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.”

Web

My DSA Assessment

So, for those of you who don’t know, DSA stands for Disabled Student Allowance, something you can apply for as a disabled student to help you get support during your university experience. They can help you with technical support, in uni support like 1-to-1 sessions, and so on. You apply for an assessment and then, if you get one, you talk with the assessor about the support you need, discuss what DSA can provide you with, and then they make a recommendation.

I had an assessment during my undergrad degree and they were really good. They provided me with a load of useful tech, including a macbook, a handheld recorder, and several pieces of software to make doing my work easier. I was (and still am) really grateful, even though the laptop’s memory isn’t actually big enough to run all of the software. It was still a laptop and a much lighter one than the one I had, which made commuting a lot easier – I was coming home with bruises from the bag I was carrying because it was so heavy.

The at uni support was less helpful. The first person I saw acted like a therapist (which I’m not sure she was supposed to be doing) and I already had a therapist so that wasn’t helpful. I spent the hour answering questions about my mental health and my Autism that I’ve answered a hundred times before. So I didn’t continue with that. And the second person upset me so much that I left before the session finished.

So it was a mixed experience but I’m endlessly grateful for the laptop because the old one was causing me serious problems.

I had to redo the application process for my Masters as what they offer is different and today I finally had my assessment – between the disability coordinator being very unhelpful (an understatement) and the semester being incredibly stressful, we’d just kept postponing it. It was too much to manage. But recently we finally managed it and it was a complete nightmare.

The guy was nice and we discussed everything – the problems with the disability coordinator, my first semester, my general experience of life, what would make university easier – but when it came to talking about what support was possible, it was very disappointing and upsetting.

Technology wise:

  • They will offer me a Windows laptop (which I would have to part pay for) but I can only run the software I need on an Apple computer.
  • They will not offer me a (lighter) Apple computer.

This is despite the fact that I need a light laptop, due to the chronic fatigue and pain I struggle with and an Apple one to run the software I need for the course. But apparently this is because these are ‘course specific’ needs rather than disability needs, yet I – a disabled student – can’t do my course without them.

Travel wise:

  • They will not cover or contribute to the train tickets to London.
  • They will cover cabs to the station.

This is because, apparently, I choose to live at home rather than living in London like most students studying in London despite the fact that I am unable to live alone and look after myself because of my disabilities. Apparently, this would give me an advantage above other students, which is bullshit because in reality, it would simply put me on a level playing field because I am disadvantaged by my disability. And the amount of effort that would go in to justifying each cab trip to Student Finance when Mum usually takes me (because they won’t simply give you an allowance for it) would take more effort and energy than I have to spare on something used so rarely.

And uni support wise:

  • They have no direct contact with the universities and so cannot offer any support through them.

So I will continue to have no specialist support at uni.

There was a moment during the discussion that I just realised that they weren’t going to help me and that I was going to be left unsupported, abandoned, again. And I just started crying. They’re not going to provide me with any support because my needs don’t fit their guidelines, because my disability doesn’t fit with their idea of disability. The assessor said it happens to a lot of people like me. I’m not sure why he told me this. Is it supposed to make me feel better? Because it doesn’t. 

We’d run out of things to discuss so the assessor left the room to give us a few minutes to talk and I just started sobbing. I just feel so unsupported. I feel so let down. These are people who are supposed to help me. Their very job is to help me and they are… letting me down. There was nothing to talk about and I was moments away from a meltdown so Mum packed me up and we headed for the door.

I was passing through the door when I saw this:

Scan 5

What a joke. What a fucking joke. I’d walked in there calm and was walking out feeling… I don’t even know how to explain it. Just devastated all over again, I guess. I’m so tired. I’m so tired of working so hard to prove to everyone that I need help only to be ignored time and time again. I’m tired of being dismissed and invalidated because I don’t fit someone else’s arbitrary concept of something they have no real idea of but that I live with and suffer with every day. I’m tired of nobody thinking that researching or training in the understanding of Autism is important. I’m so tired. Of all of this.

Mum pointed out to the assessor how ironic the flyer was. I think offensive or appalling are more appropriate given the previous hour and a half but whatever. I cried all the way home and for a long time afterwards. I don’t know what to do now.

Obviously this is just one person’s experience. I’m not sharing this because I want people to avoid applying for DSA. It helped me during my BA. But I just don’t want anyone going into it without knowing how hard, how upsetting, how traumatic it can be. Getting benefits of any kind can be a real struggle and this one is certainly no different.