Saturday, 16 December 2017

Spot the Signs - Countdown to Christmas

Working in a school can be a soul-relieving experience: no matter how grim the world seems, no matter how horrific adults can be, children are always there with a forgiving smile and a rather alarming number of bogeys. 

But, every so often, I really stop and think about what I am seeing in those children and it terrifies me. For one, these are not just any children, but someone's children. They are some poor mother's pride and joy and I am responsible for every tiny thing that happens to them. 

More terrifying than this, though, are the things that I do see happening to them. A horrific number of people my age experience mental health problems of some degree and, through talking them through their thoughts and feelings, I have come to identify several common patterns in their childhoods that, with hindsight, were clear indicators of a problem. Every day, I spot these patterns in our children and knowing exactly where they could lead is somewhat horrifying. 

For instance, I know people who, as children, hated eating: didn't enjoy it and most certainly would not have done it if they hadn't been forced to. Several of those people now have eating disorders. I see children who clearly hate eating and, where others justify it, saying that some people are just simply not all that bothered by food, watching them makes me uneasy.

I see other children told off for things that they clearly couldn't help or understand was wrong and I know full well that the feeling of being not good enough, not through choice but simply by being, could stick with them forever. I hear children say things that scream a need for attention and a kick up the self-esteem. I see the frustration in their faces and watch it build, day-by-day. And, over time, all I feel is worry.

Worry that I won't be able to change whatever it is that currently leaves them at risk; worry that other adults in their lives won't be quite so conscious of the signs screaming back at them and worry that these children will go down the exact same paths as my friends and family.

This post is rather lacking in the festive cheer, I know, but at a time where smiles on children's faces are the emblem of the month, I feel that it really is important to consider exactly what we are seeing behind those smiles. Of course, this is not to say that every child is showing signs of poor mental health, or that those who do will end up seriously ill, but it is to say that mental health is on a sharp decline in our country and just being that little bit more aware could save the next generation from the same fate.

Whoever the children in your life are, take the time to really talk to them this Christmas and make sure that every one of them are safe and well for good. 

Friday, 15 December 2017

Season's Grief - Countdown to Christmas

At any time of year, death and trauma are horrific. The news is always filled with stories of terror attacks, horrific fires, natural disasters, murders and all manner of nightmare-inducing horrors.

But, when these same events happen in the weeks leading up to Christmas, they seem to tug on the nation's heart-strings even more than usual. It's as though the sanctity of Christmas makes the thought of dealing with such grief even more heart-wrenching than normal. And, in many ways, it is: Christmas is a time for sharing love with those closest to us and, when one of them is missing, the gap they leave behind is somehow exacerbated by the talk of family and togetherness.

Image sourced from here.

Of course, this means that anyone dealing with grief needs a special kind of support and consideration at Christmas but that is not the subject of today's blog. Today, I would like to talk about those who feel an immense increase in the pressure to be okay, simply because to ruin Christmas would be more than they could do to their loved ones.

I know more than one person who has chosen not to kill themselves on a given day, not because they're not desperate to do so, but because they did not want to ruin Christmas for their families. I know people who have forced themselves to put on weight so that they do not wreck Christmas by landing in hospital. And I know people who have gone to exceptional lengths to hide their feelings so as to not burden those who care for them at a time when they are supposed to be okay.

In some ways, this is no bad thing. If Christmas is enough to buy a few more days with someone who does not wish to be alive, let it be Christmas every day. If Christmas has the power to make someone stop and think before initiating self-destruction, we could most certainly let it.

Yet, not one part of this sits quite right with me. The pressure to not burden others and a distinct lack of selfishness, I believe, already hinder the recovery of those with mental illnesses quite enough. To extend the degree to which they feel such guilt, all because of a special date, seems horrifically unfair.

Sadly, there is very little we can do to stop this: very often, we can tell someone a thousand times that they matter, regardless of the time of year, but a lack of self-esteem or self-care continues to dominate. This is especially true in British society, where a 'stiff upper-lip' type policy is still employed nation-wide. 

It would be nice if, even more at Christmas, people could encourage each other to talk about mental health. December or not, it is okay to not be okay. Reinforcing this among those we love might not feel like a brilliant way to spread the festive cheer but, truly, it is one of the most proactive things we can do in search of a happy Christmas. 

Need to talk? Visit the useful websites page for free advice.

Thursday, 14 December 2017

Christmas alone - Countdown to Christmas

Christmas is a time of many ideals: the great Christmas feast, the gifts beneath the tree and the romantic family scene. This last one is, perhaps, the pinnacle of a happy Christmas, a house bustling with noise and laughter, a feeling that everyone is just right.

Sadly, though, this ideal is one that does not make it to the doors of many at Christmas and, I think, it is important to recognise this. From the elderly, living with no relatives, to the single, the homeless to the isolated, many people do not get to enjoy that Christmas heart that so many of us love.

Of course, some people are perfectly content this way. Not everyone is bothered by Christmas, viewing December in the same way as they do any other month. Equally, some people enjoy their own company more than that of others. But, for the sake of those who are not alone out of choice, please consider the following this Christmas:

  • Have a lonely neighbour? Invite them for Christmas dinner, even if not on the big day itself! They're not obliged to say yes so there is nothing lost with asking.
  • Donate, donate, donate to charities supporting the elderly and other people vulnerable to isolation at Christmas.
  • Get eventing (technical term). Could you arrange a get together between your work place and a vulnerable group? Could your school hold a coffee afternoon for the elderly? There is always something you can do to help
  • Smile! Yours might be the only smile someone receives, so make it known!

Merry Christmas, with whoever you choose.

Tuesday, 12 December 2017

Eating Disorders at Christmas - Countdown to Christmas

On Thursday, I talked about the strong association between weight-loss and Christmas in our society. It is something that greatly saddens me and, whenever a friend, colleague or loved one talks of their weight loss goals at Christmas, I am often quick to gently ease them away from the thought.

But for some, eating is an anxiety-inducing experience at all times of year. For a whole variety of reasons and in a range of ways, eating disorders make food consumption a complicated, unpleasant act riddled with challenge. 

In British society, food plays a key role in all celebrations and none moreso than Christmas. From the end of November right through to New Year, meals out, rich, 3-course family dinners and an endless supply of chocolate see us munching our way through each second of the festive season. Every idyllic Christmas scene features a table laden with food and, as such, Christmas and eating have become intrinsically linked. 

To someone who already feels overwhelmed by the thought of having to pass any food through their lips, Christmas can therefore be tainted by a serious fear of what it brings. There are, however, a few small things that you can do to help make Christmas easier for yourself or a loved one struggling with an eating disorder.

  1. Don't centre Christmas around food! 
    Food is a salient part of Christmas in our culture but it does not have to be quite so important in your own. Give your Christmas a different focus: family time, rest from work or cosy nights in. Food is not the be all and end all of Christmas, so don't allow it to be.
  2. Take things slow
    If you are the victim of an eating disorder, you know what you are capable of. Even if there is an enormous part of you that wishes to devour a complete Christmas dinner, do not put yourself under pressure to do so. Start small: a tiny plate or a fun-sized snack. The slow and steady pace of recovery you should be occupying in the other 11 months of the year still applies at Christmas. And for those who will be spending Christmas with someone suffering from an eating disorder, you can help in exactly the same way: decrease the pressure and take things slow. A mouthful is always better than nothing.
  3. Preparation
    Make a list of 'triggers' that cause you to panic about food and form a plan as to how to deal with each one of them. It could be taking some time out, going for a walk or simply postponing the meal till later in the day. Whatever it is, pre-empt problems and make sure that you are prepared to stop them from taking over your day.
  4. Meal-planning
    For those already receiving formal treatment for disordered eating, planning what food to eat when is already a typical part of the daily routine. Christmas should be no different. Plan what you will eat when, including on Christmas day, and give yourself time to mentally prepare yourself for this. Identify places where you might find difficulty and decide what you can change to make things easier.
  5. Get talking
    Pretending to be okay, suppressing negative thoughts and forcing yourself through things in which you will encounter considerable stress will never, never, never help anyone. Talk about how you feel, what you need and what worries you. Someone, somewhere will listen. And, whilst you might well be the only person in your family or friendship circle going through what you are, having others sat next to you will always make things easier.

Stay safe this Christmas.

Monday, 11 December 2017

Make a Change Monday, HeadSpace - Countdown to Christmas

This week's tool to make a mental health change is HeadSpace, an online mindfulness tool and app provider that takes a graduated approach to training users in meditation and mindfulness.

Image sourced from here.

There are a wide variety of mindfulness resources in existence, with a range of apps and products available to help with guided meditation. HeadSpace is particularly valuable because it teaches you, step-by-step, how to gradually engage with meditation, meaning that the off-putting intensity of deep meditation is not there to put users off in their first use.

For those feeling unconvinced by the effects of mindfulness on mental health, take a look at this:

Psychologically, the effects of mindfulness make perfect sense. Training your mind and slowly regaining control over your thoughts is, for many, an effective way of dealing with adversity. 

To access HeadSpace, including unlimited access to a free trial, click here.