I was so busy worrying about my physical health earlier this week, after my car accident, that I did not mark World Mental Health Day as I usually would. So rather belatedly, I would like to consider how physical health differs from mental health : Since I crashed my car on Wednesday , I have received lots of sympathy , two bouquets and yesterday, my husband looked after me really well – running me a bath, doing the shopping and lighting a fire to keep warm. It is understood that I was in an accident and that I am achy and sore and people know how to respond, as they can see the damage and they know the reason for the pain and they know I will heal in due course.
But mental health problems are not at all like that : often the cause is unknown, the symptoms are less clear to see unless you know someone really well and there is a less definitive time-frame on recovery. It is possible for the sufferer to cover up some mental health issues and to function, and so it can go undiagnosed and hidden for a long time. While people can relate to physical injuries, they know how to sympathise, most tend to be much less confident in discussing mental health. You would not tell someone with a broken leg to get a grip or to keep their chin up, but somehow these seem to be acceptable responses to mental health sufferers, and both will simply add to the pressure and guilt that is already being felt, so are really unhelpful responses.
You would not try to fix someone with a broken limb or suffering with cancer, but while some people ignore mental health totally, others offer advice about what works for them when they are sad. Take it from me, real depression is not just like having a bad day or feeling sad; it is much more debilitating than that and it changes the whole personality, so that a confident, sociable, positive person can be transformed into a solitary, withdrawn person who lacks any self-confidence and is paralysed by negative thoughts. In my experience, there is no quick fix or magic potion that can reverse the balance of the mind, it takes time and a lot of being kind and patient with oneself.
So if you know that someone in your life is struggling with their mental health at the moment, give them your time and consideration and let them know that you are there for them. Send them a funny story or a hug by text, pay them a surprise visit or send them a gift ; just let them know that you care and that you will be by their side, whether they think that they need you or not. Let them know that it is OK not be be OK, that you will love them just the same.
This is Mental Health Awareness Week – a nominated week when we are encouraged to both think and talk about our mental health. I am very aware of my own mental health as I tend to be one of two extremes : I am either happy and full of energy, as I am at the moment – thankfully – or I am depressed, lacking in energy and self confidence. I do not vary much from day to day, but I will have at least a year in one state and then that is followed by a similar period in the opposite phase, making me rather like Jekyll and Hyde. People who know me well will be anxious about my mental health as things are hectic at the moment, with work, home and Mum being in hospital and now receiving treatment. I keep being warned to take care of myself or not to overdo things and I was also told that I was doing too much.
I know that these comments are well-intentioned and I know that they are simply worried that I might trip over into the next phase of my mental state. But in many ways, I am fortunate that this busy time has fallen when I have the energy to respond to the challenges that I am facing and when I am able to multi-task, as that is another of my abilities that I lose when I am low.
I know myself well know, after years of dealing with these highs and lows, and I am resigned to riding the roller-coaster and of making the most of each phase. I try to protect my mental health by talking about it and by resting when I need to. I have learnt over the years that I cannot control the change of my mental state; so logically it would make sense for my brain to react when it is under pressure, as it is now, when there is so much on my mind. But it does not seem to work that way, in fact it will probably survive these assaults, then something insignificant might just tip me into a new darker phase. I am not waiting for it to happen, I am always hopeful that I have put my depression behind me once and for all, by changes that I have made in my life, but if it does come ,I know that it will not last forever and I know how to deal with it.
But in the meantime, I am grateful for the extra energy, confidence and clear thinking that come with my feeling good, as they are all proving to be really helpful at the moment. Who knows what is around the corner, but for now, I am making the most of my super powers.
Today I am going on a first aid course, although this is not about physical first aid but Mental Health First Aid, which as an employer, we have a duty to take care of. I am expecting to learn about signs to look out for of poor mental health and what action, as an employer, we can, and should, take. I am looking forward to it and I am sure that it will be interesting. I may also gain some professional insight to a topic that I think about a great deal and it could be something also that I can use to share with parents at school too.
Given the anxiety, unpredictability and sleeplessness that special needs parents face most days, it is pretty inevitable that as a group, we face more mental health problems than most. The brain does not get the opportunities to switch off and relax that it needs, being on red alert at all times: listening out for noises of seizures or activity at night, trying to calm anxious autistic minds that do not understand how our world works , occupied by the physical demands of caring or battling the grief and disappointment that this child will not grow independent or thrive, like he or she should have done. All of that, and more, is a lot to handle, on top of the daily challenges that every parents face.
Before judging any parents of a child with special needs, you need to take some time to try to ‘walk in their shoes’ and at least imagine what their daily life is like. You may see an irritable father, or an angry, emotional mother for instance, and think that they ought not to behave in that way. But the mind can only take so much and then it overflows, it short-circuits and poor mental health may be the result. I think that we need to be kinder to people in this crisis and if possible, to help them to see that there are positives and that life is not as hopeless as it feels at that moment. You might be able to break into their doom and gloom, with a kind smile or word or perhaps with an offer of help. It might not be accepted, but it will mean that you have acknowledged someone else’s pain or difficulty. You have not got a magic wand to take all that pain and difficulty away, but you are taking the time to at least enter their world briefly and trying to be a bright moment in what might otherwise be a day of darkness.
New Year’s Day represents a new start, a clean sheet and an opportunity to change from how we were last year. Every year I plan to get fitter and slimmer- and this year is no exception – and most years I end up heavier than when I started – so lets hope that this year can be an exception! But I did make significant strides towards fitness in 2018, with regular swimming. But in 2019, I also want to protect my mental health and maintain it. I plan to do that by surrounding myself with people who are good for my mental health and by doing activities that I enjoy, that make me happy. Hopefully that will be enough, coupled with healthy eating and sufficient sleep, to see me through. I plan to fill a jar of ‘good things that happen’, to review at the end of 2019 and I think that it will soon fill up, as my standards are not unrealistically high : I am delighted by small gestures like letters from friends or by Joshua attaining a new skill.
Speaking of which he did that just yesterday but it is going in the 2019 jar : he has three favourite films stored on my iPad and he constantly brings it to me to be turned on ,so that he can watch one of them. Yesterday I showed him the three film icons and asked him to point at the one that he wanted – as I usually select for him the film that he has not watched most recently. Using his index finger, he very clearly tapped the screen in the movie that he fancied watching. Why had I not thought of that before? such a simple thing, but I had never asked him to tap before, I had often asked him verbally which film he would prefer but I rarely got a response. Joshua is going to be given more free choices during this year and let’s see how that goes. But in the meantime, this new skill is going in that happy jar, so we are off to a great start.
So Joshua and I are all set with our new Year’s Resolutions, how about yours? Happy New Year, lets make it a good one, without any tears.
The second mental health session at school went really well yesterday and there was a unianimous vote that it should continue as a termly event, so I was delighted. Ten adults attended, including some new faces since the first one in July. I had researched about anxiety, as that seemed to be a widely experienced problem amongst the group. I was impressed by how openly the parents there talked about their own personal experiences and we described the group as a “safe place” where they were free to raise whatever they wanted. Nobody had any answers, although I presented what MIND had listed as strategies that might help with anxiety, but this was about sharing and feeling comfortable to speak out ,rather than having any solutions. I had two lovely thank yous by the time I got home, which confirmed that we had achieved something worthwhile yesterday afternoon and they certainly made me smile.
Being the parent of a child with special needs is an isolating and exhausting experience, and so it was unusual to set time aside to talk about how we were feeling as parents. One attendee commented that it was good that it was all about me today, not my child. That is rare as the child’s needs come first and we spend so long battling for health appointments for our children, that often our own health can become compromised and certainly takes a back seat .I only have Joshua in our family and so he can have my full parenting attention, but several of the parents there, have several children, and even more than one child with special needs, to take care of, so it is no wonder that there is no time to also consider and protect their own mental health.
So there is a need there, if only as a sharing, talking shop and so with that in mind, I am more than happy to host another session in the spring term and I really hope that it will grow and grow.
I have been carrying out some research into mental health issues amongst parents of children with special educational needs, as I am hosting an event later today in school about Anxiety. I read about the high incidence of depression and anxiety amongst those who are parenting children with learning difficulties, both from a scientific perspective and from the personal experience of professionals, who have an insight due to their own family situation. Everyone agreed with what I have witnessed in my own life, that the likelihood of suffering a mental health problem is certainly exacerbated by the presence of a more challenged child in the family : the constant worry, the sleep deprivation, the constant need to fight for services and assistance, the unpredicatability of life and the need to be alert 24/7 must all contribute towards damaging the mental health of SEN parents.
I went on to read about strategies that might help to ease our mental health. One writer’s advice that jumped out at me, was to surround yourself with other SEN parents and she described the effect of this as ” taking a deep breath, after holding my breath for so long”. These parents who inhabit my world, understand the pressures that we are all under, we support each other when we are in need and laugh with each other when things are going well. That is the support network that I am trying to create through our monthly parent coffee mornings at school. While each of our children are individuals and all have a different diagnosis, we share much in common. Joshua is not on the autistic spectrum, and many of the parents at his school are dealing with at least one child in the family with autism, but we can still share and empathise with each other. Joshua had seizures and required rescue medication I recall during the first Mental Health session that I ran in July, and it gave many of the parents there an insight into what it means to have a child with uncontrolled epilepsy.
There can be no downsides to sharing and talking to each other, while enjoying some home-baking, and if we learn something useful about mental health today while doing that, then that would be a bonus. Being a sufferer is nothing to be ashamed about, in fact in many ways, for us it is a fairly inevitable consequence of living the lives as SEN parents that we do. I hope that these informal gatherings can be a useful event every term at school and that we can begin to lose the stigma of admitting that we struggle with our own mental health – ” you can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf”
It was World Mental Heath Day yesterday and so I heard and read lots of focus on mental health and suicide prevention throughout the day. The statistics are that one in four of us with struggle with our own mental health at some point during our lives and I am certainly open about being one of that 25%. I have cyclical periods of feeling low, when I lack in confidence, energy and motivation – the last ‘low’ lasted for almost two years. Then some trigger, often something when I focus on someone else rather than myself, brings me back up and then I have boundless energy, bright ideas and plans and I feel as though anything is possible. I know that neither state is’normal’, but the highs are certainly a lot more fun than the lows.
Due to my issues with my own mental health, I believe that I can identify a fellow-sufferer as, although the symptoms can be varied and how it manifests itself, many of the tell-tale signs are similar and familiar. Thankfully, we are encouraged to talk more openly about mental health these days but there is still a taboo and a mystery about it. In my own small way to encourage the start of that conversation, I held a ‘Mental Health of Carers’ session at Joshua’s school last term and we have another one planned in for next month. A small group attended and I am hopeful that more may follow for the second session, if word gets out.
If the national statistic is 1 in 4, then the incidence amongst parents/carers of special needs children must be significantly higher : that isolation, the need to fight for services , the lack of sleep and the disappointment that things are not as you had hoped, will all contribute to high levels of anxiety and depression, I have no doubt. At our last session, we laughed when we compared the creative outlets that we each use as coping mechanisms : while I bake and write as therapy, another mum uses music to calm her and another adopts cleaning or decorating – I was eager to swap with her and offered to bake for her family , if she would paint our house!
I do not have any answers for any of my fellow sufferers, but I can talk willingly and openly about what helps me or how I feel. If nothing else, it should encourage sufferers to feel less isolated. I believe that half the battle is to begin that conversation, then who knows where it might lead…..