I’ve been thinking about publishing this post for some time now. I’ve never quite been able to muster up the confidence to do it, until now.
For the past four years, I’ve been attempting to overcome a long-lasting battle with my mental health.
I was recently invited to speak on a panel to discuss views on mental health in the BME community. It was the first time I had opened up about my struggles with anxiety and depression in a public forum – this is the second time.
Up until this point, I’ve kept my health hidden from the vast majority of my friends and family. To be honest with you, I felt ashamed, inadequate and weak. In 2013, when the doctors first informed me that the symptoms I had been showing were as a consequence of anxiety, I couldn’t believe it at all. My entire life I had been taught to be mentally tough, to take responsibility, to be rigidly diligent and driven towards my goals. All of a sudden, I felt confused and doubtful. I had never even previously considered my mental wellbeing – it was an intangible that I wasn’t in control of.
I decided to wear a mask. I walked in to school each day pretending like everything was just okay. I couldn’t bring myself to open up to others; I didn’t know where I would start, I had no idea what was even triggering it.
Reluctantly, and secretly, I gave in to accepting support. Counselling initially made me cringe a little. I wasn’t comfortable with discussing such personal problems with someone I barely knew. But looking back, this was honestly the best thing for me – I’m so glad that I did it. It was like I could physically feel the burden being lifted off my shoulders. When I became more aware of what was triggering my anxiety, I became more able to focus on the solution to it. I realised that there were ways in which I could minimise and even mitigate the risk of a downward spiral – I felt like I was regaining control. More importantly, I became aware of the true reality of mental health. I realised that it’s a process. There is no permanence in “good” mental health, I feel; it comes and goes in waves, it fluctuates. Being self-aware of it is just the first positive step towards building emotional and mental strength. I suffered more when I was in denial than when I acknowledged that there was a problem.
In the summer of 2016 my mental wellbeing was hit hard. I was experiencing a mix of symptoms that I wasn’t used to. By this point, I had become accustomed to the signs of my anxiety being sparked. This time was different. So I decided to be proactive, I didn’t want to prolong anything; I sought help much sooner than in 2013 and tried to stay a step ahead of things. The news was different – for the first time I was being told that I’m suffering with depression. Again, I felt that same rush of panic. Again, I felt confused. Since dealing with my anxiety in 2013, I had tried to make a conscious effort to have a positive way of thinking. How could I suffer with depression?
A new challenge, I guess.
I was ready. I followed the medical advice I was given. I was back in counselling which was absolutely amazing – it helped tremendously. I was hopeful that I could overcome and learn from the experience. Turns out, it’s not that easy. Either I underestimated the problem or I overestimated myself – or both.
But the good thing, ironically, is that this is actually okay.
I still have my bad days and I also have my good days. It’s opened my eyes to the complexity of the issue and the efforts that we must continue to drive into providing the support necessary to facilitate an environment of a more stable and positive mental wellbeing. It’s really fine to not be okay, believe it or not. It’s taught me to rethink my perception of what true strength is and what it means to “be a man”. It’s shaped me as a person.
Although I’ve still got so much to learn about true strength and mental wellbeing, for now this is what I believe: Strength comes from honesty. Self-awareness and the ability to acknowledge your current situation is in itself a form of strength. Only when you’re conscious of this are you able to move forward, otherwise you risk allowing your problems to weigh on you and grow over time.
Whether or not you yourself have suffered with mental health issues, it’s important that you still consider your wellbeing. Here are a few tips that I’ve found useful:
Take time to be “selfish”. Dedicate some time to unwind and relax, away from the noise of your notifications, workload and commitments.
- Be active
Find a physical activity that you enjoy. The exercise is not only good for you physically, but it should make you feel happier (thanks to those endorphins) and more alert generally.
- Stay hydrated and eat well
When you’re hungry, you’re more likely to be grouchy. A well-fed you is a happier you. Drinking plenty of water also helps you to stay alert (and it should help you to have better skin, a little bonus).
- Organise yourself
Personally, I feel ineffective and out-of-swing when I’m unorganised. Each day I begin by doing my bed and sorting out my room – I feel like it puts me in the right place to start the day. I’m obsessed with (short) to-do lists; ticking off the small, achievable goals helps me to build momentum throughout the day. At the end of every week, I write up the forthcoming week’s schedule. It makes me feel like I’m prepared for what’s to come and I can anticipate any busy days. Expectation builds certainty and confidence, in economic terms.
- Set goals
A sense of achievement gives me satisfaction. I enjoy setting short-term and long-term goals. It keeps me focused, it keeps me determined and it keeps me productive. Whether it’s hitting your goal in the gym, landing that job or securing that academic grade – it will boost you a little bit.
Altruism can allow for fulfilment. When you give without expecting repayment, you share sincerely. Helping others is not only good for them, but also good for you. I guarantee that giving will eventually come back to reward you in its own way – you’ll be surprised with how beneficial this is.
- Open up, talk
I can’t stress this enough (no pun intended). From everything that I’ve told you so far, I hope that you’ve picked up on the fact that talking to someone really helped me (as it has helped so many others). You might find it difficult at first, so start small. Find just one person that you can confide in. When you share your burden, it lessens the weight on your shoulders. You’ve got to chip away at your problems, bit by bit.
If you’re a man reading this, I understand. It might be even harder for you in a way. I know how you might be feeling. I didn’t want to do it either; I didn’t know who to talk to or how to do it. But if I can do it, you can do it. If others can do it, so can you. If you don’t feel comfortable with talking to a family member or friend, there are plenty of resources to talk to someone else (scroll down to the bottom of the article for the links to this).
Guys, we really need to change the stigma around opening up – it’s hurting us. The most frequent killer of men under the age of 45 is suicide. We need help. You aren’t any less of a man by admitting your problems; it’s an act of bravery and strength. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Your mental well-being is as important as your physical health.
If you’re from an ethnic minority household, inevitably you will be considering the potential cultural limitations of having this conversation. Again, I felt the same way. Generally, in South-Asian culture, men are manufactured to lack emotion. We’re taught to be the stereotypical man and the leader of our household. Showing emotion is showing weakness. Pride and reputation are given the highest esteem – it’s about your family’s name and honour in your community. This can and will change, I just know it. I believe it. There is a prominent generational change; our generation have become far more open and willing to have the necessary dialogue around the stigma of mental health. Even my own parents have come so far in terms of the support they give me. Whereas at the start they didn’t react constructively to my problem, they now are far more understanding. The denial they once had has been replaced by a progressive empathy.
So as this piece comes to an end, I genuinely hope that by me opening up and sharing this four-year struggle, it gives you the confidence to overcome your current problems or seek the support you might need. I also hope that this piece raises more awareness of the problem. In an NUS survey last year, 76% of students reported that they had suffered from mental health problems at university. Over half of these students stated that they hadn’t looked for support in spite of this.
There will always be times in which your mental wellbeing is strained and, in these times, you’ve got to give yourself the attention you deserve. Don’t forget to check in regularly on your family and friends – you never know who’s going through something.
Before I finish, I just want to give a huge thank you to those who supported me and continue to support me through my struggle. Without you, I don’t know what state I would be in. I also would like to say thank you to Loughborough’s Ethnic Minority Network and HeadsUp – you sparked the confidence I needed to share this.
Finally, remember that “it’s not the load that breaks you down, it’s the way you carry it.” – Lena Horne
Looking for more information or support? Have a look at some of the useful links below: