I very much hope you will indulge me a little with this post as it is something I feel very passionate about. You will note, first of all, that title suggests a competition: one against the other. That is very deliberate as I think for a long time mental health has been considered the poorer cousin of physical health. Whether we are talking about a broken bone, a potentially life threatening diagnosis, a bad back or indeed any other multitude of reasons you may find yourself at the doctors, hospital or on medication, for many, ‘physical’ issues are given far more air time with far less stigma attached and are generally more easily accepted by society. Conversations come quicker and with more ease and comfort. Friends, family and even strangers will ask how you are, enquire what happened, give advice and guidance and comfort. They will bring food, get well cards and treats to wish you well on your road to recovery. But this is not always my experience, when it comes to mental health and I have done a lot of thinking around why that might be…
Of course, there is the fact that often mental illness may not have an obvious external display of symptoms. We can easily see a broken bone in plaster. We may see symptoms - a limp, someone struggling with a bad cold etc - we may be given obvious visual clues to a person’s ill health that may mean we feel able, willing or simply need to enquire if they are okay. Do they need anything? Can we help? To reassure them and to tell them they simply MUST take care of themselves. Mental health, however, is often less visible to the untrained eye and more people are able and willing to try and cover up many of the symptoms. Not only that but many people can be incredibly highly functioning even in the realm of severe mental health problems such a schizophrenia. So, where does this leave us? I think when coupled with the fact that there remains (I believe) a stigma around mental ill health, it leaves those suffering in a potentially very lonely and isolated place.
I feel now is a good place to point out that by trying to shine a light on the importance of mental health I am in no way aiming to diminish the importance of our physical health and I am certainly not suggesting that anyone in pain, difficulty or suffering is not entitled to our empathy, compassion, love or understanding - they certainly are. But perhaps that is the point I have been trying to make that, more often than not, those who are struggling with their mental health do not receive the same amount of understanding, compassion or even patience. From my personal experience often feel foolish if I need to take a day off from work because my anxiety has got the better of me. I find other ways of phrasing it. I have, in the past, done a full body scan to see if I can find a physical ailment that might be received better. That is not necessarily because I have had negative feedback when being open about my anxiety, but it is an ingrained sense of ‘I should be able to pull myself together‘, which has very much been the societal view for many, many years and I carry the weight of this with me even now.
The point about the body scan brings me to another important point - and this is the bit I feel very passionately about - the link between our physical and mental health. I would be very interested to hear your views, you may agree or not, but my view is that the two don’t exist separately; they are one and the same. I have reflected on this point a lot and I think I can honestly say that I have not experienced one without the other. If I am not taking care of myself physically (eating well, exercising etc.) then I am without doubt more likely to be feeling heightened anxiety, low mood and have an inability to concentrate. This is also true if I feel unwell. If my immune system is taking a battering, when my iron levels are so low they are almost non-existent, when I am unable to sleep due to constant back ache…. These things undoubtedly provide a platform on which my poor mental health can grow. It feeds off the negativity residing in my body. This also applies the other way around. I know that when I am struggling from anxiety or depression, I lack the motivation to look after myself, that I can easily lose a sense of my self-worth - so my personal hygiene may take a hit. I know that I have a tendency to both eat my emotions AND try and starve myself into taking back some control. Science shows us that those suffering from obesity are more likely to also suffer from poor mental health and there are a wealth of other physical conditions that impact on our ability too curate a sense of wellbeing - so at this point I am thinking: what comes first? Mental health or physical health? The chicken or the egg? Or perhaps quite simply they are one and the same. Perhaps there is a future when we do not talk so much about mental health as opposed to our physical health but more accurately our ‘Health’ (deliberate capital H). Perhaps there will come a time when we feel confident enough in society’s understanding of us that we can talk freely about our health in its broadest and deepest sense and simply give voice to the conditions we are dealing with in that moment, without having to label them one or the other.
I’d love to know your thoughts - do you experience a connection between the two? Do you feel pressure to just ‘get on’ with issues surrounding your mental health in a way you wouldn’t if it was a physical condition? Have you been able to make changes physically, which have promoted positive mental health for you? I’ve touched on this before I am sure, but for me exercise really does help. I hate that all the scientists, doctors, wellbeing guru’s and self-help books were right… but for me the certainly were. Whilst I still suffer from anxiety and I do sometimes still get overwhelmed, there is a noticeable difference in my ability to manage my anxiety if I am regularly exercising. I know this is probably due to the endorphins and the release of dopamine but I also think I am building a positive foundation on which my mental health can grow.