I had obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) as a child, which morphed into generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) as I got older. As a result, I was driven by high anxiety and nervous energy – it was a survival mechanism for me – through education and into my professional career.
The bi-product of these conditions was low self-esteem, a lack of self-confidence and a strong desire to ‘people please’ – seeking my accountability, value and worth in the opinions and reactions of others.
But to the outside world, I was ‘successful’; head prefect in both schools, I had great grades, I was in every friendship group. This mechanism worked so well for me in school, I took the same approach to my professional career.
You can only run for so long before you stop. But it’s not always easy to recognise the signs that someone has reached the point of breakdown, burnout, meltdown – whatever label you want to attribute to that moment when you declare to the world, “I’m done!”
Firstly, masking: we try to be what people want to see in us and what situations demand of us – we certainly don’t show them our real selves! Secondly, ‘recovery’ time – we fill up our diaries with work, then fill in any gaps with our family commitments – but where do we feature in our own lives?
Where do you feature in your own life?
There should be a piece of your day diarised to decompress, recharge and recover, to enable you to go again strong tomorrow.
In the UK, we have a real problem with self-care. We often label it as selfish, which is why we feel guilty when we prioritise ourselves above anything. However, you need to put your oxygen mask on first to be able to help other people.
I decided to stand up and speak about my experiences of mental illness and mental health at a networking event. Eight years ago, I didn’t see any other men, especially in the UK, talking about mental health. What truly changed my world forever was when others started sharing their stories of abuse, grief and adversity – people I had known for years, but never really ‘knew’.
Essentially, people just want to be heard and understood.
It seems that vulnerability can be our superpower – yet for most, it remains the one thing we fear. I believe that the most vital engagement tool we have in promoting positive Mental Health and raising awareness is our lived experience. For me, ‘lived experience’ is the vehicle that takes organisations and individuals from the problem of mental health to the solution.
Unless you get engagement, absolutely nothing changes.
Unless you are a medical professional, people aren’t coming to you to be fixed. They are coming to you to be heard. Engagement, combined with active signposting to solutions, means we can help people. We want to inspire people without the burden of trying to fix them.
We also need to clearly define the difference between mental illness, which requires professional help, and mental health, which we all have, good or bad, like physical health. With marginal gains we can increase awareness and introduce personal development techniques that create a positive impact on our mental health every single day.
The trick is to keep it simple and keep it human. There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to helping people through our current experience – global conflict, national mourning, creating a post-pandemic ‘new normal’, the cost-of-living crisis – everyone is having a different experience of life both personally and professionally.
Try to avoid generalist approaches and instead engage with people on their terms – not yours. Think about how they would want to be approached.
To forge deeper relationships with people, use vulnerability as your superpower; to get more from them, give more of yourself – you will achieve a faster, stronger and greater depth of conversation and relationship than any superficial message will ever achieve.
Allow people to feel what you are saying, not just hear what you are saying.
Nick Elston is a mental health engagement strategist and a founding member of the Initiative for Financial Wellbeing.
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