In May, it’s Mental Health Awareness month in the US and Mental Health Awareness week here in the UK. In the midst of these unusual and, in many ways, challenging circumstances, caring for your mental health is perhaps more important than ever. Being alone, isolated, cut off – in real, physical terms now for a lot of us – is certainly not a positive environment for someone struggling with their mental health. Many of the usual and liberating coping strategies are unavailable to us: meeting friends, getting out for a ‘change of scene’, long or frequent breaks from a particular situation or circumstance. Support groups, formal or informal, are not currently able to gather. Much of what is available to us in the media, social and otherwise, is negative, disheartening, worrying or upsetting. Charities are, sadly, losing funding – not least because the events to generate so much fundraising have been cancelled.
And, in this midst of these circumstances which pose increasing difficulties for anyone with existing battles with their mental health, a new group of people will find they struggle too – people who might never have before. The scale of the change on our day to day lives is enormous, often overwhelming, and for some – many – this is a lot to cope with.
Mental health is something I have a personal investment and interest in. I believe it to be as important as physical health – the understanding of it, care for it, respect and acknowledgement of it and the need for support with it. We all have mental health, and some of us have ‘better’ mental health than others, just as we all have physical health, some of us ‘better’ than others. (I’m not a great lover of the word ‘better’ in this scenario; having problems with your mental health is nothing to be ashamed, embarrassed or wary of – no more so than having any physical health condition.)
It’s more important than ever that now, we recognise in ourselves and in each other how our mental health is faring.
This is, of course, a writer’s blog – and what I’m here to do as I climb down from my small soap box is write about how writing could help with mental health issues. I’d hope there’s no need for a disclaimer: I’m not a medical professional; I’m in no way a trained mental health practitioner. I’m merely a writer, making some suggestions and recommendations based largely on my own experience.
Escape through creative writing
Writing is – and I think this is often true for those of us who write – a chance to escape from the world we’re in, for a short time, to anywhere we want to go. Writing fiction gives a particular sense of escape because you can take your mind and your words as far as your imagination will travel. It doesn’t even have to be on the same planet, with the same human race; it doesn’t have to be in the same time period; the same reality. Dogs could talk; pigs could fly; aliens could have crash-landed into the sea, gravity could have reversed and now all the world’s water is trapped on the outer edge of the atmosphere and the surface of the earth is one expansive, hot, dry, hostile plain…
My point is… when writing you can escape. This can prove to be most useful if you’re having a difficult day.
Invent your own fantastical characters. Take yourself away in a short story for half an hour, maybe more, and see where you end up. Keep in mind that you’re writing for your own benefit so you need not be bogged down in the detail to begin with. Refining and editing can be done on a revisit if you feel that way inclined.
And if you’re not ‘used to’ writing and the thought of writing long paragraphs is a bit daunting, try thinking about a story for children. Writing for children isn’t necessarily easier, but for a fun exercise you can condense your imaginative exercise into a shorter result. Children’s stories can of course be can be fun, outlandish, ridiculous if you want.
Writing a bit closer to home
If you find imagining a different world or realm isn’t quite your cup of tea, then stay a little closer to home. I’m not a fantasy writer myself – and I prefer to write within the universe I inhabit. That doesn’t mean you can’t find some escapism here. Invent your own characters if you can; if you’re struggling, think of someone you used to know or know now, and create a character based on a version of them.
Or, and this can be particularly rewarding (and interesting), write about yourself. Place yourself in a different life – a different job, different family situation, at a different age – and think about how you’d react. Write in the first person so that you’re inside your own head, or the third to describe yourself from an outside perspective. But whichever way, write about your ‘best self’ (resisting the temptation here to say “living your best life” because I’m not the side of a mug or a t-shirt in Primark). With this focus, you open the door to do some really positive work on your mental well-being. You might well be surprised at what you deicide you would do in a different situation, when you really think about it.
And while you’ve been noodling about with these other or alternative worlds and your new characters or new versions of yourself, you should have whiled away an hour or so in thought – productive, creative thought that will hopefully have provided some restbite from worry or anxiety.
Writing about your mental health
You can, of course, write about your worry or anxiety in an imaginative context. Stream of consciousness is a good style for this – or you might pose yourself speaking to someone else, or in an exchange of letters to another.
Not that you’ve asked, but my advice on this would be to do so with a purpose – and a purpose you’ve decided before you begin. Spilling the contents of your anxious brain onto page can be cathartic, a release, but also runs the risk of leading you down a dangerous path of becoming negatively focused. So, write about it by all means, but decide first that you’re going to be mindful so that as you write you’re letting go of a piece of the anxiety as you go. Or write about your thoughts and decide that you’re also going to write a counter to each point you make, i.e. ‘I’m stuck at home and can’t see my friends, and I don’t know just how much longer things will be like this’, and to balance, ‘I know when I next see them we’ll have a right laugh and really value each other’s company,’ etc.
If you’re not one for story writing, perhaps you might want to try writing in a journal style. This too can be a great outlet for creativity, it can help you to relax, be mindful and improve your mental heath. The wonderful world of the internet is packed full with ‘journal prompts’ and ‘writing prompts’, and you can start with just a sentence a day if you want to. From lists of ‘things to be thankful for’, ‘places I have been’, ‘books I have read’ etc. you can build your notes into more descriptive ‘why I’m thankful for the best things in my life’, ‘unforgettable experiences’, ‘reviews of my favourite books’ and so on.
You can also find online a bundle of writing prompt questions about yourself and these are a great tool to use if you’re low in inspiration. Since you’re only writing for yourself, you can be as honest as you want. Too honest when you read it back? Delete the whole thing – the point is in the exercise, not necessarily the result. Again though, with these leading questions, you have a chance to do some positive work on yourself – find out how you tick, remind yourself of your own strengths and accomplishments, help to redefine your own impression of yourself.
Blogging is also a great way to write – whether you publish it or not is entirely up to you, and if you do decide to you can do so anonymously should you wish. There are blogs out there for all kinds of interests so you could pick something relevant to you. Writing a blog can involve some research into other like-minded blogs, resources and links – before you know it a couple of hours is easily passed looking into a topic you have chosen to write about.
There are also many blogs about blogs and blogging, if that’s your kind of thing.
And if you don’t have a notion to blog about anything in particular, just write a blog about your day. At the moment a lot of days look like the day before and most probably like the day after, so this would also help to give perspective on your activities. From this kind of blog you might decide you need a bit more of a routine, or see that by the middle of the week you’re running out of steam so need something to inject a bit of oomph into your schedule. If you’re anything like me where last Monday might as well have been a week past Thursday, because who knows what day it is today, it also helps to remind you what you did when.
If none of this takes your fancy at all, then with the enjoyment of writing comes the enjoyment of reading so I can’t recommend highly enough that you take some time out to read for a while on a stressful day. In the act of reading, it’s difficult for the brain to focus on other things, and it’s easier to lose yourself in the contents of a book than of a TV show or a film simply because you need to concentrate a little more. A half hour reading is also a calm, quiet half hour you can enjoy anywhere – perhaps outside if you have space and the weather allows, in a different room to where you work or usually spend an evening, or in your most usual and most comfortable spot.
Throughout May, I’m going to make it my mission to dedicate more time to writing and reading, for the enjoyment of it and to help balance my head.
If you feel as though you need some help or advice with your mental health or that of someone you know, don’t wait to find help. In Scotland, SAMH do fantastic work to support people with their mental health and have a great number of resources available online. It’s a great shame that in the current circumstances charities like SAMH are struggling for funding, but a great benefit to us all that they can continue to provide their support.
You can find out all about SAMH and their help and resources on their website here: www.samh.org.uk
I hope you’re all looking after yourselves and each other, wherever you are in the world.