An important part of the role of Mental Health Champion is to create and promote discussion around wellbeing, mental health, and suicide prevention. To do this Mental Health Champion, Professor Siobhan O'Neill is encouraging us to “Connect” and reminding us that “We’re better, when we talk”. The message that talking can support our mental health is not a new one, there are many campaigns encouraging us to ask for help if we have poor mental health. This message is however slightly different in some important ways.
All of us will have stress and problems, but many of us “play down” our worries by comparing our lives to others, saying ‘I don’t have it as bad as them’, or because we think that people will think less of us if we say that we are having difficulty coping. The stigma surrounding mental health means that whilst people may believe that it is acceptable to speak about mental health issues, they do not accept that this might affect them personally. That connection between our current problems, our feelings and our mental health is not made. This might lead us to bottle up how we are feeling. However, this can lead to the feelings emerging in a way that is really unhelpful, we could become tearful or have angry outbursts.
Opening up about how we are feeling, or our struggles, can also be very difficult due to this ‘self-stigma’, especially if are ashamed or worried about how others will view us. Being honest about our feelings and talking about our emotions with someone we trust, can have such a positive impact on our wellbeing. That’s why this campaign highlights how ‘talking’ or ‘connecting’ can be a great step in caring for your mental wellbeing. It’s a great way to care for ourselves and those around us. When we connect, especially if we can talk about how we are feeling, we “pour out” a little bit of the pressure, and this can help prevent a build-up of worries and emotions in our lives before they “explode” in an unexpected and unhelpful way.
Feelings are signals that we need to attend to, there is no such thing as a “bad” feeling, even feelings like sadness, fear and anger are helpful signs that we need to change something about our lives. Mental illness is when we get stuck and overwhelmed with feelings such as fear or sadness to the extent that we can no longer fulfil our roles at home, work or school, and that we no longer experience joy and hope. Recognising and addressing our feelings is an important way to prevent mental illness. Talking to others helps us do that, it also helps us feel connected (loneliness is stressful!) and helps us find solutions to our problems. The 2021 NI Life and Times Survey, found a positive change and a reduction in stigma about asking for help for a mental health problem. However, almost half (44%) of those surveyed had difficulty talking about feelings and emotions, and the percentage rose from 2015 to 2021, (previously 38%). Talking about feelings can be difficult, so, rather than encouraging people to talk about their “mental health”, the Mental Health Champion is encouraging people to simply connect in an authentic and meaningful way, and talk. This is the first part of any conversation about feelings, mental health or even suicidal thoughts, but it is also one of the five steps to wellbeing identified by the New Economics Foundation as having a very strong evidence base to support wellbeing and preventing mental illness.
Loneliness is harmful to every aspect of our health, and a survey in NI showed that almost 1 in 5 of us feel lonely at least some of the time. Talking together helps us feel connected, understood, valued and cared for. Whether it’s with family, friends, colleagues, neighbours or the people we meet when we are out and about, those conversations make a difference. In many ways the words we use, and conversation topics are less important. Talking provides the context for the nonverbal communication and gestures that our bodies and brains recognise and respond to in a positive way. The ‘how are you?’ spoken with kindness and care can break down a barrier and make a real difference. Many studies show that acts of kindness have a powerful, even therapeutic, mental health impact on the giver, and giving someone your time is an act of kindness that benefits everyone.
Professor O'Neill will continue as Mental Health Champion to work tirelessly to improve services and strengthen policy and practice in suicide prevention and mental health. She will also continue to highlight the structural factors and inequalities that impact on mental health and wellbeing. However, Professor O'Neill would also urge each of you to also look at what you can do to improve your connections with others, to give space for important conversations and to look after your own and our collective wellbeing.
Resources on how to support your mental wellbeing or connecting better with others are below:
- Minding Your Head
- Community Wellbeing NI
- Take 5 Steps to Wellbeing - with additional resources and groups about connecting
- NHS Wellbeing Conversations
- Learning for Child Mental Wellbeing
- How to support someone with a mental health problem
- Time to Talk Day - Tips to Talk
- Samaritans - Little Tips for Helping Someone Open Up
- Relate NI - Golden Threads
- Rural Support
- Farm in Mind - Stress Test Indicator with farming in mind, once completed directs you to specific help and support
If you or someone you know needs to speak to someone urgently, please be aware that you can call either Lifeline or Samaritans 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Both numbers are free to call, where you can speak to a Lifeline or Samaritans Counsellor is confidentially whether you are in crisis or just need to speak to someone.