The traits of mental health bear a lot of similarities to hidden conditions like autism with similar traits and as such, similar support structures.
At least, that was the naïve mindset bouncing around my head when I went into the event titled “Making Mental Health Everyone’s Business”. Little did I know that that 5 hour event would impact the way I looked at mental health.
Although up to this point, Hidden Talent’s focus had been predominantly hidden conditions (autism, dyslexia, ADHD), we were looking to do a bit more focus on mental health and how that can impact a person’s search for employment. Unfortunately, many of us, myself included, were a little in the dark about mental health and no amount of soap opera-binging was going to change that (seriously, the only thing soaps can teach you is that your partner is either cheating on you or plotting to kill you, or both)
We arrived at Quaker House in Peterborough where we were joined by several people from across the other Talent Match’s. Hosting the event was psychologist Chris Harris, who had recently been appointed as the Prince’s Trust Mental Health Adviser 8 months ago and was now bringing his expertise to the Trust and Talent Match, where many people coming onto the project had struggled with mental health issues.
I’ve often found if you want to encourage change, you need to be throwing scary stats out there like live grenades. And the stats were definitely scary. 1 in 4 people in London struggle with their mental health, an average of 17 people a day commit suicide, and 75% of those suicides are male, on account of a masculinity culture that leaves men feeling inadequate if they spoke up about mental illness. I have to say, it’s alarming to think that young people would sooner suffer in silence than try and get any help. But it’s true, and the Prince’s Trust annual Youth Index proves that point. 47% of young people have experienced a mental health issue and a worrying 32% feel that disclosing their mental health issues would impact their job prospects. There’s definitely something wrong with the world if you feel like anyone you disclose to could end up being your judge, jury and executioner.
Chris implored that we need to focus on early prevention strategies, nipping these things in the bud as early as childhood. Our part in supporting that mental health is apparently quite pivotal in that getting a job does wonders for your mental health, as it gives you a sense of fulfillment and a sense of hope. Now for someone who’s head is constantly stuck in the blues, that’s a hell of a pick-me-up.
Chris then proceeded to use some of the most brilliant analogies I’ve heard in relation to mental health. He felt that mental health should be given the same priority as physical health, using the example of a flu; people should offer the same support they would to someone experiencing a coughing fit and letting people know that they are supposed, because isolated young people are more prone to mental health. Chris placed a heavy emphasis on relationships, explaining we are all hard-wired for relationships, right from the moment we are born, otherwise, we end up feeling like the runt of the litter, demonstrating this point with a very touching, personal example of a dog with epilepsy that he adopted and cared for.
I’ve always been fond of a tightrope metaphor, so imagine my joy at seeing Chris use a tightrope as an apt metaphor, highlight the never-ending balancing act that is mental health.
Chris also encouraged us to change our language around mental health. When it came to recommending some kind of help, he suggested that rather than phrase it as “there’s something wrong with you”, we should look at it as, “How can we help you get to a better place mentally?” In fact, much of Chris’ analysis looked at how reliant we are on perceptions and how bouts of depression filter through and alter our perceptions, with a glass half-full becoming a glass-half empty.
To illustrate these points of trust, Chris enacted a trust-fall exercise, with myself as the catcher and another volunteer as the faller. I felt a little unnerved by the fact this girl seem petrified of falling back. I can’t imagine how she would have reacted if she knew she was at the mercy of my non-existent muscles. However, fretting aside, the exercise went off without a hitch and I was able to catch her… although I should probably plan a few trips to the gym just to be on the safe side.
Throughout the whole day, we paced ourselves through multiple breaks, of which we enjoyed a lunch that mainly consisted of cake. Psychological insight – if you want to draw people in, make sure there’s cake on hand. Worked for me(!)
Inevitably, I felt the need to ask how a hidden condition may factor into a mental health condition, to which Chris acknowledged that focus should be on the more emotionally damaging issue. For example, if an individual had both autism and anxiety, then focus would have to start with the anxiety before moving onto supporting other areas. It wasn’t the initial focus, but I’m glad hidden conditions was touched on in some capacity.
One key thing we took away was that Chris spoke of mental health at varying levels. Some people and services may not see any cause for concern unless a young person was practically a volcano of emotions, but again, he reiterated the need for early prevention, and how Talent Match and the Prince’s Trust could help them provide that safety net.
To say we learned a thing or two from the session would be an understatement – I could go into full detail at the cost of turning this piece into an essay.
It can really take you aback, the moment you realize you don’t know as much as you thought you did about something, in this regard, mental health. But in this case, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. As someone who has always tried to come at mental health from an analytical angle, it was fascinating to hear such an emphasis on emotions and relationships. I think I speak for most people in that room when I say we left that meeting feeling refreshed and a great deal more confident in our understanding of mental health.