPhone, I misspelled a word, and I found myself thinking ‘there’s no point in bothering to correct it. Google’s clever predictive search thingy will guess what I’m after.’ And it duly did. Result.

Then suddenly I heard my inner spelling pedant telling me off for my slipping standards, and for the laziness that had me relying on the internet to tell me the answer in the first place, when I could have discovered whatever it was by wondering, or having a conversation with someone, or – whisper it – just living without knowing at all (it really wasn’t anything important).

Picking up a trusty smartphone or tablet has become a conditioned – almost automatic – response when we want to know the answer to something (or are just a bit bored); Checking for updates on a busy screen has become as habitual as unzipping a wallet or zapping an Oyster card. So as I pondered how powerful and ubiquitous the online world has become, I had a ‘moment.’ It occurred to me that whilst my 37-year-old self has most definitely embraced anew the joys of social media, I don’t think my younger self was necessarily talking nonsense: I still think that the way technology and social media pervade our lives and increasingly our relationships (at home, at work, with friends) does have some downsides. And making the most of all the possibilities of rapid technological change doesn’t mean there isn’t also some value in considering some of the downsides for wellbeing, for how we value our time, for our relationships, for our children growing up likely to use an iPad before they can write their own name – of living in such a super-connected 21st century worldwide village.

Obviously I’m not about to ditch my smartphone and excavate my beloved 2-ton Nokia 5110. In the spirit of embracing the greyness, I can see that social media and our online connectedness have many positives and I’m certainly not going to set up life on a remote island with no wifi. (Shudders at the thought). But I’ve decided I’m going to challenge myself to resort to t’interweb for answers/company/entertainment just a little bit less.

lu blog post pic1Fancy joining me? If you need convincing, or even just some food for thought, here are five reasons why I reckon spending a bit less time on the internet could be a good thing:

  1. It means spending more time having conversations, with friends and strangers; discussion and debate bring the possibility of considering different perspectives and learning something new. It’s good to talk.
  2. If I ditch the Satnav in favour of figuring out the route the old fashioned way, well what a voyage of discovery that could be. Who knows what new places or people I could discover. Or I might approach places I already know from a new direction, and see them differently. And if I get lost and need to consult Google Maps, I’ll probably have discovered a new gem (coffee shop/park…) along the way. Embrace the unknown.
  3. In the blissful absence of information overload, I’ll be more likely to trust my instinct. I think the constant stream of information available at our fingertips brings a risk that we start to doubt ourselves, to lose confidence in our ‘gut.’ Spending less time on t’interweb means I’m more likely to ask, ‘So all other things being equal, and without over-analysing and bombarding myself with unnecessarily complicating  information, in my heart what feels right?’
  4. I’ll operate a policy of what I call mindful commuting – instead of spending my journey in a fairly aimless cycle of checking my FB or Twitter newsfeed, BBC news website, Irish Times and Guardian websites (and repeat), I’ll look up, look around, look out the window, smile at a stranger. Better headspace for the day ahead. 
  5. I’ll remind myself that sometimes a moment can be special simply because of the memories created by the people who shared it. Photos are lovely of course, but I think they don’t need always to go online immediately (or at all). Print them, frame them, put them on the wall. The preciousness of special moments – the simplicity of them – could be all the more precious for their rarity and privacy. Be in the moment.

And if at all goes wrong, and I am really lost/bored/need an answer urgently, t’interweb and all its clever predictive search ‘guessing what I’m interested in’ wizardry will still be there. And probably even more clever than it was before.