‘Well it really, really, really, could happen.’
So sang Blur on their beautiful track from 1995, The Universal.
Music is universal, a universal language that speaks straight to the soul. Of course, different songs will touch different people in different ways, but we are all familiar with its language.
And some songs speak directly to us.
The Universal is one such song that speaks to me. You know the ones I mean, the ones that grab you inside and lift you beyond the moment, beyond yourself, and connect you to something greater.
I’d like to talk about something else that’s universal.
Something that, like music, connects us in our common humanity.
I appreciate that this may seem a little out of left-field. That some of you may be reading this and thinking, ‘well, it’s not relevant to me’. I get it. Once upon a time I would have felt the same way. But I learned that mental health doesn’t seem relevant to us until it is.
When we hear the term ‘mental health’ many of us will still think of depression, anxiety, bipolar.
In short, we think of mental illness, not mental health.
And mental illness isn’t universal.
That said, it’s probably more prevalent than you may think – in the UK, 1 in 4 adults will experience a mental health problem in any given year (Mind, 2017). But in spite of that, most of us feel that it couldn’t happen to us.
We don’t feel the need to truly understand and look after our mental health because, well, because it doesn’t affect us.
Until it does.
It really, really, really could happen.
Any of us can experience a mental health problem. It’s no indicator of strength, no respecter of character or achievement. I know, because it happened to me.
Three times depression has sunk its claws into me and dragged me to the ground, holding me there in its grip for months. I wouldn’t wish it on anybody. It’s a brutal, terrifying, and horrific experience to go through.
It is also deeply, deeply human.
The human condition
Depression forced me to ask searching questions about what it meant to be me, and by extension, what it meant to be human.
Who was ‘I’, and how could I trust my previous understanding of who I was, when depression was able to change me so completely, turning me into a shell of myself, unrecognisable from the collection of characteristics and attributes that I had once taken for granted?
Why was I experiencing such profound suffering, what had I done to deserve it, how could such suffering be possible? And what could I do, how could I be, that would prevent me from ever facing such suffering again?
Many of us will have asked such questions about ourselves and about life at some point.
It’s a universal part of the human condition, the instinct to question who we are and why we are. The difference with depression is that it forces us to confront such questions.
By stripping away the very essence of who we are, of what makes us ‘us’, we are challenged to find the answers that will act as the foundation for rebuilding our health, our identity, and our lives.
It happened to me, and it could happen to you. How do I know? Because of another universal truth – we’re all made of the same stuff.
As such, we all need to care for our mental health just as we need to take care of our physical health. Trust me, it’s far better to understand and appreciate this fact from a place of wellness than it is to be forced to confront it as I, and countless others, have been by mental illness.
5 ways to wellbeing
So what can we do to look after ourselves?
The ‘5 Ways to Wellbeing’ offers evidence based steps that each of us can take to nurture our mental health and wellbeing:
- Connect with others
- Be active
- Take notice – be present and mindful
- Keep learning
- Give – because doing good does you good.
These are things that we can strive to implement in our daily lives, both formally and informally. It doesn’t need to be structured nor rigidly planned, but is something we can keep in mind on a day-to-day basis in the same way that eating five portions of fruit and vegetables per day is understood for looking after our physical health.
These steps are universal too, with each of them speaking directly to parts of what most of us understand instinctively to be the human condition; for example, we are a social species with a need to form bonds with others, we only ever have the present moment available to us, and we can achieve more in co-operation with others than we ever can alone.
In recognising the universality of mental health we acknowledge the human potential for suffering, for few experiences cause such deep and profound suffering for both the individual and for those that love and care for them.
But what it also offers us is the opportunity for transcendence – for in overcoming the profound suffering of mental illness and in the lessons we learn from it, we discover the universal potential for transcending suffering and using it to be and do more than we ever thought possible.