The other day I was talking to someone about the work I do, and one of their first comments was along the lines of “A lot of people seem to be jumping on the mental health bandwagon”.
It wasn’t said in a negative, patronising way, I think it was more just a common phrase we use to describe things that are more prominent, especially in the media; but it made me think.
I looked up the phrase ‘Jumping on the Bandwagon’ on trusty old Google, and found the following definition:
“To join an activity that has become very popular or to change your opinion to one that has become very popular so that you can share in its success.” – Cambridge Dictionary
It’s something politicians do regularly if they think it will get them more votes so they can win an election.
If you look at this definition, it is easy to see why people may think that mental health is a bandwagon, especially because of some of the high-profile examples that have been in the media spotlight recently.
My response was to say that there has always been mental illness, it’s not a fad or a trend, or something that is going to make you stand out from the crowd, it’s not going to fade away in a few months time, replaced by the next craze; all that’s happening is that more people are talking about it and raising awareness.
For me, and for millions like me, the reality is that mental illness has always been there, it’s always been a major issue, it’s just that people have been too afraid to talk about it, let alone admit to having problems.
Anxiety and depression are natural responses that have been hardwired into our brain since prehistoric times; while their sources of stress were very different, our prehistoric ancestors must have had issues; were more people anxious about the possibility of being attacked by a Sabre-Toothed Tiger than others? Did mothers have mental health problems during pregnancy or after giving birth back then?
The behaviour of not showing our negative emotions started somewhere; were people in prehistoric times described as mad, or did that start later?
For generations people have been afraid to show mental vulnerability for the fear of being isolated in society, or worse still, locked up in an institute and subjected to horrific treatments whist the key was conveniently misplaced.
People seem surprised that mental illness is now being talked about openly, is it more unsettling that it’s being highlighted by seemingly indestructible, super talented people, who are doing their dream job of playing a game and earning lots of money in the process? What have they got to be sad about?
They’re not wandering around ranting to themselves, having panic attacks, they appear completely normal, so they must be making it up because they’re not winning.
Some of the comments that have been made about sports stars who have recently pulled out of tournaments in order to prioritise their mental wellbeing have been shocking and show that we are still a very long way from our mental health sharing a level playing field to our physical health.
If all of these sports stars had pulled out because of a physical injury, they would have been inundated with messages of support and concern; look at the Olympics, an athlete’s four-year journey of hard work coming to an end because of a torn hamstring or a crash is not met with cries of ‘shameful’ or ‘weakness’. They certainly wouldn’t have been accused of letting their teammates down, simply because physical injury is more acceptable.
Some people have said it’s not brave to withdraw because of mental health issues, and it lets others down, but I applaud those who have had the courage to be open and honest about what they are going through, it would have been so easy for them to say they had a physical injury, and hide the real issue, but they didn’t.
Would some people prefer to see these athletes’ breakdown completely, or worst still cause themselves serious injury by ‘pushing through’?
We only see the final performance, we don’t see the hours of training they do, the practice, the falls, crashes and injuries; then add the pressure of the expectations of millions of people who want or expect you to win, and the other millions that want you to fail so their favourite can win. You’ve also got to do this before your 35 years old (in most cases), because after that your old and everyone is then more concerned with asking when you’re retiring!
Yes, some seem to be able to handle the pressure better than others, but that’s why we need to remember that everyone is unique based on our own experiences; some of us have a lower stress threshold, some have more genetic vulnerabilities, others have had to deal with some extremely traumatic experiences along the way.
At the end of the day Mental Health has spent too long hiding in the shadows. I don’t just mean that for sports stars, I mean it for everyone.
The reactions when you’re sick or you hurt yourself physically, are pretty standard; Go Home, that sounds/looks nasty, rest up, get well soon, hope it heals quickly, have you been to the doctor? Take this to make it feel better, are you in pain?
All of these should apply to mental illness; yes, it can be harder to notice and detect, but that’s why we all need to pay a bit more attention to those around us, and even learn more about human psychology and mental illness.
Most importantly, we all need to start taking responsibility for our own general health and wellbeing. We all need to start making decisions that work for us; so many of us put others first and ourselves at the back of the pack. Self-care and self-compassion are not selfish, after all, just imagine what you could achieve, and how many people you could really help if you were fit and strong in both mind and body?
Saying ‘I need a break’ or ‘I just can’t do this now’ or even the big one ‘NO!’ are not signs of weakness, but signs of strength. Sometimes we simply must surrender to what our mind and body are telling us, after all they know us better than anyone, and they don’t care about money or how you look, they just want the best for you.
Thank you, thank you, thank you.