In my experience, writing about poor mental health is not easy, particularly when you’re in the midst of it (but also when you’re not). Even when there is no intended audience or recipient, as in the pages of private notebooks and journals, it is not easy. Please bear with me here on this public platform. Another thing that is not (always) easy is being with yourself when you’re not doing so well; particularly when your being is inhabited by things you feel like you don’t understand or recognise. This is the simplest way I can summarise the mental health difficulties I experienced during the pandemic.
“Things could be worse. There are people who are having a much harder time than you are. It’s really not that bad.”
I noticed myself saying this to myself in what I now view as the early to middle stages of ‘not doing so well’. This narrative, designed perhaps to provide comfort or perspective, unfortunately had the opposite effect. Yes, things could have been worse – and there were most definitely people who were not as lucky as me with my stable employment and income, the option of working from a safe home, a garden: privileges in what was (and is, and probably will forever be) a monumental and painful rip in the fabric of our shared reality. But to think of things purely in terms of these simple statements – to distance myself from the reality of what I was experiencing by focussing instead on ideas of alternative realities experienced by other people – this did not do me any favours.
I keep returning to the (now widely used?) mental health analogy involving broken limbs. In most cases, we are happy to show off our casts and share details of injuries when they are physical – the how’s, the where’s, the why’s – but this is not often the case when they are psychological. (The irony in the fact that I am writing this blog anonymously is not lost on me). Applying this analogy to where I was just over a year ago, I would describe myself as limping along on a sprained ankle, not intending to but making it worse, largely ignoring it because I was telling myself that at least it was not broken – that things must have been ok for me because other people did have broken legs, fractures, dislocations; heck, some people were even amputees. Perhaps I am labouring the point.
nfpSynergy reports that mental health rose in the public agenda in 2020, spurred on by national conversations around the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. On a more personal level, 1 in 4 reported being concerned about their own mental health in November that year. This was particularly high amongst those in the 16 – 24 age group (36%), followed by those (like myself) in the 25 – 34 bracket (33%). However, moving up through the generations, these figures gradually dropped off, with only 8% of those aged 65+ selecting their mental health as an issue they were most concerned about.1
It feels appropriate to include this data here for three reasons. The first is that the hardness of statistics might provide some respite from the potential discomfort that reading about personal feelings, difficult experiences, and mental health can bring – particularly on a ‘professional’ work-related platform like this. (There are a few more feelings to come; to those of you who are uncomfortable, please bear with me). The second reason is to emphasize that I am not alone – that many of us are increasingly aware of mental health as both a personal and national issue worth talking about, worth giving space to, worth addressing. The third is harder to explain concisely, but I will try.
At the risk of sounding banal: in very many ways, being a human is hard. This has been the case since forever - since our early hominid ancestors were predated upon by bigger, more toothy animals; since before we discovered antibiotics and other medicines, back when flesh wounds could be fatal, and plagues could wipe out near enough half the world’s population; since before mass production and supermarkets, when we spent a lot more time and energy figuring out how to clothe and feed ourselves; since colonialism; since the invention of war. Perhaps I am labouring the point. Amidst all this existential chaos, and despite so many painful social legacies, we have managed to build systems (albeit imperfect and flawed) that make being human a lot less hard, in a lot of ways, for a lot of people… but being a human is still hard, and feelings don’t make sense all the time. Mental health does not necessarily obey logic.
I keep returning to the word ‘snowflake’ which, as I understand it, was popularised in the last few years by people in the older generations (who probably read The Telegraph and like Piers Morgan) to describe ‘a very sensitive person; someone who is easily hurt or offended by the statements or actions of others.’2 As if to be sensitive is a terrible thing; as if to be hurt or offended (however easily) by the statements or actions of others is a reflection of poor character. As The Vixen of Drag Race fame once said – “Everybody's telling me how I should react, but nobody's telling [them] how to act.”3
It is interesting to consider the rise of the term ‘snowflake’ alongside the disparity between younger and older generations concern for their own mental health during the pandemic. I ask myself whether it is truly possible that those aged 65+ were genuinely more concerned about other things. I am not entirely convinced that the answer is yes, but there is probably more nuance to it than that. Not quite gone are the days of the glorification of the struggle, the glorification of the stiff upper lip (“back in my day…”). Granted, some people have a lot to lose from acknowledging that things are not okay; that they are not ok. I try to empathise with that.
I can identify roughly when I reached the tipping point into the more advanced stages of ‘not doing so well’. I recall an unexpectedly emotional phone call with my line-manager (I think it might have been a sunny Monday morning in June?) where I surprised even myself in responding to a question along the lines of “How are you doing?” with an outpouring of tears. I was embarrassed by myself in that moment - but there was also the catharsis of feeling something that had been slowly building finally released.
Upon reflection, I had been drifting for a while before that call, both in work and outside of it. Like many of us, I was largely not leaving the house; for a time, I do not think I even made use of our mandated daily walks. There was little that distinguished work time and not-work time. Night blurred into day blurred into night, often with no changes of clothing to distinguish between the two. I was responding to emails, attending zoom meetings, trying to carry out my tasks largely as normal, but doing so under very not-normal circumstances – struggling with the dissonance of this. And then the murder of George Floyd happened; yet another huge and painful rupture to come to terms with. This deserves more words than that, but I cannot find them. The dissolution of a romantic relationship around that time – one of the apparently many relationship casualties of the pandemic (which I can now, thankfully, laugh about) – likely also catalysed my arrival at the tipping point, at the teary phone call with my line-manager.
Things were a bit better for a while after the call. I was granted a few weeks off work for my mental health, some financial support towards the cost of a therapist, and had much needed psychological space to allow myself to be however I was; to try and come to terms with the sad interlopers in my body without the pressure of having to perform at work. After returning to work and a few months of doing ok, I crumbled a little bit again over the winter as short days, long nights, and another lockdown with an indeterminate end became yet another new normal. This time, the crumbling was characterised by a complete lack of belief in my ability to do things I had done easily and without thinking before; choosing which task to focus on; responding to routine emails; even simply appearing on a zoom call or Teams meeting was strangely hard. I was afraid of being seen. This time, it was actually harder to speak up and say that I was ‘not doing so well’ because I felt undeserving of more attention, more time off; surely, I should have been ‘better’ after all the generous provisions from the last time. Mental health does not necessarily obey logic.
There is no neat end to this story. I’m doing ok now, and hopefully will be for a while; but even pre-pandemic, I had mental health wobbles sometimes. I feel it is worth noting that the arrival of Covid-19 is not the only significant shift in our shared reality in recent times. There have been and continue to be many other ruptures, some more obvious, some less - taking different (but similar) forms all over the world. To name a few: Brexit and the rise of right-wing nationalism; capitalism and monopolies of monetary power; recognition (or lack thereof) of history – of colonialism, racism, and other long-standing oppressions of different peoples; the climate crisis. Pandemic aside, being a human is still hard.
Reading over what I have written, I feel grossly indulgent. I worry about what people will think – whether they will judge me as too soft – a snowflake. I still hear myself say to myself “Things could be worse. There were, are and always will be people having a much harder time than you are. It’s really not that bad.” And of course, undeniably, there is truth in that. Acknowledging that truth is not such a terrible thing, and under the right circumstances, it can provide some perspective. But using that truth to negate or deny my reality will not do me any favours. Mental health does not necessarily obey logic.
Thank you for bearing with me.
1 Source: Charity Awareness Monitor, Nov 20, nfpSynergy | Base: 1,000 adults 16+, Britain
3 Ru Paul’s Drag Race, Season 10 – comment made by The Vixen regarding her conflict with other contestant Eureka. You can read more about this here: https://www.them.us/story/the-vixen-racism-drag-race (although it doesn’t necessarily link to this blog).
Mental Health in the Workplace: