Craig Adley-Sweeney, Mental Health and Wellbeing Champion, Liverpool City Council
Today is World Suicide Prevention Day – an awareness day to provide commitment and action – to prevent suicides. A key aspect of suicide prevention is looking after our mental health, including talking about our issues, and seeking support when we require it.
Craig Adley-Sweeney, Technical Compliance Officer in the Private Sector Housing Licensing team, is also an internal Mental Health and Wellbeing Champion. He knows from personal experience how important it is to challenge the stigma and myths around mental health.
There are many misconceptions when it comes to mental health, and in turn these create a stigma. The stigma can be one of the major barriers between a person experiencing mental health problems – and talking to others – or seeking help. Whilst this is a universal problem, this stigma can be more prevalent in men. This is largely because among some men, depression and other common mental health problems can be seen as a sign of weakness. It is something I have experienced myself, with phrases such as “man up” getting bandied about when they have no place in a sincere conversation about someone’s wellbeing.
If you look around almost every work place you will see clear information on who the first aider is, but mental health first aid is something which is scarcely recognised. We are very lucky that Liverpool City Council is very forward thinking in that respect and that is the reason why Mental Health and Wellbeing Champions exists in our workplace.
Many people would not have a problem stating that they feel physically unwell. It is not uncommon to hear people saying they do not “feel 100% today”, that they have a headache or stomach pain. This is no different to people’s mental health. Whilst some problems can be long term issues which require sustained treatment, there can also just be days where you feel low or unhappy. There doesn’t need to be a cause and sometimes it can last just a few hours or days. But I would wager you very rarely, if ever, hear someone saying that they do not feel mentally 100%, or that they are at a very low ebb.
As someone who has experienced depression, looking back with the clarity of hindsight, if I had just reached out to friends and family it would have really helped. I was stopped by the stigma that prevents so many people, especially men, from asking for help. I was beset by self-doubt and fears of inadequacy, by the fear that if any weakness was shown, it would be exploited. The problem with putting “walls” up, is that whilst sometimes they may protect you, they can also trap you and separate you from others when you need them most.
The first way to challenge stigma is information. Providing clarity can help people understand what is truly happening. There have been some fantastic campaigns recently spearheaded by Prince William and backed by organisations such as the FA to raise awareness and promote understanding of the complex issues surrounding mental health. This included activities such as a whole round of fixtures in the Premier League schedule kicking off at 15.01pm to encourage people to “take a minute” to think about their mental health.
There is a misconception that people are either ‘mentally ill OR mentally healthy’. The truth is, it is not an either/or situation. It is a state that is constantly in flux, like physical health, and which can be impacted negatively or positively throughout any given day.
Some believe that experiencing mental health problems is more likely to be dangerous, this is simply not the case. Experiencing different thoughts and feelings is commonplace when someone is mentally unwell, this does not mean that they are more likely to harm another person, or indeed, themselves.
There is also a misconception that mental health problems are caused by character flaws or weaknesses. The fact is that there are a number of factors that can make someone more likely to experience mental health problems. These can be biological factors, such as genes and physical illness. They can be caused by family history or life experiences and trauma.
There is a myth that you cannot help someone experiencing a mental health problem. This is absolutely not the case. Simply reaching out to someone experiencing poor mental health can be extremely beneficial to them. Helping someone access treatment or sharing facts about mental health can be extremely beneficial. These are all simple ways to support people.
People believe that mental health problems are rare, when actually 1 in 4 of us experience mental health problems. This means that at any one time several people in your life may be experiencing poor mental health.
The reality is that until the stigma is removed there are people out there who will not talk about their mental health. There are people who will suffer in silence, people who will become insular and closed off, and people who will hurt themselves.
Be the person to ask “Are you OK?” It could make all the difference.