Reflections from my Churchill Fellowship trip to Australia: Part 1
A week ago, I landed back in the UK following my amazing 6-week Churchill Fellowship trip to Australia – without doubt the most incredible experience of my life! My travels took me to Brisbane, out to the Great Barrier Reef, down to Sydney, and on to Melbourne. I visited 23 different organisations involved in the field of youth mental health, which included meetings with over a hundred individuals – both those managing and delivering services, as well as young consumers* of those services. In addition to the work aspect of my trip, I filled every minute of my spare time seeing and doing as much as I could, and … oh my … have I seen and done some stuff!
Since I got back, the combination of jet lag, a general tiredness from the full-on-ness of my trip, switching from the long hot sunny days of an Australian spring to the cold and dark of a British winter, and being thrown back into life and all that brings, have left me feeling pretty flat. OK, a bit more than flat … more completely floored! My brain is still buzzing from all I learned and experienced, both professionally and personally, but when you’re immediately confronted by the failings of our mental health services here in the UK, it’s hard to hold on to the hope, to the inspiration, and to the belief that the learning from my Fellowship can really make a difference.
And for so many reasons, I really, really, REALLY want it to make a difference.
As I left Australia on a hot, sunny evening, having been dropped off at the airport by the very lovely Mum of a friend of a friend of a friend, who so generously put me up for free for over 2 weeks while I was in Melbourne and who has become a real friend, I confess I shed a few tears. Thinking back over my time there and all the people I’d met, the friends I’d made and the places I’d visited, I felt a deep sadness and a longing for the experience not to come to an end. I felt I’d only just got started in my exploration of Australia, and the aims of my Fellowship – that I’d only just started to scratch the surface. The desire to learn more, see more and hear more was still burning bright, and reflecting on this as I write, there was a real longing for all the positive examples of best practice and innovation in youth mental health to soak into me through some form of osmosis, to somehow counter all the negative experiences I – and so many others – have had in our interactions with mental health services here in the UK
That longing is still there. And my challenge now is to distil all my learning into a report, blogs, and maybe even a book, in the hope that this can help contribute to the real change that is so desperately needed across our broken mental health system. Sat here, now, that feels like a tall order, but I’m going to give it my best shot.
As I sat on that plane, crossing the 10,000 miles back across the globe, a quote kept coming to me …
“Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened”
… and I started berating myself for feeling sad, and tried to convince myself that I ‘should’ be happy that I had had this incredible experience, and that I was being ungrateful to sit and cry that it had come to an end. And then I thought about it more and it came to me: No, it’s not me that’s wrong, or my feelings, it’s the quote! Why shouldn’t I be sad and cry that it’s over? Why can’t both be true?
As I mused on this, I was struck by a theme of many conversations I’d had while I was in Australia about supporting young people in gaining both the life and emotional skills to become more resilient, to help prevent the rising tide of mental health challenges they are facing. In those conversations we discussed how important it is that young people (in fact, everyone!) gain a better understanding, and acceptance of the full range of emotions. We live in a world which, particularly through the lens of social media, convinces us that being happy is the thing to be, and that if we’re not, then somehow we have failed. We are bombarded by messages about positivity – having a positive mindset, a positive mental attitude, train your brain to be more positive – and when things go wrong or we are sad and grieving, the clear message is that we need to shake it off, dust ourselves down and get back to thinking positively as quickly as possible.
But to me, this misses the point – and creates the problem! Why are we so quick to dismiss and dishonour the ‘bad’ feelings? Why is it that we – society – want to gloss over them, sweep them under the carpet, and give them as little attention as we can? Why are we so obsessed with being positive? And why is it so little space is given to all the other emotions that are a normal part of being human, and which, whether we like it or not, we can’t, and, in my opinion, shouldn’t avoid.
Society has become deeply uncomfortable with the full spectrum of emotions. We don’t give space for grieving, for sadness, fear and anger, disgust, jealousy. They are pushed into the shadow, vilified, rejected. But they are still there, and to dismiss them and disown them is to dismiss and disown a part of ourselves. Being happy has somehow become synonymous with success, and success with perfection, but these create an unrealistic view of the world, and set people up for disappointment and a sense of failure. And it’s hard to be positive about yourself and life if you don’t come up to society’s standards of success and perfection, and from this standpoint, it is therefore hard to feel happy. But these standards are, for a large part, fake, unrealistic and unobtainable …
While in Melbourne, I visited the National Gallery of Victoria, and stumbled across an exhibition by photographic artist, Polixeni Papapetrou, and her daughter Olympia Nelson, who was 19 at the time the images were created. The series It’s All About Me (2016) was, in part, inspired by Olympia’s analysis of social media and its impact on the behaviour of teenage girls, and as I looked at them I felt so sad that so many people, but especially young people, are driven to conceal or manipulate both appearance and behaviour in the face of unrelenting pressure to be perfect and to present a happy, confident front to the world. Social media, and the media in general, drives so many to display a (often fake) positive spin on their lives to conform to societal expectations that we must be happy; and the more people buy in to this, the more of our lives – the ‘bad’ events, feelings, emotions – we have to deny and reject.
Over the past couple of years, with Jess being as ill as she has been, I have had to face the very real possibility of losing her, and in that I have experienced intense grief and fear. Interestingly and rather troublingly, when I have spoken to my GP about this, I have immediately been offered anti-depressants, which I have repeatedly rejected. This is a classic example of how we ‘treat’ and regard these emotions. For me, those emotions were an entirely normal, albeit deeply painful and sometimes ugly, response to the circumstances I was facing. The message I got back was that it would be better to get rid of them than to experience them, and I could then get back to being ‘ok’ – a step below the golden egg of happiness, but moving in the right direction! I fundamentally disagree.
And maybe this is why there is so much stigma around mental illness, which is sometimes judged to be a moral failing and weakness; that people with depression are ‘being miserable’ and should ‘cheer up’, or people with anxiety disorders are just being self indulgent and a bit pathetic, and should just ‘get over it’. And if they all just thought a bit more positively, they’d be fixed. Because if we’re not being positive, and thinking positive, then we must be being and thinking negatively, and who wants to be judged to be negative?! And if we can’t be positive, then we must be flawed, right? All these judgements come from a society that has become intolerant and afraid of the ‘bad’ emotions, and increasingly has no idea of how to respond to them. They are symptomatic of our constant obsession with, and drive to reach the longed-for utopia: happy land.
But how about if the opposite to positive wasn’t negative, but something gentler like acceptance? Rather than this constant pressure to be positive, which can so easily become yet another stick to beat ourselves with, what about promoting the notion of acceptance. Acceptance of what is, of who we are, of what we have or how we look. Acceptance that life isn’t perfect or pretty or neat, and that shit happens. Acceptance that being happy all the time is neither possible or desirable, and that experiencing a full range of emotions makes us normal human beings. Acceptance that we come in different shapes and sizes and colours, believe different things. In rejecting the parts of ourselves we are told aren’t acceptable or attractive (whatever they may be), we also have to reject those parts in other people, and this breeds intolerance. And that intolerance goes way beyond ourselves and our immediate circle, right up to how we operate as a society.
If we are going to support our children and young people to live well in this world, we need to do more than just educate them in English, Maths and Science; we need to educate them to recognise, understand, acknowledge and be able to respond healthily to the full range of human emotions. We need to tear down the fake wall that happiness is everything, and help our young people to read, accept, and not be afraid of all emotions – the good, the bad and the ugly. And we need to teach them to accept that life doesn’t always go to plan, and give them the tools to deal with the fall-out. If we don’t equip young people emotionally to cope with life and what it throws at them, to open up to unpleasant feelings, and learn not to overreact to them, and not avoid challenging situations when they happen, we will see a continuing increase in mental illness among our young people.
So, back to my quote …
How I feel now is not wrong, or weak, or self-indulgent. I am not going to ignore or reject my feelings, or ‘give myself a shake’ and berate myself for not thinking more positively. I can cry and experience the sadness and know that the smile is still in there too, the gratitude, the happiness. One doesn’t cancel out the other, and I don’t have to reject one for the other to be true – there is room for both to co-exist, and I embrace both equally. If I don’t then I am denying a part of myself, and in doing so I’m actually diminishing the experience I have just had the privilege to live.
* Consumers is the accepted term in Australia for those using mental health services.