Natasha, February 3, 2016

Natasha Devon MBE is founder of the Self-Esteem Team and the Government's first ever Mental Health Champion for schools. Follow her on Twitter @NatashaDevonMBE

Last week, I was taking a taxi from a train station to a school and, as it so often does, the conversation between the driver and I turned to the purpose of my visit (occasionally cabbies ask me if I’m a sixth former, which appeals to my 34 year old ego no end).

I explained that I was delivering a lecture on mental health. The driver’s response was a common one: “Oh, well you should talk to me, then. I have lots of mental health!” (by which he meant, it transpired, that he had experienced a lot of mental health issues).

A couple of things always cross my mind (but never escape my lips) when people say things like this. One is how eager people are to discuss their own mental health just as soon as you give them ‘permission’ by telling them you work in the field. The other is the fundamental misunderstandings they have unwittingly belied. After all, we were talking, already. And everyone has a mental health.

I'm not ashamed of my mental health

As the Government’s Mental Health Champion for Schools, one of my key tasks is to reduce stigma. I can do that simply by giving mental illness a face – I suffered from an eating disorder from the ages of 17 to 25 and only recently discovered, after exhibiting all the symptoms of anxiety but not meeting the diagnostic criteria for Anxiety Disorder, that my primary diagnosis is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (the reasons for which are too complicated to go into, here). To combat this, I take medication and have regular counselling sessions. I’m not ashamed of this, despite so many people refusing to believe that someone as ‘confident’, ‘articulate’ and ‘successful’ as me could be ‘mentally ill’ (actual things that have actually been said to me in actual real life).

Just as sometimes I might pick up a sickness bug or a cold and have to stay in bed for a day or two, I might also have a panic attack every now and then. Just as I take daily vitamin C and zinc to try and minimise the risk of going into three schools per week and being exposed to germs, I take precautions with my mental health. I have recognised the early symptoms of when a panic attack might occur (sounds become louder, colours become brighter, breathing becomes difficult) and use Cognitive Behavioural techniques which mean that, nine times out of ten, I can pull myself out of it. I don’t see this as being any different than someone who suffers from migraines saying ‘my vision is starting to go, I had better take some pain killers’.

We should all try to understand our brains

People with mental illnesses aren’t ‘lesser’ than the rest, they aren’t weak, they don’t lack ‘character’ or ‘grit’, despite what the prevailing press rhetoric might have us believe. In fact, people who have been diagnosed with a mental illness are some of the sanest people I know, because having a diagnosis forces you to try and understand your brain, the way you think and your subsequent behaviour.

…But as for the 3 in 4 people who won’t statistically experience a mental illness this year, you still have a mental health and your mental barometer won’t always be at one hundred percent. You will at various times feel insecure, anxious, depressed, heart broken, unfortunately life experience tells us that at some stage you’ll be bereaved. You might not feel the need to seek medical help, but fluctuations in mental wellbeing are totally normal and we could all benefit from learning healthy ways to handle difficult emotions.

It’s this principle from which my Self-Esteem Team lessons were born. We’re all hyper aware of the basic requirements to maintain good physical health: Eat well, exercise regularly, drink water, don’t smoke etc. Yet when it comes to mental health it seems we wait for a problem to manifest before we give ourselves any attention.

It's Time to Talk

So for Time to Talk Day tomorrow my message is this – Your mind is unique and it is precious. If you care enough about your health to go to the gym, you should care enough to take the time to understand how you think and what habits you can incorporate into your lifestyle which will nurture your mental health. And that’s a message for 4 in 4 of the population. 

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