Mental Health Awareness Week 2020 – #KindnessMatters

This week is Mental Health Awareness Week. Originally, this year’s theme was going to be sleep but with the impact of the pandemic on the world’s mental health, the Mental Health Foundation changed the theme to kindness:

“We think it could be the most important week we’ve hosted, not least because our own research shows that protecting our mental health is going to be central to us coping with and recovering from the coronavirus pandemic – with the psychological and social impacts likely to outlast the physical symptoms of the virus.”

Their website offers some really powerful insight into the importance of kindness:

“We have chosen kindness because of its singular ability to unlock our shared humanity. Kindness strengthens relationships, develops community and deepens solidarity. It is a cornerstone of our individual and collective mental health. Wisdom from every culture across history recognises that kindness is something that all human beings need to experience and practise to be fully alive.”

We all know about Captain Tom Moore’s incredible fundraiser and Dolly Parton’s massive donation towards researching a cure, as well as other wealthy and/or famous people giving money to various charities that support all kinds of people struggling during this time. These are all amazing acts of kindness but the foundation are encouraging people to share acts of kindness they’ve experienced so I thought I’d list some of mine:

  • My street’s WhatsApp group – As many streets or communities do, my street has a WhatsApp group and the generosity displayed in it is really heartwarming. People are offering the use of various equipment, like ladders or gardening tools; people are offering to help those less able than themselves; people are giving things away for free, like packets of seeds, cooking ingredients, unwanted furniture, art that they’ve made, and so on. The sense of community has grown so much since the lockdown and that’s really nice to see.
  • My neighbour helping us to rescue my cat – When one of the kittens went missing, the WhatsApp group helped locate her (which has caused her to become somewhat of a local celebrity) and the owner of the garden with the tree she was stuck in was so lovely about letting us in to retrieve her (we were social distancing, of course). When I tried to get her and couldn’t, my amazing neighbour climbed all the way to the top of the ladder, got his shirt off while perched up there, and used it to drag her off the branch she was clinging too. He handed her straight over to me for a cuddle but asked for a quick cuddle with her himself to apologise for squishing her a bit while getting her down. He told my Mum later that he’s actually terrified of heights but didn’t even think about it while helping us. That actually made me cry. I’m so, so grateful to him – especially with a fear of heights – for getting Sooty down because even with us standing below her, she seemed absolutely paralysed and unable to get down.
  • The generosity of my neighbours – The family next door to us (the father was the guy who rescued Sooty) are just so lovely and have an allotment that they work super hard at. Whenever they bring vegetables back, they give us some and they often share cake or other gorgeous food that they’ve made. They’re honestly some of the most generous people I’ve ever met and I feel so lucky to have them as neighbours.
  • The trumpet player on my street – There’s a guy who lives in the street who has offered, via the WhatsApp group, to come and play ‘Happy Birthday’ on his trumpet for anyone who has a birthday while we’re in lockdown. It’s kind of bizarre but then the world is truly bizarre right now and it’s a lovely, special gesture for a birthday that could otherwise feel very un-special.
  • The handful of people helping my Granny – There are several people who have been helping my Mum’s Mum with her shopping and computer and series of electrical problems, as well as checking in with her (safely) to make sure she’s doing okay, and I’m so grateful. We speak frequently but we’re too far away to be helpful in the practical sense so I’m really thankful for the people making her life easier and safer.
  • The support of my module leader and tutor during the assessment period – This was a while back but still in the lockdown period so I think it counts. I found this assessment really stressful and difficult, whether that’s because I’m still not used to the Masters standard of essay writing or my mental health I don’t know, but my tutor, Dan – who is also the leader of this module – was so helpful. He helped me with sourcing material and gave me really useful feedback. The Masters course is the first time in education where, as an autistic person, I’ve felt truly, 100% supported in my learning, rather than being made to feel like a hindrance, a hitch in the otherwise smoothly running classes. This means so much to me, more than I can possibly articulate. While no autistic person should ever be made to feel this way, it still happens far too often so to have tutors be so accommodating (in such a non-judgemental way) has meant the world to me and made the course possible.
  • Kalie Shorr playing a song I’d requested during one of her livestreams – I said this multiple times but Kalie is one of my favourite musicians, Nashvillians, and people. I wouldn’t call us friends but we’ve met several times during my trips to the US and gotten on well (maybe one day we will be friends – that would be really nice). Since the lockdown began, she’s been playing a lot of livestreams, which has been really cool, and during one of those livestreams, she played a song that I’d requested. It’s an unreleased song, one that she posted a snippet of on her Instagram stories ages ago but I fell in love with it and had been desperate to hear more. So the fact that she actually played it meant a lot to me. And by some good fortune, that livestream took place when I was having a really hard week and it really lifted my spirits so I’m really grateful to Kalie for that.
  • My friend sending me a Sara Bareilles CD – I’m not sure now whether this was just before the lockdown or just after the lockdown started (anyone else having major issues with judging the passing of time?), but a friend of mine was passing on some CDs, knew how much I love Sara Bareilles, and sent me a copy of Little Voice. As I have the money, I’m slowly collecting my favourite albums on CD or even vinyl, so I really appreciated him gifting it to me.

Another one of the focuses of this week is to think about how to build a kinder future. I can’t explain it any better than they do so, again, I’m gonna post what they’ve said:

“We have a once in a generation opportunity not only during but also following this pandemic for a reset and re-think about what kind of society we want to emerge from this crisis.

Our own reports and others such as Sir Michael Marmot’s 10 years On report reveal how inequality is rising in our society and its harmful effects on our health. Life expectancy is falling for the poorest for the first time in 100 years. As child poverty rises, children and young people in the poorest parts of our country are two to three times  more likely to experience poor mental health than those in the richest. After the 2008 credit crunch it was the most vulnerable in our communities who experienced the severest consequences of austerity, with devastating effects on their mental and physical health. This not the hallmark of a kind society. We must not make the same mistakes after this pandemic. 

Applied kindness could have a transformative impact on our schools, places of work, communities and families. As the former Governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, has said, now is a time to put values above valuations. We must seize this time to shape a society that tips the balance in favour of good mental health, for all of us, but especially for those who are most vulnerable.”

I have to hope that the kindness I’ve been seeing, the general community focussed behaviour and mindset will only continue after the lockdown ends, even though our lives will be busier, with work and school and so on. We’ll go back to our normal lives but that normal doesn’t have to be the same as the old normal. Hopefully we can build a new normal, one that’s kinder, more connected, more neighbourly, and more flexible, because of this experience with the pandemic and the lockdown. How beautiful would it be if we could create something so good out of such a difficult, distressing time? It won’t, of course, bring back the people who’ve died but perhaps it could be a tribute to all those who have suffered during this time. Maybe it’s naïve but I have to have hope.

I couldn’t make this post without acknowledging the incredible courage and strength and… kindness isn’t a big enough word by far… of the all the NHS staff, care workers, key workers, teachers (fuck the Daily Mail), and all those working unimaginably hard to protect us, keep us safe and healthy and moving forward despite everything going on. We can’t thank them enough. We’ll probably never be able to thank them enough. Someday, somehow, I’ll figure out a way to say  a proper thank you, a way to give back and help people in their honour.

But coming back to Mental Health Awareness Week, the Mental Health Foundation are, as I said, encouraging people to share the acts of kindness they’ve experienced or witnessed, using the hashtags, #KindnessMatters and #MentalHealthAwarenessWeek on social media. You can find out more and access further resources through their website. And to quote them once more:

“No act of kindness is ever wasted.”

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Stepping Back in Time

Sometimes I wonder about what it would be like if I could go back to secondary school and to sixth form but with everything I know now. Obviously it would help with the lessons and exams but what I’ve learned about myself would’ve completely changed my experience of school. I’m such a different person at twenty-three than I was at sixteen or eighteen (as I would hope we all are). Throw in the ups and downs of my mental health and I’d say I’ve learned a lot in those years. I’ve been thinking about this on and off for a while now so I thought I’d write down some of these thoughts and compile them here:

On Choosing Subjects To Study – I am fascinated by what my life would look like if I’d known I was Autistic, if I’d known about my mental health challenges, and this is a good example of that. Because of the identity issues that often come with BPD, choosing the subjects to study at sixth form was distressing. How was I supposed to know what I wanted to study when I didn’t know who I wanted to be, who I was even? I want to write about identity a lot more but it’s such a big subject that I haven’t managed to tackle it yet. I promise I will. In this case, I knew I liked Psychology and I knew I liked Maths but I wasn’t sure what to pick for the final two options so I did what I always do when faced with a question about myself that I don’t know how to answer: I filled the empty space with real people and fictional characters that I liked and admired, people that embodied the things I wanted to be. That was how I ended up choosing History and Physics. I don’t regret those choices but now that I know that that happens, I approach things differently.

On Standing Up For Myself – I was fortunate not to go through any extended periods of bullying during my school years. There were a couple of incidents but they never went on for very long; they either got bored of me ignoring them or I pushed back which made them stop. But I had several teachers who didn’t behave particularly well: shouting at the class, humiliating us, telling us we were stupid, etc. Back then, I just kept my head down; I didn’t want to draw any attention to myself. I was terrified of getting in trouble and standing up to an authority figure was something I just didn’t know how to do. I was just trying to get through it; I didn’t know that I didn’t deserve to be treated like that, that I could push back against it. Were I in that situation now, I wouldn’t let someone treat me that way, let alone anyone else. If it wasn’t abusive, it was a downright unacceptable way to treat the children they were responsible for.

On Trying To Fit In – When I was younger, especially in my early teenage years, I would look at the girls in my classes and in my year group and wish that I could be one of them. They were all so pretty and seemed to have everything and had been friends all their lives. I’d missed a lot of school due to illness and there was some hard stuff going on at home and my one good friend had just moved to the US. I felt very alone. I wanted to belong somewhere. I went on to find some amazing friends – many of whom I’m still friends with now – but the feeling of belonging is a hard one and one that I guess I’m still learning how to handle. But if I was going to secondary school all over again, that isn’t something I’d worry about. I think that the need to belong isn’t so urgent when you feel like you belong to yourself. I’m not all the way there yet, but further down that road than I was at sixteen.

On Blending In – It wasn’t until I looked back that I realised I was trying to be invisible. I didn’t put my hand up when I knew the answer, I hated any activity that required me to be at the front of the class, and I did everything I could to avoid drawing attention to myself. Even the way I sat – hunched over, trying to make myself smaller – reflected that. And yet I was desperate not to be forgotten. Apparently teenage me was an oxymoron. But no, I get it: I didn’t know who I was and I didn’t want people to know me, or remember me, as something I wasn’t. And worse case scenario, I embarrass myself and that be what people associate with me forever. But as I started to know myself, this behaviour started to change. Finding something that I loved and something that made me feel like I was where I was supposed to be, i.e. songwriting, really helped with that too. In a way, finding that gave me permission to exist, to take up space, and that gave me confidence. These days, I can look at myself and feel so unsure about everything but all I have to do is look back to know how far I’ve come.

The last couple of weeks have been hard, mental health and medication wise, but I’m hopeful that that will start to ease and then I can spend more time and energy on here. Thank you, as always, for reading.