When the lights go out

I’ve been on holiday. A proper one, two weeks away from the daily grunt and grind of work. The kind of holiday where you make resolutions to finally sort out Life Admin, Read Good Books, Eat Well and Exercise, but only manage to send a few personal emails and make a start on the last Man Booker winner just before the next one is announced. 

Whilst I was away, a friend of mine sent a link around, some anonymous piece, more a rambling narrative, about what New York would be like if you turned out all the lights. I sometimes think that holidays should be about turning out the lights instead of all the resolutions, just for a week or so, just to give you time to see things in their natural element without the blinking, blinding light display from first thing alarm clocks, to fluorescent underground lights, offices, computer screens, buses, wine bars, taxis and fridge lights, to late night bathrooms. Before it all starts up again. 

When we turn the lights out, we listen more closely and carefully in the dark. And then, just maybe, deep thinking can happen. The kind of thinking that makes you surprised by the volume of the voice in your head. The kind of thinking that makes you wonder if you’ve said a word to anyone the day you’ve spent pottering around the house, or if you’ve been speaking out loud to no one in particular. Some people are afraid to spend time in their own minds, but I think it is one of the most important things you can do. To be comfortable with your own thoughts, and unafraid of speaking frankly, honestly, unabashedly, even if you are the only one to hear. To be in control, too; knowing when to listen and how to turn the volume down. That’s good mental health; we all take that for granted. 

This Sunday, the day after I got back, I ran a half marathon in order to raise money for the mental health charity, Mind. Raising money for charity seems harder every year – the same email pleas, the same triumphal athletic feats, the same arbitrary totals which are only a drop in an ever-increasing ocean of financial need for hundreds of thousands of charities, and millions of people. I do it because I have no doubt it is important to raise awareness and money for charity, and running for Mind was one of the most certain holiday resolutions I have ever made.

I’ve written on mental health before, after I volunteered at a Mind day centre in Hackney. I am fearful of how this country will respond to mental health provision in the coming years, having already seen the alarming rate of proposed cuts and where they will fall the hardest, the planned future for the NHS and the role of GPs in commissioning services, and the very basic maths involved in balancing rising mental health problems with decreasing amounts of money in the public purse. We know, we know, that mental health is indiscriminate, that it affects one in four, regardless of sex, religion, race or class, and yet it’s still consistently portrayed like the disease of the drug-addled benefits cheat, or the glossy haired celebrity with a troubled past. When I spoke with a Director of programmes at the Mental Health Foundation, he spelled out quite plainly the impact the recession alone has had on people’s mental health in the past two years – ordinary people like me and you – particularly amongst those in the workplace who are risk of losing, or have lost, their jobs, or have had to take a reduced income or scaled down hours, and are still supporting a family when the cost of living has increased exponentially.

I am also all too aware of mental health problems in the young. There’s a 7 year age gap between my sister and I, enough to make the time in between disproportionately long. I had been working for a few years before she finished school and looked to make her next step. And even in that time, despite cursing that my own University education had not been free or easy to access, careers and degrees have more barriers to them than ever before. She totters on the edge of that ubiquitous NEET status, with peaks and troughs of work and education and nothing. It’s the nothing that scares me, because every time she strays into that dark territory she becomes more introverted and more unhappy. Still living at home, already in debt, and with no qualifications. It breaks my heart that someone so brilliant and beautiful doesn’t have any choice about when she turns the lights off in her world, or how often she must listen to her own voice in her own head. No wonder depression has both a financial and an emotional meaning. My sister is dealing with both.

Scratch the surface and slowly but surely stories emerge from loved ones, friends, colleagues and mentors. We talk about cancer, and the sad reality that we all know someone who has had it. But how often do we talk about mental health, and the fact that we all know someone who has a problem? Mental health problems are recurring, they are corrosive and pervasive and they can often be debilitating, and they impact not only on the person experiencing them but on their family and friends too.

If you think it’s important to take a break and turn off the lights so you can let yourself think, then it falls on you to be open about mental health and push for the coalition to be fair on spending and prioritise mental health care. Be grateful that you can take a two week holiday and read a book, or spend a day with the computer screen turned off, the alarm clock on silent and the ebb and flow of your own voice in your own head. And think of the many millions of people for whom it seems impossible to ever turn the lights back on again.

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