World Mental Health Day 2018 is focused on young people as we become increasingly aware of the stresses caused by our ever connected world.
The World Health Organisation states that more than half of mental ill health starts at around 14 years of age. Indeed, both our children struggled as teenagers and very many of their friends had their own challenges.
With my daughter Katharine’s anorexia there was huge learning for me in terms of how much we, as supporting adults, can learn to do.
In the beginning I thought that we needed to find a way to help her either ‘be fixed’ or ‘fix’ herself. Understandably, we spent a lot of time focused on what she was doing wrong and could do differently or better.
We spent a lot of time looking for the right advice to give her or finding out what sorts of things she should do. Nine years on I have a very different approach to looking after someone who is struggling.
I put in my own self care practices and notice when I’m feeling frazzled, stressed or ineffective. In those moments I check in to see what I need and, even if I can’t give myself what I need in that exact moment, I make sure it happens pretty soon.
If someone asks me to do something and I know that it would make me feel worse I have learnt to say no. The result of this is that if someone needs my time and support I am well resourced to be able to give them what they need.
One of the biggest changes for me is around giving the other person what they need. I used to think they needed my knowledge, advice or opinion. I now know that mostly what they want is to be heard.
They rarely need my advice and they certainly don’t need me to fix them. Because I spend time taking care of me I am able to make space to just listen, without any internal commentary (“I haven’t got time for this”, “here we go again”, “if only…”). I can simply listen. When I have heard all the other person has to say and left some space to see if they have anything more, I can ask them what they need.
Sometimes, and particularly with our children, I will ask them what they need from me – to hear them, to offload, for my opinion or my advice. If they want either of the latter I frame it in a way that’s clear it’s from me, using phrases such as: “In my opinion…”; “If it were me I would…” I never say “I think you should…”
What I have learnt is that when we create safe spaces for people to be heard they almost always know what they need to do. But to be able to do this it’s important we get it right for ourselves first, whether that’s taking time away from our work, not being digitally connected all the time, taking some time to walk outside
When we take the time to fill ourselves up we not only feel better but also subconsciously give others permission to do the same. Every time one of us works longer than is healthy, pushes really hard, or carries on going beyond what we know to be good for us, we collude in the pressure of the century.
The other key thing I do now is focus less on the things that aren’t working and more on the things that are. I notice the good stuff many times a day. It doesn’t mean I’m not aware of things I would like to improve, but I take time to consciously notice all the things that bring joy to my life. This isn’t about pretending that life is good when it isn’t, but it is noticing that even when things are really tough there are still some things that are OK.