Since 2015, I’ve been on a vocational journey I never planned on. This is not a bad thing; I simply responded to events in my life in ways that seemed to make sense. The people in my life (and some whom I might never meet) now know more about me than I ever would have planned on sharing.
Having worked in the wellness space for the past two years, there are certain things I’ve learned not only about advocacy in this realm, but the ways in which society chooses to respond. Below are some of my thoughts on this, which influence my work and how I present it.
1. On the whole, people are inherently good
One story I’m fond of telling, whenever I present about wellbeing in the workplace, is of a painting gifted to me by my school mates following my major breakdown in late 2011. It’s too long to recount here…but suffice to say that, right from the outset of my ill-health, I had a physical reminder from the boys that I was supported, loved and cared for – no matter what. Even if that painting was bloody awful.
Opening up about issues suffered is a terrifying prospect, no matter who you are. It is therefore a huge relief to learn, in most cases, that the people in our lives – family, friends, colleagues, mentors – are willing to help, and will be kind.
There are, of course, instances of people being shunned or ostracised. But, on the whole, we have reason to trust the people in our lives. This doesn’t mean one should open the floodgates and be upfront with every person you meet; be strategic about whom you speak with, disclose only what you’re comfortable talking about, and you’ll find solace in the warm embrace of support.
2. Self-care must be a motivator, not a scare tactic
Many discussions in media surrounding mental health in the past decade have employed a strategy of shock and awe; that is, list the statistics about prevalence of such health issues, raise awareness of the dangers, and hope that will be enough. It’s not.
Scaring people only serves to increase anxiety, as no one wants to be the anomaly who suffers, while everyone else thrives in life. Motivation is a much more successful way to inspire people to take action. Highlighting the benefits of self-care (personal, social, professional, etc.), and incentivising healthy balance, works a lot better than fear.
3. Every professional industry has unique issues in need of attention
Law has higher rates of psychological distress, anxiety, depression and suicide than most if not all professions, and as such it demands special attention. But this cannot be at the expense of very real issues prevalent elsewhere.
The trades world retains a hyper-masculine culture in which showing any vulnerability would be frowned upon. Medicine and dentistry still see students and young practitioners working extraordinary hours, affecting sleep patterns, anxiety levels and, ultimately, job performance. Financial services remain competitive, perfectionist field, whose culture – similar to law – can lead to greater senses of isolation, depleted self-worth and happiness.
Being a lawyer, I was of course initially drawn to examination of that field first. But other sectors also need consideration and the putting forward of solutions and strategies specific to the people within those sectors.
4. Self-stigma is lagging behind societal stigma
In line with my first point about people’s kindness, we as individuals must catch up and learn to be more comfortable with moments of vulnerability. There’s not a single person who can boast 100% perfect mental health, for all of us get stressed, anxious, frustrated and exhausted on occasion. It is simply a matter of degrees, and where we as a community deem the line to be for diagnosable conditions.
Learning that it is okay for us to not always be okay is a vital first step in effectively communicating any issues we are suffering from with those around us, who – as noted above – are willing and able to help.
This is easier said than done, however; addressing self-stigma is an individual hurdle, and each of us respond differently to relevant stimuli. All we as advocates can do is highlight how helpful it has been for us to be self-compassionate.
5. There is still much work to be done
Significant inroads have been made in raising awareness, increasing levels of understanding and generating conversation. This has been no small feat, by countless institutions and individuals.
But we still have a long way to go in not only reducing rates of psychological distress, anxiety, depression, disordered eating and suicide ideation (in fact, rates are only getting higher) but also in ensuring perception of such ailments is no different to that of illnesses and injuries like cancer or broken limbs.
We must remain constantly diligent if we are to stay ahead of the game and help as many people as possible effectively manage and combat their health and wellbeing.