‘Ok’…

Along with the worst word to describe how we are feeling – Fine…a word that I think should be abolished for this purpose, is the word OK. What do we mean when we say we are ok? 99% of the time we mean a million other things but resort to saying ok because it has become the norm in the UK. It’s almost like an automatic response when people ask how you are. I believe this is mainly because in this country it’s almost just something we say but that has little or no meaning.

The majority of people who ask someone how they are, are doing it out of courtesy but aren’t genuinely interested and would probably be shocked if you gave them a genuine answer as the person wouldn’t know how to react. It feels as though on the whole people are not interested in other peoples lives beyond the surface level and this is reflected in most people’s automatic answer of ‘ok’ or ‘fine’.

I have to admit that it is my go-to response as well and I have only become aware of it in recent months. I can’t imagine that I would change this response when asked my most people, but I have started challenging myself to be honest with myself and others when asked by those that are close to me.

At the heart of the question, ‘how are you’ should be a genuine interest about wanting to know how someone is. By giving the generic answer of ‘ok’ or ‘fine,’ unless someone knows you well enough to be able to tell if you don’t actually feel ‘ok’ or ‘fine,’ how are people supposed to know how you actual feel?

There have been times when I have given one of those responses knowing full well that I was far from ‘ok’ or ‘fine’ and then afterwards I have felt worse for not sharing my feelings.

I have noticed that my eldest daughter more often than not tells people she is ‘ok’ and I suddenly thought how is that making her aware of her own thoughts and feelings? As a 5-year-old I feel she should still be of an age where she says it as it is and therefore could say she is tired, scared, happy, upset, excited etc rather than ‘ok’. I’m not sure if she has got it from me or from general society but I realised I don’t like it. I felt bad when I had to try and encourage her to open up to me about how she felt about something as she had said she was ‘ok’ when I knew she wasn’t.

As we know, people’s mental health is more affected than ever, and we are seeing the impact life is having on young people more and more. If we live in a society where it is acceptable and expected that we don’t speak openly and honestly about our feelings how is this going to help generations to come? Children are going to grow up feeling that we pretend everything is ok even if it isn’t and that we have to carry on regardless.

I believe that those of us who are able to recognise, acknowledge and talk about our feelings openly and honestly without fear or shame are actually far stronger than those who go around seemingly behaving as though they are strong and constantly ‘fine’ no matter what life throws at them.

Keeping feelings in and shutting them away will have an impact on those people even if they are not aware of it.

Aside from our society still having what feels like a taboo about mental health I believe we also live in a society that is still very judgemental, one where people cannot understand or get their head around people who do anything that they do not agree with and worst of all, feel the need to share their opinions rather than accepting other people’s decisions and choices in life.

As with all prejudices in life I believe the problem comes from people who are not willing to open their eyes to anything different. However as with everything in life there has always been those who have had the belief and strength to challenge other people’s ways of thinking and society’s expectations such as the amazing women who fought to get women the vote and those women who fought for a right to be educated and to work.

I am passionate about challenging and trying to change society’s views on mental health as whether you believe it or not, each and everyone of us at some point will have experienced something that will have affected our mental health.

With all the challenges that life throws at us individually and collectively I truly believe that there needs to be a shift in focus away from measuring success by how much someone earns or how many hours someone works and instead measuring success by someone’s overall wellbeing.

Who’s to say that someone can’t be successful if they have achieved their dream to have children or to be really good at their favourite hobby or if they have discovered who they are and what makes them truly happy?

Society has a lot to answer for and I certainly don’t want my children (or anyone for that matter) to reach the age of 99, look back on their life and realise that they spent their life denying their feelings, wants or desires and instead spent their life keeping up with societies expectations (to what end?!).

So, before you go to bed, maybe give yourself a minute to sit and reflect on how you truly feel so that next time someone asks you give a genuine answer instead of saying ‘ok’ or ‘fine’.

To talk or not to talk?

I’ve often wondered if it is only British people who appear to have been brought up with the attitude that we should sweep things under the carpet and not talk about things? Although many people do talk about issues in their lives be it with friends, family, or professionals, there are also many who don’t.

There are still those who choose not to talk for whatever reason, be it that they don’t want to, feel it won’t help, that it will be too painful or that there’s no point as we just have to carry on! Admittedly some people do appear to ‘cope’ with not talking about things, however, imagine that you have filed whatever issue it is in your imaginary filing cabinet, locked it and thrown away the key in the hope that it will stay in there forever.

However, throughout life, more things will get filed away and there is a strong chance that at some point something will happen which will cause the filing cabinet to explode, leaving everything that has ever been filed all over the floor, therefore exposing certain things that had possibly been forgotten about.

I imagine that some people cope better than others when this happens, however, I personally believe that unless we talk about these issues, at some point they will come to the forefront of your mind and could have a negative impact on your mental and physical well-being.

I appreciate that everyone is different, however, there have been times in my life when I have had to re-live incredibly painful and upsetting events and imagined that the pain would never ease, and I couldn’t see the light. I remember when I gave my statement to the police (which took more than 3 hours), the days and nights leading up to it were horrible, I couldn’t sleep, I had panic attacks, I couldn’t eat, I was scared, the thought of talking about these things hurt my heart and I was a mess afterwards.

However, I realised not long ago when I was talking about some of these upsetting events with a new friend that it felt as if I was talking about someone else, someone I didn’t recognise or that I was talking about something fictional.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not 100% over those events, however, the pain is hardly there at all and as I sat there talking to her, I even found myself saying that on some level, I am almost in a weird kind of way, grateful for having the opportunity to re-discover myself after all those years and to have found myself.

I have changed so much in the last couple of years and for the first time in my life I quite like myself!

I cannot pinpoint when or what took the pain away, in a way I wish I could because I am sure there are thousands of people who at times in their lives have been through something painful and not known how or when it will end. All I can think is that it was a combination of things, including the amazing love and support of my Mum and best friend, having the most incredibly counsellor ever (who I will always be so thankful for), completing my counselling course, time, having the opportunity to live again as well as having the most amazing daughters any mother could ask for.

Unfortunately, there’s no magic cure for when things happen in our lives and those who reach out to their GP will no doubt be referred to the Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) service, which generally offers someone 6 sessions of CBT and hey presto that’s supposed to solve everything!! Don’t get me wrong, I am not against CBT, I do feel it has its uses and I will no doubt use it at times once I am qualified. However, CBT in most instances will only be a short-term fix, like a plaster, unless it is offered in combination with other therapies such as counselling.

The reason the NHS like to use CBT is because it is short and easily measurable meaning that they can say that x amount of people have successfully completed therapy offered by the NHS and it is relatively cheap because it is limited to a small number of sessions. However, recent research has shown that more and more people are returning to their GP’s and being re-referred to IAPT, proving that it isn’t as effective as they claimed and that it will now end up costing the NHS even more money.

When it comes to counselling, (unless through the NHS or certain organisations), there isn’t a limit on the number of sessions you can have, because everybody is different and so you can’t know how many sessions individuals will need. I knew when I started having counselling that the limited number of sessions offered by the NHS wouldn’t cut it, and here I am 2 years later, still having counselling and I will no doubt be having counselling for quite some time to come.

There are some people who still judge those who have counselling and believe that it is a sign of weakness or that there is something ‘wrong’ with someone who has counselling. I would certainly have a few select words to say to those people. When it comes to physical health, people don’t question those who go to the gym regularly as we know it’s good for us so why should having counselling be any different? As we know more than ever, taking care of our mental health is as important as taking care of our physical health.

It is an honour to know that clients come and open up to me about very personal things in their lives, particularly as I am aware that there are some people who do not feel that they can talk to anyone.

I genuinely hope that people feel able to reach out to someone to talk to without feeling judged.

The power of our thoughts…

The brain is an amazing organ and has a lot to answer for, I would love to be clever enough to be able to fully understand how our brains work and how our thoughts truly impact our physical and emotional health and well-being.

I guess on a day-to-day basis thinking about how powerful our thoughts are isn’t something we usually think about, but it occurred to me a few days ago when I had some physical sensations how our body reacts to situations and our body can be trying to tell us things that we aren’t always aware of.

For example, I will never know if my thoughts had any impact on conceiving my two daughters, however, I believe that my thoughts may well have helped. I’m not saying I believe everything to do with the power of thought, but I am open to the idea. I did a lot of research when going through fertility treatment and came across sights that talked about visualising each stage of the pregnancy right from not being pregnant, to trying to get pregnant, to being pregnant etc. I suppose because I didn’t know a lot about what happens during these stages (other than the basics) I watched a lot of YouTube videos which fascinated me.

This led me to thinking about and visualising every step of my journey. When I was injecting myself with hormones, I would imagine my eggs getting bigger and after insemination up until I found out I was pregnant I would imagine what was happening if it was successful. I watched videos of every stage as if it were happening to help me visualise it. Then because I got pregnant first-time round, when I wanted to try a second time, I knew that I had to do everything exactly the same in order to try and give myself the best chance of becoming pregnant again.

Whether it was coincidence or not, no one will ever be able to tell me, but I got pregnant again on the first try and I remember the clinic being almost shocked my this. They told me they hadn’t ever had a patient who had been successful on their first attempt two times in a row.

Now, just as our thoughts may be able to help with something, they can also be rather mean! This is when our ‘bad duck’ is at play and can give us horrible thoughts, or make us feel physically ill etc. I have learned over the past couple of years to take charge of my thoughts (this is not always easy and there are times when bad duck still wins) and I challenge my thoughts. When I first went for counselling a couple of years ago, I was suffering with bad health anxiety and my counsellor highlighted that when we become fixated on something it becomes exacerbated.

I was told that it I imagine that my toe is really hurting and keep thinking about it hurting, it will eventually hurt, and it is true! This is both quite a scary thought (at how clever and powerful the brain is) but it was also empowering in a way as it highlighted that just because we feel something such as pain, it doesn’t always mean that feeling is genuine.

This then led to me trying to learn different techniques of how to distract my thoughts or break the vicious cycle. Again, there isn’t a guaranteed fix when it comes to our thoughts which can be disheartening or frustrating at times. When we have a physical problem such as a broken leg it is put in a cast, and we know that it should be mended in a few weeks’ time but with mental health its not as simple as this.

Unfortunately, quite often when it comes to mental health people do not either realise how bad things have got or by the time, they do it can take longer to ‘fix’. This is partly due to the stigma attached to mental health, the lifestyle most people lead in Western society and the stiff upper lip attitude and the NHS whereby there are limited services and huge waiting lists.

I truly believe that we need to be taught about our mental health from an early age and how to look after it, just like we are taught to brush our teeth to prevent cavities etc.

There is nothing wrong with admitting that we need to take time for ourselves, and we shouldn’t have to justify this to ourselves or others. Looking after ourselves will look different for everybody, it could be having a bath, going for a drive, reading a book, going for a walk, breathing techniques, baking, archery, meeting up with friends.

The list is endless, but whatever it is that helps keep you ‘you’ is incredibly important.

…..In fact, probably more important than a lot of us realise.

Children’s Mental Health Week

Anyone who has read my previous posts will know that children’s mental health is a matter close to my heart. This is a because of the difficulties I faced as a child, the teacher within me and being a parent.

I appreciate that parents, teachers, and the government may be worried about children’s education right now but what about their mental health?

I have done some research into the situation regarding support available for children and waiting times. Unfortunately, it seems to be a postcode lottery. I couldn’t find anything online covering how Children’s Mental Health is being tackled since Covid-19. I do know that the British Association of Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP) have been lobbying government to ensure that every school has access to a counsellor and although this did recently get debated by parliament it wasn’t successful. Instead, good old Boris said that he was putting more money into the NHS which can tackle children’s mental health issues. I don’t know where to even begin with this….counselling for children and young people is not readily available on the NHS. Some schools may have a counsellor, but this is potluck. Of course, children and young people can be referred to Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) either by a parent/carer, teacher, GP etc. However, again the services available and waiting times differ depending on where you live.

I know of cases where parents have been desperate for help and support with their child and all that has been offered is a meeting where upon nothing is actually achieved despite the child needing vital and urgent support.

The government has recently spoken about how important it is to get children back into school asap for their mental health, suggesting that teachers are very adept at spotting signs that a child or young person is struggling or that something is amiss. Whilst I don’t disagree with teacher’s ability to do this, teachers have so much to do and mental health issues aren’t always obvious. Plus, teachers don’t always have the time to talk to children – of course they would but they may not be able to at the time when a child or young person wants to.

If more and more children and young people are suffering with their mental health this is also going to prove a challenge and I do not feel it is fair for the government to put the burden onto teachers to spot and solve the current increase in children’s mental health.

It’s worrying that there has been a dramatic increase in children as young as 10 turning up at A&E having self-harmed. Once they have been treated the likelihood is, they will be sent home, they may be advised to contact their GP, or they may be referred but what happens in the meantime?? 

A report published by the Children’s Society in February 2020 (when the pandemic had only just begun and we hadn’t entered into our first lockdown) highlighted that if young people managed to find help through NHS Children and young people’s mental health services (CYPMHS) they then found the process to be slow (with some cases taking 2 years before the correct support was accessed), impersonal, frustrating and often confusing.

However, if you are worried about your child and feel they need help then I would strongly encourage you to try and seek support whether this is via the NHS or through a private therapist.

We know that COVID-19 has affected everyone, and that children and young people have been exposed to the impact of the pandemic. Previous incidents including 9/11 have shown that some children’s mental health has been impacted over a long period of time. However, let’s focus on the knowledge that MOST children do not.

For most children and young people they will look back on Covid-19 as the time windows were covered in rainbows, when communities came together and they found gifts outside people’s homes, when they got to know their neighbours when they went out every week to clap, when they saw friends and family more than they did before lockdown on Zoom, when Christmas created new family traditions, when they spent time with their family enjoying the little things….the list goes on.

I image it will shape their world view and no doubt create great resilience and determination, to live life to the full (when we can) but most of all the make the most of what we have, to appreciate the ones the love, to enjoy every moment life brings and to see the good in life.

Yes, they may spend their life hoarding toilet paper or become obsessed with hand gel but hey the silver lining is I bet children have never washed their hands, showered/bathed, changed their clothes so much in their life! No more nagging for them to get clean!!

Whilst I appreciate that we can’t control everything right now such as schools being closed, job losses and children and young people not being able to see their friends in person, we can limit (or at least try) their exposure to news and social media and give them chance to talk about their feelings. If they don’t want to talk to you, you could see if they want to talk to a friend or family member, there’s always helplines such as Childline or maybe they could start a journal. Spending some quality time with them on their own can also help – be it a walk, cook their favourite food, have a pillow fight, find a safe and healthy way to let them get rid of any frustrations etc.

Other tools such as deep breathing, mindfulness or meditation can be very useful and there’s lots of free apps available for children of all ages.

As parents it’s all too easy to worry so much about our children that we put ourselves at the bottom of the list and right now it’s not like we can take ourselves off to a spa or for a night out, but it is more important than ever to take time to look after yourself in order to be able to look after our children as best we can. Even if we just take 5 minutes to do some deep breathing or mindfulness – pay attention to the birds singing, how the water feels on your hands when washing up, listening to your favourite song (I’ve been known to put my headphones in and take 5 minutes whilst my girls are happily playing) …the list goes on.

The emotional wellbeing of children is just as important as their physical health. Good mental health allows children and young people to develop the resilience to cope with whatever life throws at them and grow into well-rounded, healthy adults.

I believe it’s a good thing for children and young people to see their parents or carers looking after themselves and explaining why it’s important. It’s not a sign of weakness if we admit we are finding something hard or if we need a bit of help. It shows that we don’t have to be superhuman to be the great person that you are. After all, in the eyes of our children we are their superheroes!

The British Association of Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP) are continuing to put pressure on the government to provide every school with access to a counsellor, I won’t hold my breath, but I hope that they will listen.

Another ‘silver lining’ you could say is that Covid-19 has hopefully removed some of the stigma around mental health, after all we have all lived through this bizarre time, so we immediately have something in common. We’ve all known someone who has been ill or sadly died, we’ve all missed friends and family and not being able to do everyday things.

Whilst I appreciate that right now some children may be feeling fed up or anxious about the future and the unknowns of when they will go back to school or be able to do things again, maybe it would be a fun idea to suggest creating a vision board or plan of what they would like to do when lockdown ends…like a bucket list I suppose.

Spiffy – The Happiness Shop (livespiffy.co.uk) offer some great products for children and adults such as journals, colouring books and affirmations.

I give my girls lots of hug and no matter what kind of a day we’ve had I also tell them I love them. I have also told them how proud I am of them. They have adapted so well, of course I worry that they are missing out on certain aspects of their childhood (such as school) but so are millions of other children instead we are making the most of this unique time and creating lifelong memories. Don’t forget we are human and all we can do is our best.