I've been described as 'rational', 'mindful', 'cerebral' and in one unforgettable instance 'intellectual'. I'm very 'mental'...mental in the sense of what the word actually means that is. Loads of people are 'mental'. You could easily argue that 80% of the human population is 'mental' in some way or another. But how often have you heard the phrase "Are you mental?!" be thrown about as a joke or an insult? At school we used to say it whenever anyone was doing something odd or unusual. Often we said it to each other when we didn't agree. We said it when we didn't like a classmate or a teacher. An old girlfriend of mine used to say it a lot. And she was 32. It became a common insult.
Fast forward to 2015 and the world has progressed to some very stressful places. Smartphones bully us to 'stay connected'. Facebook says we have to care about cat pictures and random nonsense. Twitter makes us vie for attention on an overcrowded social ladder. In a sense, we're all still doing what we've always done. Trying to get someone to listen to what we have to say. Yet in a world of instant messaging and Whats App, many people feel more alone than ever before.
We need to talk
We're social creatures. Even the most hermitic occasionally need to hear another human voice. Yet often we don't seem to be able to talk about what's on our mind. We don't feel able to talk about what's bothering us. Worse; we don't feel able to talk to the people we're closest to because we fear judgement. So we bottle it up. I'm British and I think I fit the stereotype of bottling things up. Stiff upper lip old chap! Don't talk about your feelings! Boys don't cry! Tally ho!
A year ago I realised what a serious error that is.
I'm not crazy, I just needed a chat
In 2014 personal and professional circumstances forced me to reassess my usual 'I don't need to talk about my feelings' strategy. I was exhausted, unproductive, upset and miserable. I didn't know what to do. So I discreetly sought some advice from a trusted friend who worked for a mental health charity. Her knowledge was invaluable and I was able to find the assistance I needed. And what I needed was to talk to someone who wasn't a friend, colleague, family member or girlfriend.
The Stigma of Mental Health
I was too ashamed and angry to talk to anyone I knew about how I was feeling. Worried about what they would say. Terrified that they would think less of me. Annoyed that I was even feeling this way. Yet the idea of talking to a counsellor filled me with a horror that I still find hard to describe. Shame and embarrassment were jockeying for top position in my mind. How could I, a 34 year old successful professional man, find myself in a position where I needed to talk to someone about what was going on in my head? It was tragic! A failure! A damning indictment on how useless a human being I was! Besides how could it help? Sitting in a room talking to a random dude about my life?! I'd rather drink paint stripper whilst running naked down Oxford Street.
Yet it turned out to be an invaluable experience for me.
How counselling can help
Life is a large, wonderful and terrifying thing. We crave it, yet sometimes it can be overwhelming. Going to see a professional to talk to is not a sign of weakness, failure or shame. If I have a cough I can't shake, or a pain I can't ignore, I go and see a doctor. I don't even bat an eyelid about it. Yet the moment I thought about going to see a counsellor, my mind began to berate me for being stupid and weak. That stigma is the result of years and years of utterly absurd societal repression. It is something we need to fight against.
I now think of mental health in the same way I think of physical health. Speaking to what I term 'a professional friendly stranger' can be far more effective than talking to a friend or family member. The stranger doesn't know you. There is no judgement. There is no shame. There is no fear. There is the comfort that the stranger has been trained to a professional level. There is the security that everything you say to them remains confidential and private. You are in a safe environment. You share what you choose to share (and you are encouraged to share, otherwise what's the point?). The stranger can look at your situation far more objectively than a friend, colleague or family member ever could. The result can be advice that aids both your personal and professional life.
How has it helped me?
I'll answer this in bullet points:
- My career focus is coming back strong
- I have been able to identify elements of my life that have been dragging me down and addressed them
- I feel better about myself
- I've realised how valuable I am to my friends, family and colleagues
- I've realised how valuable I am to myself
- I've written a book and am working on a second
- I've made radical (and I do mean 'radical') changes to my professional life to get what I want in my career
- I spend less time worrying about what idiots - sorry - 'negative people' think
- I've spent more time focusing on myself and what I can do
- I've spent more time drawing on my experiences to help others
- I was invited to speak at a conference on a subject I like and enjoy...twice.
- I've learnt to cultivate relationships that are important to me
If I can achieve all of this in less than a year, what can I do in the next 12 months? All this and more is what counselling has helped me to realise. If what I share about my own experience helps make further cracks in the stigma of mental health, then that's a job done as far as I'm concerned.
But if this all sounds like nonsense to you (as it originally did to me), answer the following question.
Do I sound crazy?