To mark the closing of Mental Health Awareness Week I thought I would reflect on my own journey from extremely poor mental health to mental fitness. It’s really reassuring to see how much effort many individuals and organisations have made this week but there are still a surprising number of organisations that don’t recognise the importance of awareness – and associated action – around mental health. I think that they are missing out; up until very recently I think that there has been a general perception that the overall concept of mental health has been seen as a threat – to individuals and organisations alike – rather than an opportunity.
I have come to believe that with the right awareness, education and practices – the idea of mental fitness – embracing our mental health and engaging with the potential of our minds should be seen as a genuine opportunity to not only grow resilience but also enhance our lives in general both at work and at home.
As we grow up, we are taught how to look after our physical health, and we are generally aware of the impact on our bodies of the decisions we make.
But why do we shy away from talking about and exploring our minds?
In my particular case, I had spent the majority of my life ignoring my mental health and certainly not understanding it. After university I joined the army, and, on the whole, I felt that the experience had made me psychologically stronger. I had a difficult period in Iraq when a soldier under my command died and I carried a lot of guilt for some time, but it didn’t lead to any overwhelmingly negative experiences.
Sometime afterwards, I deployed to Afghanistan in command of a team that was embedded with the Afghan Army. After several close calls, my luck finally ran out about halfway into the tour when I trod on an improvised explosive device. I was extremely lucky that the main charge of the device did not go off, but the detonator broke my foot quite badly and left me with some brain damage that went undiagnosed for several years.
Ultimately the impact of that was that I was medically discharged from the army bringing an abrupt halt to a career, profession and lifestyle that I had invested almost everything into. My sense of identity, the connection with others around me and my entire sense of purpose were gone almost overnight.
After some rehabilitation on my body, I transferred to another government department where I carried on for almost another 3 years without any real regard for my mind.
I was working long hours in a job that I took very seriously but was subconsciously still grasping for the past. I got to the stage that, for a period of several months, I had to stop myself driving off the bridge that I crossed every day on the way to work. Eventually I went to my GP who diagnosed me with depression. At once, everything started to make sense and I felt a sense of relief. This was relatively short-lived as I embarked on a long journey to recovery.
One of the reasons that I am so supportive of the Mental Health First Aider concept is that I now know that I was displaying very obvious signs of clinical depression for at least six months without anyone at work noticing it. If MHFAs had been in place then, it is quite possible that my path would have been quite different. When I subsequently resigned, believing that my career was over, nobody challenged that. Losing a second career was the beginning of a compounded situation; I added anxiety and post-traumatic stress to the mental health cocktail. My confidence disappeared so dramatically that it took some years to recover – I went from being able to command 120 soldiers in hostile environments quite comfortably to not being able to get out of bed.
Above everything else, it was the sense of permanence – the feeling that things would never get better – that was the most debilitating. I was convinced that I would never get better and never work again; all hope had evaporated.
On reflection, I think that I didn’t seek help initially was because I didn’t recognise it in myself and didn’t know how or who to articulate it to. I began to realise that, by investing so much into the army, that my identity had become very brittle and ultimately it shattered, and I hadn’t known how to evolve as a person, wanting to hang on to the past for reassurance.
I started on anti-depressants but didn’t have a particularly good experience with them as I felt that they really just neutralised me – no negative feelings but no sign of any positive feelings either.
What was transformational for me was Spectrum Therapy. A fellow veteran, Mick Stott, delivered his own brand of treatment with just the right tone and I began to feel significant change within hours, feeling that I had been set free. The change enabled me to engage in life positively for the first time in a long while.
After a couple of years of bouncing between depression and mania, I finally felt stable enough to go back to work where I began to make steady progress in the corporate sector but always had the nagging feeling that, possibly due to my brain injury, that anxiety and depression were never far away.
It was only when I saw my psychological recovery in the same terms as my physical recovery that I began to make genuine progress with my mental health. I always knew that to keep physically fit, it required all those boring notions like discipline, personal responsibility, commitment and repetition. There is no happy ending, just a series of new beginnings and ongoing commitment but with renewed fulfilment and purpose.
I now know that following the therapy, I made the naïve assumption that I was fixed, and that no maintenance was required. However, since adopting a mental fitness routine, my ability to improve and stabilise my mood has been enlightening. A combination of mindfulness practice, goal-setting and focusing on my habits has left me feeling more resilient, focused, happier and psychologically stronger than ever in a way that feels genuinely sustainable.
What does a mental fitness strategy look like? Fundamentally it’s about engaging our conscious mind to make sure we are using that, rather than our subconscious, to make important decisions. I spent a long time feeling like life was happening to me, without much control. In hindsight I now know that was because I was being driven by my subconscious without really questioning it. Subsequently I was almost entirely driven by negative emotions and the associated thoughts, rather than driven by my identity – the sort of person I wanted to be. And I genuinely couldn’t understand why my life seemed to be going into a downwards spiral.
Having understood how our minds work, we can then begin to consciously assess the skills we already possess to engage positively with life. We all have them, to a greater or lesser extent, but we can’t always access them as they have a tendency to hide deep in our subconscious.
We can then go on to reflect on our identity, the way we connect – with ourselves and those around us – and how we engage with our sense of purpose. Coupled with a growth mindset and the ability to be authentic, we can set a strong foundation for resilience that can be facilitated by mental fitness tools.
A second turning point for me was taking up mindfulness. Having dismissed it for years, I eventually understood the science and committed to daily practice. It has been a revelation and I am now a full convert to its potential. As with anything, we need to channel the clarity that we can achieve with mindfulness. I have found that an enhanced awareness of my present surroundings has enabled me to see opportunities – to make my own luck – where I may not have seen them before. Coupled with a genuine ability to reflect – rather than ruminate – my susceptibility to anxiety and depression has almost entirely disappeared and has been replaced with a profound sense of gratitude and contentment. One of the most positive outcomes from regulate meditation has been an improved relationship with my children; I now enjoy our time together even more than I used to, seeing them as individuals to be nurtured rather than assets to be managed.
I have grown to reinforce this with an improved understanding of how habits shape my life. Moving from being on auto-pilot to consciously deciding what I do on a daily basis has enabled me to reduce those habits that deplete me and focus on those that nourish me.
In summary, I suppose I would reflect that I went from feeling strong to feeling that I was weak, and not acknowledging that there was any scope for anything in between. I then suffered a near fatal breakdown and expected to be sorted by professionals. What I know now is that I can take a large degree of personal responsibility for my own mental health, protect my mind and get the most out of it rather than feeling like a prisoner within it.
I am lucky enough to now be able to share these insights and guide others on their own journey to mental fitness. and in case you were wondering, you don’t need to be suffering from poor mental health to benefit from a mental fitness strategy – we can all engage with our minds for the better and exploit that opportunity for the good of ourselves and those around us.
To find out more about how The Eleos Partnership can work with you to build resilience through mental fitness, visit www.eleospartnership.com or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org