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In Support of World Mental Health Day

Don’t be scared to smile!

Events such as World Mental Health Day are a fabulous opportunity to shine a light on as aspects of life and the world that we might otherwise either choose to ignore or just inadvertently miss.  So often, if something doesn’t fall directly within our remit of understanding or experience, we can be so busy with the immediacy of our own world that we don’t even see, let alone engage with, the realities of life for those around us.  Never was this more true than in the field of mental health.  The realities of living with a mental health difficulty or living alongside somebody with a mental health difficulty can be so brutal, that it is tempting for those of us who fall outside that circle of experience, to ignore it or worse still, to view it and from a position of profound ignorance, to judge it.


So ‘hooray’ for initiatives such as World Mental Health Day! Finally, those of us not in the know have the opportunity to find out a little bit more about the often uncomfortable realities of life with a mental health difficultly, in the hope that we might build our understanding and reduce our ignorance of what can be a silent killer.


As well as spotlighting mental health difficulties and expanding our awareness around this uncomfortable topic, let’s also use today to spotlight the individuals behind the diagnoses.  We may not know very much about specific mental health difficulties, and like many, we may be scared that we would do or say ‘the wrong thing’, but in my experience of having worked in mental health for almost 10 years, one of the least damaging and most restorative things we can do to support somebody who may be struggling with a mental health difficulty is to quite simply SEE and HEAR them.  We will almost certainly not be able to fix them – most of us don’t want to be ‘fixed’ by another anyway – but the warmth and comfort of human connection – of feeling SEEN and HEARD – can, quite literally, be the difference between thriving and not surviving.


In 1945/46 Rene Spitz an Austrian born psychoanalyst, carried out extensive research into the developmental impact on children of being brought up in a clean, sterile orphanage compared with life in a less clean, sterile environment in the form of the nursery within a women’s prison.  His findings were remarkable.  At the end of 2 years of study, almost 37% of the babies born (or abandoned) to the security of the clean, sterile orphanages had died, despite the cleanliness and professionalism of the environments in which they had been fed, changed and kept.  The difference was, according to Spitz, the babies in the prison nurseries were never put down, they were being SEEN and HEARD, cooed and connected with constantly.  On the flip side, the babies in the orphanages were never connected with – they were treated with no more humanity than a blow-up doll. Not only did these babies fail to thrive due to lack of human connection, 37% of them literally died!


As we focus on World Mental Health Day, it seems to me that the message is clear – in fact it has been clear for the best part of 80 years.  The difference between failure to thrive and feeling alive, the difference between feeling well and feeling lost is quite simply in the power of connection.  It is the difference between seeing a smile or feeling ignored, between a genuine request ‘are you OK?, really OK? and a cursory ‘all good?’ as someone rushes past.


As you go through your day today with the messages of World Mental Health Day at the forefront of your mind, and as you go through every day, please remember how very simple it is to ‘make someone’s day’.  Don’t be scared to smile, don’t be too busy to stop and genuinely ask ‘How’s things?’, it could be the difference between someone thriving and someone not surviving!