Mental Health Awareness Week 2021

So May is here and Mental Health Awareness Week has rolled around again. This year the theme is nature, which I was initially unsure about but after reading The Mental Health Foundation’s website, it made a lot more sense to me, even if I wouldn’t have necessarily made the same choice…

  • “During long months of the pandemic, millions of us turned to nature. Our research on the mental health impacts of the pandemic showed going for walks outside was one of our top coping strategies and 45% of us reported being in green spaces had been vital for our mental health. Websites which showed footage from webcams of wildlife saw hits increase by over 2000%. Wider studies also found that during lockdowns, people not only spent more time in nature but were noticing it more. It was as if we were re-discovering at our most fragile point our fundamental human need to connect with nature.”
  • “Nature is so central to our psychological and emotional health, that it’s almost impossible to realise good mental health for all without a greater connection to the natural world… During Mental Health Awareness Week 2021, we will pull together the evidence that demonstrates the powerful benefits of nature for our mental health. We will look at nature’s unique ability to not only bring consolation in times of stress, but also increase our creativity, empathy and a sense of wonder. It turns out that it is not just being in nature but how we open ourselves up and interact with nature that counts. We will show that even small contacts with nature can reduce feelings of social isolation and be effective in protecting our mental health, and preventing distress.”
  • “We have two clear aims. Firstly, to inspire more people to connect with nature in new ways, noticing the impact that this connection can have for their mental health. Secondly, to convince decision makers at all levels that access to and quality of nature is a mental health and social justice issue as well as an environmental one.”
  • “2021 is going be a huge year for nature: a new Environment Bill will go through the UK Parliament which will shape the natural world for generations to come; the UK will host the G7 nations where creating a greener future will be a key priority and a historic international UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) will be hosted in Glasgow in November. There could not be a more important time to understand the links between nature and mental health.”

So, with all of that in mind, I thought I’d make a list of all the nature-related things that make me happy. The list started out pretty short but the more I thought about it, the more things came to mind. I could’ve kept going but I decided to stop before the post got out of control. We all know me and lists…


1. THUNDERSTORMS / RAIN

I love thunderstorms. I mean, I freaking love them. I love the thunder; I love the lightning; I love the pouring rain; I love how the air feels. I read that thunderstorms release negative ions into the atmosphere and that’s what makes the air feel electric and invigorating after a storm (x); I love that feeling. There’s something so incredible and powerful and emotional about thunderstorms; I don’t really know how to explain that response but that’s how they feel. They make me feel really alive in a way that nothing else does.

“There was a crash of thunder, the sky shattering right above our heads.” – Abby Geni


2. THE CATS PLAYING IN THE GARDEN

As soon as it starts getting warmer and drier, my cats are out in the garden all day every day. We basically only see them for meals. Most of the time they lounge around in the grass, soaking up the sun, or in shady corners, when it gets too hot, but they also play, which is just the most adorable thing in the world. They dig, they chase butterflies and bees, they pounce on unseen things, they bat at the wavy grasses, they chase each other, rolling around and leaping in the air… It’s so cute. It’s like nothing else exists, something that’s been a source of calm for me over the last eighteen months.

“Concrete is heavy; iron is hard — but the grass will prevail.” – Edward Abbey


3. THE BEACHES IN NORFOLK

I mean, I’ll take any beach going because I love beaches but the beaches in Norfolk have always been extra special for me. I can’t really explain it. Those beaches are one of the few things that make me feel like I’m in sync with the world when usually I feel like I’m not, like I’m on a different frequency to everyone else. But the sand, the sea, the sky, the air… it makes me feel more real. If that makes any sense at all.

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“Nature’s law is stronger than any little law you have made for yourself.” – Frank A. De Puy


4. MY YELLOW ROSES / MAGNOLIA TREES

When we moved into the ‘new’ house, there was a yellow rose bush and every year, it blooms magnificently. It’s utterly stunning with these huge, liquid gold roses and I fell in love with it from the first flower. I look forward to them every year and I love watching more and more buds open and practically shine in the sun. The petals are big and soft and gorgeous too. The plant itself is taller than me now and even as the family member least inclined to gardening, I’d do anything to keep it alive and healthy.

I’ve loved Magnolia trees since I was a child: my Granny had one in her big, beautiful garden and me and my brother used to climb into it (it wasn’t very big so we’d sort of climb inside it rather than climb up it), hidden by the flowers, and play in our massive imaginary worlds. I’ve always had a fondness for them ever since. Then there was a huge one outside my therapist’s office and it always used to make me feel better when therapy felt overwhelming and just too hard. We have one in our garden now although it’s still a baby and has a way to go before it’s a ‘real’ tree.

“Flowers rewrite soil, water, and sunshine into petal’d poetry.” – Terri Guillemets


5. SITTING IN THE SUN ON THE DECK

I don’t often sit out on the deck – I’m not very good at just relaxing and not doing anything – but when I do, I love the feeling of the breeze in my hair and the sun on my skin. The word kind of makes me cringe but it feels so nourishing. I have to be a bit careful though: for some reason, my skin seems only able to take a certain amount of direct sunlight before reacting, getting red and overheated (so far no one has figured out what causes it). But in small doses, I love it and I can almost feel an inner meter going up, like a health meter in a video game.

“In nature, nothing is perfect and everything is perfect.” – Alice Walker


6. SWIMMING

While I’m not swimming in a ‘natural environment’ (especially with the pandemic, the water has enough chemicals in it to make your eyes burn), water itself is a natural environment so I’m going to include it anyway. Due to my chronic pain, swimming is currently the only exercise I can do – at the very least until my joints, strength, and stamina are better – and fortunately, I love swimming. As you can probably tell from the photos below. It’s always such a relief to get in the water and be essentially weightless, and I love being able to exercise and work hard without pain (even though I have been known to overdo it and suffer the consequences the next day). The whole experience makes me so joyously happy.

“I believe that there is a subtle magnetism in Nature, which, if we unconsciously yield to it, will direct us aright.” – Henry David Thoreau


7. SUNRISES / SUNSETS

I’ve always loved sunrises and sunsets. I don’t think there’s an incarnation of the sky I don’t find beautiful but, being a person that feels so emotionally connected to colours (especially the ones we see in the sky), sunrise and sunset are always particularly special to me. And the more striking they are, the more I love them. Like this one below: it was an ordinary day made extraordinary by the sunset. The really stunning ones always feel like a rare gift. Photos never really do them justice but I often find myself coming back to this photo because I remember just how beautiful it was and how it completely took my breath away.

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“Clouds blaze brilliant colours in a sky on fire.” – Terri Guillemets


8. STARS / THE NIGHT SKY

I’ve been going out to watch meteor showers (especially the Perseid meteor shower in August) for the last several years and I love it. I love staring up, barely breathing as you wait for a meteor. Then suddenly one will streak across the sky; sometimes they’re so light that they’re like a white pencil barely touching black paper and sometimes they’re so bright, like a knife cutting through the roof of the tent and giving you a split second glimpse of blinding sun. I’ve only seen a few of those but they’re breath taking every single time. The whole experience is just magical. And just looking at the sky, I love how the longer you look at the stars, the more you see, like you’re seeing further and further into space. It’s amazing (although a little scary if you think about it too hard).

“The stars are the street lights of eternity.” – Unknown


9. NATURE DOCUMENTARIES

I know it’s not exactly ‘engaging in nature’ but I think it’s still staying connected to nature, just in an indirect way. It’s not like any of us can just jump on a flight and see these animals in real life on a whim so a documentary is the next best thing. Me and my brother used to watch all of the David Attenborough documentaries with my grandparents when we were little so they’re a huge part of my childhood; they’re probably a big part of why I’ve always loved animals so much. I especially loved the ones with big cats, although I never liked the parts where they killed other animals (I know it’s essential for their survival but I still don’t like watching it happen).

“Nature is new every morning, but its cycles are ancient, independent of all our anxieties, oblivious to our plans.” – Barbara Cawthorne Crafton


10. ICELAND

I’m not sure that this is something that really fits on this list because it’s not like a place you can just visit whenever you feel like it but if we’re talking about nature and the power of nature, then I have to mention my trip to Iceland. Seeing the waterfalls, the mountains, the glaciers, the Northern Lights… I’ve never felt as connected to nature as I did there. Even the air felt different as I breathed in and out. It was one of the most amazing places I’ve ever visited and I really hope that one day I’ll get to go back, one day when I’m stronger and fitter and can manage the more difficult walks and therefore see even more.

“Study nature, love nature, stay close to nature. It will never fail you.” – Frank Lloyd Wright


So here are ten of my most important nature-related things. If you made a list, what would go on yours?

The Mental Health Foundation has a lot of resources on their website for this week but they’re also issuing a challenge…

“During Mental Health Awareness Week, we are asking you to do three things: 

  • Experience nature: Take time to recognise and grow your connection with nature during the week. Take a moment to notice and celebrate nature in your daily life. You might be surprised by what you notice!
  • Share nature: Take a photo, video or sound recording and share the connections you’ve made during the week, to inspire others. Join the discussion on how you’re connecting with nature by using the hashtags #ConnectWithNature #MentalHealthAwarenessWeek
  • Talk about nature: Use our tips, school packs, research and policy guides to discuss in your family, school, workplace and community how you can help encourage people to find new ways to connect with nature in your local environment.”

EDIT: This post is in response to The Mental Health Foundation’s Mental Health Awareness Week theme of ‘nature,’ which is important when it comes to managing your general mental health, but I do think it’s important that we all acknowledge and are aware that managing your mental health is not the same as living and coping with a mental illness. I think, too often, they’re lumped together as the same thing when they’re very different. Maybe we need a different week or separate days for different conditions because whilst connected, managing your mental health and managing a mental illness are not the same and can require vastly different approaches.

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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