Happy Mental Health Awareness Week, Hubbers!

To be honest, there was a huge amount I could have written about this week. I found out there had been three suicides in two weeks at my university and, having only graduated last year, as well as personally knowing students who have been struggling for a long time with their mental health, it really hit home how much things need to change. Sitting down to write this blog, I found myself furiously typing out a rant on how the current pressure on young people is causing a mental health crisis and it’s terrible and awful and I’m angry about it. And then I breathed…

Indeed, it is terrible, and it’s something I feel really passionate about, but at this point in time, what we need is a cultural change and this is what campaigns such as Mental Health Awareness Week are striving to achieve. Whether you are young, old, or somewhere in the middle, the UK is struggling with its mental health, and this is why mental health – both our own, and that of others, must be at the forefront of our minds and the minds of our educators, bosses and government.

The Mental Health Foundation’s focus for the week is ‘Stress: Are We Coping? – and this is what I want to draw on. Stress is something we all experience (I know I’ve had plenty in my time), and yet perhaps we don’t really know the impact it is having on us and our society.

Most of the time, we are able to deal with certain levels of stress without any lasting side effects. However, when we are persistently or repeatedly stressed without any time for recovery, we become overwhelmed or unable to cope, and this can wreak havoc on our health – both physically and mentally.

Not only is stress linked to high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, coronary artery disease and a weakening immune system, but it is also closely associated with depression and anxiety. In a recent survey by the Mental Health Foundation, it was found that 51% of adults who felt stressed reported feeling depressed and 61% reported feeling anxious. What’s more, if you have an existing long-term mental health condition, stress can trigger relapse.

And stress is becoming endemic in the modern world. For young people, social media can create overwhelming pressure – whether it surrounds physical appearance, parties they weren’t invited to, or having enough Facebook friends. This, paired with exam stress, career prospects and concerns about having enough money, are sending young people’s stress levels through the roof.

Then, when we do get to work, technology developments bring constant ‘availability’. They bring work home with us and our work-life balance gets thrown out of the window. Brigid Schulte has found that, across the world, we are writing the equivalent of 16,000 copies of the complete works of Shakespeare every second. We are becoming overly reliant on smartphones (particularly those under 35) and we have got to a stage where the demand for our attention is simply too much for the time we have. And this is why we are so stressed.

‘We are unrelentingly disturbed by global connectivity… We, and the organisations we work with, are battling immediacy, craving instancy, expecting responsiveness, trading in currencies of stress and progression and business, and we are grinding ourselves into the ground’

Aiden Bell, partner and executive coach at Spencer Stuart

Indeed, the Yale Stress Centre has found that when stress becomes a way of life, we physically start to reduce the size of our prefrontal cortex. This is the part of the brain that not only regulates blood pressure and heartbeat, but enables us to learn, plan, concentrate and make judgements.

In the last year, 74% of people in the UK have reported, at times, feeling so stressed that they were unable to cope, and we are losing 91 million working days per year in the UK due to mental ill-health. Our culture is fostering stress and stress is a precursor to longer-term mental health problems.

Once we deal with stress, perhaps the bigger things will start to resolve. So here are a few quick tips for dealing personally with stress:

  • Be active if you can. Exercise reduces the intensity of our emotions, allowing some room to address problems with a clearer mind. Even if it is a gentle walk, some simple stretches – whatever you are capable of will help.
  • Turn to friends and family. Laughing is an amazing stress reliever and talking through your problems with others will help you find solutions.
  • Take the power back – as Sally talked about in last week’s blog, taking control is empowering. And it is a crucial part of finding a solution that works for you, and not somebody else.
  • Take time out – the UK has the longest working hours in Europe and we need to start valuing doing things we really enjoy. Set aside specific times in the week for some ‘me time’.
  • Make healthy choices – avoid smoking and drinking too much alcohol and caffeine. These are a temporary relief rather than a long-term solution.
  • Help other people – volunteering or community work can help your mood as well as put your problems into perspective.
  • Try to get some good sleep. This can be particularly hard when you are stressed, but try writing down your to-do list for the following day and parking these plans before bed.
  • Accept what you can’t change and focus on the things you can.

Mental health awareness is so important. As a society, we are struggling and things need to change. Take a look at your own mental health. How are your stress levels? Are you coping? Then maybe, slowly but surely, we will get to a point where we no longer need a Mental Health Awareness Week at all.