Mental health. It’s a topic we used to be so unwilling to discuss.
Chin up. Stiff upper lip. Sticks and stones.
These used to be words to live by, and do you know what? I’m glad we’re finally doing away with them. Contrary to traditional belief, it actually takes more strength to admit that you’re not doing so well and to seek help than it does to carry on regardless. To admit to feeling vulnerable, to seek out the aid of a fellow human being, takes a great deal of courage.
It is, of course, Mental Health Awareness Week, the theme for this year is Body Image. How we feel about our bodies, how we and others perceive the way we look is something that can have a huge impact on our day to day lives.
Anyone who meets me will tell you I’m tall. 6’4, to be exact. I’ve heard all the jokes, usually to do with the weather. Some people don’t get creative at all and simply point it out, as though it were something I was unaware of. Now, I can hear you already. “What’s so bad about being tall?” There are some practical considerations. Leg room is often a problem, whether travelling or visiting the theatre. Doorways are often not my friends, and I’ve worked in buildings where I couldn’t actually stand entirely upright without fear of concussion.
All that aside, the simple fact is that I don’t like being tall. I never have. I stoop when walking. It’s only recently that I’ve noticed just how much I have been stooping and have taken steps to try and stop. I certainly didn’t realise I’d been doing it. When your physical body requires you to be literally head and shoulders above everyone else but your mind is telling you you’re unworthy of any kind of attention, stooping seems like a natural defence mechanism. In the past few years I’ve come to feel a great deal better about myself as a person, and find that ultimately I’m not slouching as much.
The other thing I’m incredibly self conscious about when it comes to my body is hair. I don’t mean the hair on my head, I’m talking about the hair everywhere else. Mostly on my back. You can stuff a pillow with what’s currently growing out my back (I don’t though, that would be weird). This has always made me very unwilling to take my shirt off in public. I’ve never been sure of the reason why, but it used to make me feel so unattractive. Again, in recent years I’ve found it bothering me slightly less and less, but it still remains something I’d deeply like to change about myself.
Both these issues, the height and the hair, are things that many people could easily dismiss. “So what, plenty of people have real issues.” Yes, I do see how to some people my feelings could be dismissed as superficial, but that’s a dangerous road. The moment we start dismissing an individual’s concerns about their body image, we open up the possibility of dismissing everyone’s concerns. It’s certainly not a competition. Everyone has something about themselves they’d like to change, and each is just as valid as the last. This is because these concerns matter to the individual themselves.
Overall, I am ecstatic that the issues surrounding mental health are something that is finally entering the consciousness of the wider public. I don’t recall discussing it at school. Not once. Nobody would ever ask someone else ‘Are you okay?’ and actually be prepared to hear an in-depth response. Like so many people, I grew up believing that stress was something that happened to other people and couldn’t possibly ever happen to me. I was too strong for that.
Well, December 2016 put paid to that little delusion. After months of build up, I found I was breaking down at work and was signed off with stress and anxiety. I have never felt worse in my life. I’d never felt so bad that I would start physically shaking for seemingly no reason. I’d never been so pent up with nervous energy that I couldn’t stand still. Walking into a shop to discuss getting a new phone nearly sent me into a panic attack, causing me to retreat as swiftly as possible. The fact is, mental health difficulties can strike anyone, anywhere, anytime.
Talk to people. Ask how they are and mean it. Be prepared to sit and listen. Most importantly, be kind.
Oh, and since you asked, it’s raining. This is England.