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Mental Health Awareness Week 2021

What is Mental Health Awareness Week?

Mental Health

Simon Blake, from Mental Health First Aid England talks to us about Mental Health Awareness Week 2021 and the mental health effects of Covid.

Mental Health First Aid England first began training people in mental health first aid back in 2007, way before mental health became the national talking point it is today. Now though, they are certainly at the forefront of both awareness and practical action to tackle mental health issues, and are perhaps are more needed than ever as people return to an uncertain world post-lockdown.

We spoke to their Chief Executive Simon Blake about Mental Health Awareness Week 2021, the effects of the pandemic and a new resource they have called My Whole Self, a campaign and toolkit to tackle mental health in workplace and which contains an MOT check for you and the people around you. For the question is always, what can you do to tackle mental health as well as talk about it? Well there are answers…

Can you tell us about Mental Health Awareness Week 2021?

Mental Health Awareness Week is run by the Mental Health Foundation and they choose the theme each year; it was a week formed about 20 years ago. The rationale behind nature for the theme this year was what the evidence shows nature at all times has a positive impact on our psychological and emotional wellbeing – getting outside, movement, that relationship between body, mind and the universe, is really important. But also what the evidence showed is that it’s been even more important within the context of the pandemic. For almost 50% of people that daily walk was seen as a core part of maintaining their mental health over the last year.

That was the key starting point and also trying to remind people that when we talk about nature people often think of rural settings, but actually we can connect with nature wherever we live, in the city, suburbs or countryside. I guess the bigger context of that is that we know the world needs looking after more than ever before, and we have a responsibility as we understand and learn and connect with nature, which is also really important for our wellbeing as well.

Do you think we people having to go back to basics, that also applied to how to look after themselves?

It’s the combination of things. We know lots of us are not leaving our houses to get to work. During that working day the ability to get out and look around, and that sense of movement and connectedness, is incredibly important.

We have slowed down and sped up at the same time. I’m sure you use Zoom far more than you ever did before, and because you’re not moving between meetings, things have got tighter. But that deliberate intentional ‘I’ve got to get out now’ was an important part of boosting productivity and creativity, and that’s been a challenge for a lot of people. Bringing this into our consciousness and thinking what have we learned, what do we want to keep moving forward and that connection to nature which was so important during the pandemic, how can we capitalise on that?

Do you have a sense of mental health over the last year and what some of the effects have been?

The key figure is from the Centre for Mental Health which is one of the key research bodies, and they’ve shown that 8.5 million more adults are going to need mental health support as a result of covid-19. And 1.5 million children. So 10 million people are going to need that support. The ONS said 7 in 10 people said they felt worried or very worried about the effects covid 19 is having on their lives. People are obviously worried about the future, people are saying they are feeling stressed and anxious and also feeling bored. But we have financial concerns, concerns about health, about family, schooling, a whole raft of things. Then there are people for whom everyday problems have continued with illnesses, divorce, separation, and at a time when we haven’t been able to be connected to people. So lots of people have had to deal with quite extraordinary set of circumstances which would have been challenging in any time but they’ve had to do it without the physical, close support of others.

So how do people respond as we move forward? What we’re clear about is we need to keep checking in with each other, keep checking in with ourselves. We have My Whole Self, an MOT check-in tool, which is a resource for this. Quite often we are more attuned to the fact our knee’s hurting and we don’t feel 100%, than that we are mentally unwell. The MHFA drive is to make people think consciously about their mental health and wellbeing.

Is there potential good to come out of it all this then, as people have been forced to deal with themselves, and be more attuned to mental health problems?

Yeah I do. If I think about my personal life and professional life its clear we’re all checking in a lot more with each other. And people are telling the truth, more so than they would before. We have learnt to understand that we can talk about the ups and downs and check in with each other. Once you’ve had that, you can’t look back, that’s the really important thing about this. Of course there’s all sorts of gendered expectations about who’s talking and what kind of conversations they’re having, its had an impact on all of us. We all have a mind, we all have well being and we need to know and understand it. That is one of the things that will stay and drive us forwards. People will continue to talk about mental health and wellbeing and continue to think about work and the impact of work, lots of people won’t be going back to the office, there’ll be much more hybrid working. We know organisations are saying what does the future look like, what do we want, and want to lose and want to build.

Will there be more institutional support from workplaces going forward then?

Our research showed a significant number of employers have addressed mental health and employee well-being. Including training up more mental health first aiders and building some of that line manager training and support, because they know that it’s important. Employees have said that it matters.

That will inevitably continue because it becomes part of the culture. It becomes part of the accepted norm to support employee well being, it’s part of productivity, it’s part of good performance – in the same way that diverse workforces improve performance, so do workforces that feel and are well looked after.

Where the rub is in this is that people have had to work harder, had care responsibilities, been furloughed, all of this, all of those challenges have become part of the solutions organisations are looking at.

Mental Health Awareness Week is about making sure we’re having the right conversations for people to be thinking about it, because it would have been unlikely ten years ago that we’d have been having this conversation. We have moved forward but we have to make sure we sustain and build on that in order to achieve change.

From your point of view, has the change in conversation over the last few years been astonishing?

Yeah it is brilliant, when if you look at the initiatives that have been done in construction and financial services. But I think we must not kid ourselves that we are anywhere near addressing the stigma, the inequality and the challenges. We have to think about it from a systemic basis. Yes mental health doesn’t discriminate but actually we know oppression, and social, economic, and physical inequalities, impact on mental health and well being, and they’ve been amplified through Covid.

Looking to the future we know there’s an enormous amount to do. We did some research last year which found that people would rather talk to their manager about diarrhea than about depression.

We are still a long way off where people are as comfortable talking about their mental health as they are their physical health.

It’s an exciting issue to deal with in some ways because mental health impacts on everything …

Yes and part of this is becoming more literate as a society and more confident and comfortable about mental health. This goes right back to the core mission of MHFA where we want to train 1 in 10 of the adult population because we want to create the culture change which enables people to know how to have conversations about mental health, understand the impact of stigma, to understand signs and symptoms, to then be able to signpost people for support. Because it is the cultural change which will enable us to make a difference. Sometimes we think about mental health as a health issue – it is a social justice issue, it is an inequalities issue, it is something right at the core of humanity.

Mental health conversations when it comes to men seems to open the door to talking about masculinity…

We have such gendered expectations of people. We grow up with this sense of what is the right sort of man and how do we live up to that. But of course few people can live up to the all knowing, tough, completely independent bloke. The sense of not valuing asking for help. Young boys learning that you don’t ask for help is something we have to unlearn. You have to actively seek to change in order that we create a society where men and women can get help. It’s all linked up with sexism, misogyny, and patriarchal institutions – the irony is the status quo doesn’t help men’s mental health either. It is clearly damaging for everybody because it means people will either perpetuate existing power structures or won’t seek help. And violence and abuse is often connected to other issues around individual feelings of insecurity. So it’s all really tightly interconnected.

There are high suicide rates around men as well and that’s why it’s so important to actively talk about mental health as an issue which affects everybody. Often if you don’t then people think it affects everybody else and they’re the outsider and they’re alone. We need wholesale culture change but to achieve that we need targeted interventions which really tackle the stigma associated with gender.


Follow Simon Blake and Mental Health First Aid England on Instagram.

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