Mental Health Awareness Week. Time to share those parts of me that I usually bury deep down… (healthy, I know!)
I like to think that my journey with mental health is incredibly complex and unique, but reading the articles so far this week, it’s clear that it’s not. I usually don’t share, because, on the whole, I’m unbelievably lucky, and I know how many more challenges many of those around me face.
I’ve written about four key phases of my life. I hope that there are some useful lessons on what to do (and, more likely, what not to do).
Overall mental health score: C
Key lesson 1: Everyone has mental health—ignore it at your peril!
My struggles with mental health started when I was at school. It was VERY high pressure; you’d get held back after class if you got an A rather than an A* in a practice paper. As an average academic performer for the school, I did struggle to keep pace at times, especially when impacted by dyslexia, and I regularly felt like a bit of a moron.
I also rowed to a relatively high level, but was the worst member of our 8-person team. I was constantly fighting for my seat.
I’d suffer near-crippling rushes of panic on the way to lessons or the gym. My go-to solution? I just pushed them down and got on with it. No one I knew spoke about mental health in terms other than complete breakdowns (I knew several people across school and university who had them), so I never thought to speak to anyone about it. It’s a real shame—a couple of well-timed interventions could have really helped me.
Whilst I was able to muddle through, it all came crashing down in my early 20s.
21 – 25 self-medication and breakdown
Overall mental health score: F
Key lesson 2: Lack of support leads to crisis.
When I started working and founded Instant Impact, I still didn’t have any healthy ways of dealing with my worsening mental health.
Although I had my co-founder and friend Rob to talk to about the struggles and uncertainty of building a business, I was also dealing with a range of personal issues and burning the candle at both ends. During this period, I also broadly stopped working out and ate terribly.
I spiraled: drank more, partied harder, made bad decisions, felt guilty, drank more, etc. By my mid-20s, I was in a pretty dark place and sometimes struggled to get out of bed.
Eventually I started seeing a psychiatrist, who helped me out of the worst of it and gave me some useful coping mechanisms, but he left the UK for Australia after four sessions and I didn’t feel up to finding a replacement. (Let’s not talk about abandonment issues…)
He had done enough to give me a grounding in how to look after my mental health and woke me up to the fact that something needed to change.
26 – 32
- Family (especially wife)
- Support network (friends and colleagues)
- Headspace (mindfulness)
- Regular restful holidays
Overall mental health score: B
Key lesson 3: Surround yourself with the right people.
Since my lowest point, I’ve gradually become better and better at improving my mental health.
The biggest shift for me was being purposeful with who I had around me.
In my wife I gained someone in whom I felt safe confiding. She quickly became my biggest supporter and rock when things get challenging.
I also curated my social scene, allowing me to establish a much healthier approach to drinking and a balanced work/fun/life balance. I purposefully stopped seeing friends who encouraged bad habits or thrived off creating drama.
Despite this, I still continue to have wobbles. If I go too long (over 4 months) between holidays, I start to struggle. And when I’m mentally tired, I find it hard to deal with even the smallest issue, which can quickly escalate to a minor breakdown, leaving me completely overwhelmed and struggling to do even a small task.
Luckily, I now have the right people around me, always there to pick me up when I need it, whether that’s a friend, a family member, or a colleague. All I need to do is talk to them (sometimes that’s easier said than done!).
32 — present
- As above +
- Regular exercise
- Drinking less
Overall mental health score: C
Key lesson 4: Sleep deprivation is torture.
The arrival of my two wonderful sons has brought new challenges.
The lack of sleep has knocked back my mental health, especially with my second son, who is an awful sleeper (we’re five months in, and he’s still waking up six times a night on average). That’s hard. Really hard. I’m trying to come to terms with the fact that until we can get him sleeping properly, I’m not going to be the colleague or friend that I’m used to being. I struggle with that. The lack of sleep also means that I feel everything else much more keenly—it’s been difficult keeping my mind in a good place, and I catch myself being too easy to anger.
I’ve had to be stricter with myself than ever. That means intentional communication with my wife, forcing myself to exercise regularly, going to sleep early (8.30 pm, believe it or not), and cutting down on the booze.
I know that mental health will always be a big part of my life. I’m a man of extremes and always have been. I just have to remember to keep it front and center and treat it with the respect it deserves.