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Why Mental Health Week can make you feel like crap (and what to do about it)

Mental Health Week tells us is ‘it’s OK to be not OK’. A noble idea, but there’s a catch, writes Graham Panther.

So we’re coming to the end of Mental Health Week ,  our yearly reminder that some of us are doing it tough. The thing is, as a sensitive soul, I often end up feeling worse at the end of this week, not better. It’s like someone’s shined a big, bright spotlight on all my softest spots. And I don’t think I’m the only one who feels this way — so what’s going on here?

The big message of Mental Health Week is: ‘It’s OK to be not OK’.

It’s a noble idea. Many of the events during Mental Health Week encourage people to check in with how they’re traveling, to consider getting help if they need it. We’re also reminded there’s “no shame” in seeking help.

But there’s a catch.

Mental Health Week is also the only time of year we get to prod politicians and the general public about the importance of mental health funding. Which means a sudden deluge of articles and TV specials that tend to focus on how crappy some people’s experiences have been in this system, how hard carers find it to support their loved ones, and generally how awful it is to experience the kind of distress that can lead to a diagnosis.

So for the average bystander, the key message ends up closer to something like: ‘Are you OK? It’s OK if you’re not, but you should really check because OH MY GOD HAVE YOU SEEN THESE PEOPLE HOLY SHIT THEY ARE TOTALLY FUCKED!!!’

Let’s say you’re having a hard time, and Mental Health Week rolls around. You’ll generally see two types of stories.

There’s the standard recovery porn: ‘I was fucked and now I’m fixed.’ Then you’ll hear from those less fortunate people who never found what works, who have been done-in by the system. Well in truth, you don’t often hear from them at all – you hear about them, from mental health professionals, from exhausted family members.

And this paints a certain picture. For those of us already feeling crappy about ourselves, it ups the stakes even more. That casual ‘check in’ with yourself becomes more of an anxious self-interrogation. ‘Shit am I OK?? Or am I fucked?’ Because sometimes it feels like there’s no option in between.

Mental health campaigns are not actively trying to shame you – they’re trying to do the opposite. But this stuff is damn complicated, and when you already feel completely bewildered by the botherings of your own brain, any hint of an idea that you are broken is going to zero-in on your shame button and hold that sucker down.

Shame has a way of making us clam up and hide. The more suspicious you are of your own mind, the harder it is to share what’s going on in there.

In truth, this isn’t just a problem with Mental Health Week. And it’s not just stigma either. Even when we’re trying to help, we still put so much emphasis on what’s wrong with people. Watch for the signs. Identify the problem. As someone who’s had three diagnoses let me tell you, after a while it’s hard to see yourself as more than a set of symptoms, more than a problem to be fixed. And that can leave you feeling really stuck, long after you’ve asked for help.

So how do we do it differently? How can we encourage people to check in with themselves, without it turning into a full-on self-interrogation?

I propose a new addition to our social awareness calendar. Your Feelings Make Sense Week.

In Your Feelings Make Sense Week, we are not asking the question ‘are you OK’, because for us sensitive souls that question is far too loaded with the potential for judgement. That’s a question for another time.

Your Feelings Make Sense Week isn’t about finding a fix or an answer to why you feel like shit. It’s about hearing from other people who are asking the same questions. It’s about feeling just a little bit less lonely in that big beautiful brain of yours.

In Your Feelings Make Sense Week, the main people we hear from will be fellow Spelunkers into the Pit of Existential Despair. People who know what it’s like to be Very Not OK. People who aren’t fine, but aren’t fucked either.

Because I can tell you that it’s OK to be not OK, but unless you can see that look of recognition in my eyes, or hear in my words the fact that I have been Very Not Ok myself (and still am Very Not OK on a regular basis), chances are you’re going to quite rightly tell me to get lost.

And here’s our catch-phrase. ‘Just because life sucks sometimes, doesn’t mean that you do.’

So this Mental Health Week, I want you to check in with yourself, but try to do it from a place of curiosity, rather than interrogation.

If you do feel awful, I offer you this encouragement from Pema Chödrön, Buddhist Nun and Purveyor of Velvet Truth-Bombs. She says if we’re bold, “we can acknowledge that right now we feel like a piece of shit, and not be squeamish about taking a good look.”

So let’s take a good look, but try not to judge ourselves whatever we find. Because remember, you’re feelings make sense (even if you haven’t made sense of them yet).

Graham Panther is Co-Founder of The Big Feels Club, a club for anyone trying to make sense of the messy stuff of being human. Sign up here for the Big Feels Newsletter, a fortnightly dose of thoughts and ideas about #FEELINGS.

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