We had Mental Health Awareness Week last month and this month we have Men's Health Week - both are interesting and important topics, not only independently but as interconnected issues as well. Mental health is an interesting thing to me, and the way we talk about it is interesting as well.
How we think about mental health
Mental health is often referred to as if it's only something to think about when there's an issue, or as if it's separate to our daily existence, when in reality it's a part of every daily experience and it shapes our perceptions of the world. That's true for all people.
Then there are the occasions where things happen that cause an 'injury' - if you have a personal trauma, loss or shock for example. To some extent, with a sports background, I think of that in the context of an acute injury, that needs focused treatment, or a chronic injury, which you have to manage consistently over time.
My experiences with mental wellbeing
There's no doubt that physical and mental health are connected, and I think perhaps one of the things that's not fully acknowledged across the board is that wellness and how it's achieved can mean different things to different people. I have worked in wellbeing for years and I still struggle to define what it is. However, I know what works for me - the tools, routine and infrastructure that help me maintain balance or come back to balance when things happen.
I think for me the most important thing for physical and mental health is consistency. Consistency breeds results, but we don't often think about mental health in line with everyday actions.
What I have realised about myself is that I’ve always taken an interest in mental health, so I have a range of tools that I use to manage it. I don’t necessarily think about them all the time; they are inbuilt into my life in the same way as fitness. Much like I’m not a personal trainer, but I know how to look after myself, I know what my body needs, and that's something that's developed over time.
Infrastructure for a mental health baseline
The first thing is that much like building a baseline of physical health over the years, I am fortunate to have a baseline for mental health. I think this comes from having or creating an infrastructure around you. It doesn't stop life's injuries from happening, but it can help you handle them and recover from them. Some people have a lot of acute things happen to them when they're young, which can affect their ability to build long-term consistent mental health. However, lots of us have the opportunity to build that baseline from childhood, and it's really important to do that because at some point some things will come along that we have to deal with.
Routine for mental and physical wellbeing
I have always found routine to be central to all wellbeing. Over the years that routine and the purpose of it has changed. I have always been someone who gets up early, but when I was playing rugby it was all about preparing to be physically ready to go and train. When I started running Proverb I was up at 5.30 in the morning to go to the gym so I could be my best at work. When the kids arrived, I wanted to get up and have a little time to myself so I could be mentally ready to focus on them. It has always been about having a good start to the day to get the best results.
I have also found that routine is the best way to safeguard and make sure I have time to relax. It's not for everyone, but when the kids were born we had a fairly regimented way of looking after them. It worked for us because my big belief as a parent is that if you are feeling less stressed, tired, and anxious about looking after this little person that's come into your life, then you have a better chance of making them feel less stressed or anxious.
The whole point of the regimen was to allow us to have more time for ourselves, to relax, eat properly, work, and not feel like we were living in chaos. Looking after yourself is an important part of being able to look after other people.
The value of daydreaming
It took me a long time to learn about the importance of daydreaming. I have been reading more about it recently and it's really interesting. I come from a very institutionalised background - school, sport - and in those spaces there has to be a fairly regimented plan and a goal - all of which is good and helpful. However, daydreaming is also a powerful way to let thoughts percolate.
You tend to think that if you focus on a problem or a challenge you should be able to work it through but it doesn't always work like that. There's a reason daydreaming exists - it engages a part of the brain that you can’t always access when you're focusing, and that can be great not only to relax the mind and relieve stress, but also to improve mental resilience and increase your sense of happiness.
Individual autonomy and asking for help
I do think that one of the challenges with mental health is that it's very difficult to put advice into a neat box. It's different for everyone, so there has to be some individual autonomy in that. However, it's also important for people to talk about it and feel able to ask for help.
I think I'm quite fortunate, partly because of how I am but also perhaps because I'm surrounded by a lot of women. There's a culture of talking about emotions that I don't think a lot of men in particular have. I have male friends who, if you ask them how they are, will tell you that work is going well, family is doing well, etc, but they won't actually tell you about how they are.
Men's mental health
We know that there's an issue when it comes to men's mental health. Men have a lot of things easier than other people, but we don't tend to be so great at looking after our mental wellbeing. On a purely statistical basis, the Mental Health Foundation says:
- Three times as many men as women die by suicide
- Men aged 40 to 49 have the highest suicide rates in the UK
- Men report lower levels of life satisfaction than women, according to the Government’s national well-being survey
- Men are less likely to access psychological therapies than women: only 36% of referrals to NHS talking therapies are for men
I think men need to be more conscious about not comparing themselves to other people, whether they would admit it or not. Lots of men tend to feel as though they're on an island on their own dealing with their problems and that's generally not a great idea. However, not everyone is comfortable talking about how they feel. Men tend to do more physical wellbeing, and that does have some emotional outlet, but talking is important too. I think that is changing though, from one generation to the next.
Perhaps one of the big things is that we don't have all the answers yet. Society has changed a lot over the last 30 years and in some ways there are challenges that arise from that. They're not problems necessarily, they're just conversations that mean people need to reconsider their purpose and that has an impact on our mental health. For example, gender roles have fundamentally changed.
I know that as a businesswoman and a mother, my wife Kirstie sometimes struggles with which identity is 'her', and for a lot of men knowing what their purpose is without it being purely defined by the world around them can be difficult. Creating your own sense of purpose is a skillset that can take years to develop, and it does have an impact on mental health.
My biggest takeaway on the conversation around mental health, and specifically men's mental health, is that there's no singular answer and we have to be ok with that. However, the idea that we only pick up mental health when we have a bad day is silly - it’s a snapshot in time, not the whole picture. If we start by creating healthy habits and routines that give us a solid baseline to start from, and a set of tools to fall back on, then I think we have a better chance of enjoying our experiences and recovering from challenges. At least, that's how I approach it.