From Cancer to Coronavirus: How the world is crying out for support, and who is answering

Every day now for what seems to have been a lifetime length of 3 months, announcements have been made on the number of new cases, hospitalisations and deaths for the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) in the UK daily briefings. Noticing that merely reading these numbers comes across as cold and robotic, the politician chosen to front the briefings normally adds a small emotional caveat such as “behind each of these numbers is a family who’ve lost a loved one”, or “our thoughts and prayers are with the families and friends of those who’ve died”, before swiftly moving on to the daily updates as to the measures they are putting in place to try and stop the virus.

Whilst the emotional caveat is consistently used, one begins to wonder whether it is fully understood by the politician using it or the public hearing it, or whether the daily usage of such sentences mentioned previously has actually helped to normalize something which, despite being the inevitable ending of every life cycle, still remains one of the hardest things to confront and go through: death and loss.

Of course, death is inevitable, it is something we will all encounter multiple times in our own life before it is eventually the thing that takes each of us. For many though, the thought of death, loss and grief presents an uncomfortable challenge of dealing with life in a completely different way socially, emotionally and physically. This challenge often leads people to turn away from confronting these realities, instead repressing their thoughts and feelings, which can lead to prolonged and accentuated trauma for the individual. Despite the inevitability of death and loss, specialist bereavement support remains relatively minimal in the UK, and the conversation has yet to be had properly about how we educate children, adults and the elderly about the concepts of death and grief. This in turn, has led to generation after generation being left utterly bereft of adequate coping strategies and knowledge around the impact of death on families, friends, careers, social lives, finances, physical and mental health amongst many other other things.

Killing ONE IN FOUR people in the UK every year, Cancer remains one of the most common causes of death in the UK, and yet, despite first being mentioned in ancient Egyptian texts in 1600BC, and being widely referred to as a common cause of death for the last four hundred years, there is only ONE specialist cancer bereavement support charity in the UK: The Loss Foundation. This statement alone should be a call to action to any researcher, psychologist, therapist or policy maker to make a change in the way in which death, grief and bereavement support is approached in the UK and across the globe, never mind the fact that most grown adults still struggle to have a rational conversation about cancer, loss and the process of grief.

Founded in 2010 by Dr Erin Thompson, The Loss Foundation has been committed to providing free, open face to face group spaces for individuals who have lost a loved one to cancer. These face to face group sessions allow bereaved individuals to come and discuss their thoughts, feelings and whatever they feel is weighing heavy on their mind. In addition to the group sessions, the Foundation also offers therapy sessions and cancer bereavement retreats. Their taboo free spaces where all vibes are welcome and no discussion is irrelevant or discarded, have helped many hundreds of individuals to confront their grief and find companionship through friends and facilitators. Given its status as the UKs only specialist cancer bereavement support charity, it came as no surprise when The Loss Foundation also became the UKs only Coronavirus bereavement support charity.

How then, can Cancer bereavement support continue, and Coronavirus bereavement support begin, given the inability to hold the monthly in person group sessions The Loss Foundation have become so used to holding due to the lockdown restrictions? Simple, through the medium of the internet. Over a mammoth month of hard work, group meetings and trial runs, The Loss Foundation transitioned all of their support groups to operate remotely via platforms such as Zoom by April. With a provisional group size of 12 participants and 3 facilitators, I was anxious to see how the new way of facilitating groups would play out. Would there be internet problems? What would we do if someone was getting extremely emotional and we were unable to support them through the usual means of comforting? How could we ensure that every individual that attended the group would be able to have their chance to say what was on their mind? All of these questions, plus many more, were ones that I and my fellow facilitators, and the team at The Loss Foundation have constantly explored with each session, based on facilitator and participant feedback.

What has become increasingly apparent is that, despite the difficulty of lockdown and the additional level of surrealism that the pandemic has added to the way in which people are grieving, many common themes still remain as points of discussion in the online groups. Below I will lay out a few of these themes that commonly occur, how I personally feel they can be managed and how I feel the pandemic has impacted these themes. These are my thoughts and feelings and whilst I am a facilitator at The Loss Foundation these are merely reflections, not advice on their behalf.

  • “I don’t feel like i’m making any progress in my grief”

The process of grieving is a complex and individual one. One of the biggest misconceptions is that the process of grief follows a stage like model. This model is commonly known as “The 5 stages of Grief Model” proposed by Kübler-Ross and consists of Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance. Of course, all of these “Stages” contribute to the process of grief, but to say the grieving process follows a linear progression is unhelpful and leaves many individuals feeling like they are grieving incorrectly, or somehow not meeting some preset schedule of when they should be going through each stage.

A more helpful way of conceptualising the process of grief (and the one most favoured by The Loss Foundation) is the “Dual Process Model” proposed by Stroebe and Schut. This model considers grief to be less of a linear process, but instead a process of fluctuating between two common states of being Loss-orientated or Restoration-orientated. This model is considered far more helpful in getting to grips with grief, as instead of expecting individuals to follow generic stages, the focus is more around helping to understand how individuals can fluctuate between the two states mentioned above over many years. Whilst this removes the hope that the process of grief will ever be “over”, it does provide validation to those who still suffer the pain of loss several years after the actual loss occurred.

This way of approaching grief has become increasingly important during lockdown, as many participants attending the online sessions have mentioned a renewed sense of grief and loneliness during the period of physical isolation, despite having lost their loved one many years before. My advice to anyone reading this that is going through loss is to check out the model and forgive yourself for not meeting the unrealistic targets of ending your grief after 5 stages, and for revisiting areas of grief even after you thought you were done with them.

  • I’m struggling with my mental health for the first time in a long time/ever”

Depression, anxiety and many other common mental health issues are of course very common traits of grief and trauma, but it has become increasingly apparent that these issues have been blown enormously out of proportion during the period of lockdown. For many people, lockdown has been the first time they have ever experienced mental health issues such as anxiety and depression. For others who may have lost a loved one some years ago and experienced mental health issues during their initial period of grief, lockdown has been the first time in years that they have felt these feelings of panic, worry or sadness to this degree.

Speaking as someone who suffers regularly from panic attacks and has seen their own mental health deteriorate during lockdown, I wanted to share some easy self-help strategies I, and many others I know, use regularly.

First: Stop trying to rationalise the irrational. Reflection is a wonderful thing when done properly, but can have dire consequences when left to spiral unchecked. Anxiety by definition is the irrational fear of perfectly rational things. These things don’t always have to consciously worry you, and can often be things that you were previously never worried about. Stop trying to wonder why these things now worry you, this is not an important thing to do right now. Focus on ensuring you are physically safe and try to find things that will help you to calm down should you experience a panic attack. The easiest method of calming yourself during a panic attack is through the use of simple breathing techniques, such as the one below.

Second: Only reflect if you feel capable of doing so and only allow yourself to reflect for short periods of time to start with (eg 5 minutes). We are a very solution driven society, so it can be frustrating to be feeling depressed or anxious and to not know how to “solve” those feelings. Often this frustration leads us to delve into our past to try and logically think back to when the episode of depression or anxiety began. This process of reflection can be mentally dangerous, especially if you are already in a vulnerable position. Mental health workers and clinicians spend years learning how to reflect in a positive and constructive way, and still many struggle to avoid feeling anxious or depressed when looking into their past. Some helpful ways I’ve found to reflect are as follows: Write down one broad thought as a question, such a “how long have I felt like this”, start a timer and allow yourself 1 minute to think of an answer and write it below. Once the minute is up, put the paper that the question is written on in a place away from sight. Do this for a maximum of 5 questions and then go to do a distracting activity, such as watching TV, reading, cooking or spending time outdoors. This short burst of reflection should put your need to find answers as to why you are feeling the way you are to bed at least for the day, and will allow you to reflect without tumbling off a cliff and getting lost in endless anxiety/depression inducing reflective thoughts.

Refer back to the breathing techniques mentioned above, and as always, if you notice that your are struggling and need help, use the Samaritans hotline on 116 123

  • “I feel guilty”

The word guilty has been possibly one of the most frequently occuring words i’ve heard whilst facilitating sessions at the loss foundation since joining them in January. There are many reasons why people feel guilty, many of which often appear to be seen as logical reasons to feel guilty on the surface, until the deeper meaning is unearthed.

One of the most common reasons people seem to feel guilty is as a result of them wishing that the people they come into contact with were also experiencing their grief. On the surface, this seems a sinister and anger driven feeling that is “wrong” because it is wishing ill on others. But when you delve further into why individuals who are grieving so often wish their grief on others the reasons quickly become ones of desperation and a lack of understanding from their peers.

When trying to console individuals who have lost a loved one, many stock phrases such as “I can’t imagine what you’re going through” or in some cases as mentioned above “your in my thoughts and prayers” are commonly used. Whilst these are well intentioned offerings, the delivery can often result in feelings of further upset as bereaved individuals try to project their feelings onto you so you truly can feel how they’re feeling, or they try to process how thoughts and prayers will help them through the pain of loss. The fact is, in this instance, no one is to blame. The individual offering help is merely doing their best given the limited level of wider general knowledge that most people have around death and grief, and the bereaved individual is trying to process something they are not equipped to process in a world not designed to help them.

In these instances of guilt there is one thing I have heard my fellow facilitators say repeatedly, be kind to yourself and to others around you. Your guilt comes from your decency as an individual and the knowledge that had you not been in the surreal circumstances of going through grief, you wouldn’t wish ill on anyone. Therefore, try to find spaces where you can express these natural feelings and thoughts, whereby you wont risk hurting the feelings of those trying their best to help you, but importantly wont hurt yourself by not allowing yourself to think very natural and acceptable thoughts.

And to anyone reading this who is trying to support someone through the process of grief, sometimes not saying anything says a thousand words. To be frank, there are no words or stock phrases that will ever come close to bringing someone back from the dead or properly consoling those who have suffered a loss, all we can do is try to be there to listen and support where we can. Always try not to judge and try to remain neutral in your use of language, often people who are grieving just need a platform to share their opinions and feelings in order to help them process them without fear of judgement or upset. As always, if you notice someone you are supporting is struggling, call Samaritans on 116 123

Whilst there are many different topics that have arisen over the last 4 sessions and 1 walk that I have helped to facilitate, I feel that I could write forever about my experiences and I’m very aware that this is already a mammoth reading task.

What I would like to highlight is that, despite this being a period of physical isolation, the need for social connection has never been greater. I am extremely grateful to be a tiny part of such a fantastic organisation as The Loss Foundation, and I have been overwhelmed as the enormous need for free, high quality and frequent bereavement support services has become apparent to me since joining the foundation in January. Whilst the numbers of COVID-19 deaths may be slowly decreasing day by day, the loss, grief and trauma experienced by those who have lost a loved one will never truly diminish, only possibly change shape over time. It is also important that whilst The Loss Foundation champions bereavement support for Coronavirus, it is also vital that the Foundation remains a constant for those who have lost a loved one to cancer, something I am confident will be the case over the coming months and years.

There is still so much to be said and done to increase the support for all these individuals I have mentioned above, but I feel assured that through the work of charities such as The Loss Foundation, and their contribution to research and the wider understanding of loss, progress will be made.

Will the real Pandemic please stand up

It’s safe to say that by now you probably know the reason behind me writing this blog post. It is, of course, the ongoing COVID-19 (Novel Coronavirus) pandemic. Almost 3 weeks ago I wrote a short blog which contained some simple tips and tricks as to how you can manage anxiety during the pandemic, and boy, what a lot has changed since then!

As the virus has taken hold of entire nations, we have witnessed cities, towns and villages become ghost towns, with only the odd person now milling around. This abrupt disruption of “normal” life left many people in a sense of confusion, disorientation and general fear. Almost two weeks down the line (for the UK at least), people seem to be slowly adjusting to the new “normal” way of life, albeit with extreme caution. The real question on my mind however is not “how long will this last” or even “will I catch Coronavirus” but instead the question of “what is the real pandemic here?” has been plaguing my thoughts.

Now, please don’t mistake me for a fool, I know the current pandemic we are all up against is COVID-19. What I mean with my question is, how, when the virus has such a significantly small mortality rate compared to other viruses currently out there, has it spread with such ferocity. Also, how has this virus managed to bring the Western world to its knees when other diseases such as Ebola didn’t even get close? Finally, how has this disease managed to ravage the Western world but, as of the time of writing, has caused significantly less damage across many lower-income countries in comparison to the awful ongoing battles they have against diseases such as TB, Malaria, Ebola and Cholera.

Upon reflection, I feel as though I have possibly come up with an answer. The real reason COVID-19 has managed to get such a foothold in the West, is because we have been suffering from a whole host of other Pandemics for decades without even noticing. I’m talking about the pandemics of inequality, common mental disorders (such as Anxiety and Depression) and greed. Now I know that most people in the scientific community may label these things as Epidemics, but I would disagree. By definition, all of the things listed above have spread across almost every Western nation (with the USA and UK at the forefront), with only a very small proportion of the population having any sort of “immunity”. Now I realise I am not the first person, and certainly will not be the last to recognise that the West suffers enormously with inequality, greed and the staggering presence of common mental disorders. BUT, in a situation such as the one we currently find ourselves in, it is these long standing “pandemics” which I feel are responsible for the spread of COVID-19, and I feel if anything good should come of this, it should be our ability to reflect better on our treatment and awareness of the struggles we already face and where they have come from. As such, I will break down each “pandemic” and you can let me know if by the end you also see how said “pandemics” may have led to this virus getting such a strong foothold.

  1. Inequality
    What was once considered “loony lefty liberalism” has, overnight, become policy. Despite being told for decades that “there are no magic money trees” and that homelessness cannot be solved overnight, both of these have been achieved not only at record pace but also by a conservative government (here in the UK).
    For decades, ever since the ending of WW2, the West has drifted further into being unequal, not just economically but also racially and on the basis of gender. It is not incorrect to say that the top 1% of Americans own more wealth than the bottom 50% put together. This vast void in financial equality has led to significant gaps in education, housing, social and health care. Similar chasms in equality can also be seen across every Western country, and it is only during these times of great hardship that such gaps are truly laid bare for the entire world to see.
    “Why is that?” I hear you ask. Well, from a cynical perspective, it’s because when a virus doesn’t discriminate based on age, gender, race or sexuality, a vast proportion of wealthy white men become extremely scared that their ivory towers and fortresses of money won’t offer them the protection they thought they would. It is at this point that they begin to panic and momentarily reverse their ill opinion of the “lower class” in a desperate plea for help. Note the use of the word momentarily. Please don’t be fooled into thinking that once this COVID-19 pandemic is over you will see record funding for the NHS, public services and the creation of an equal society.
    From a less cynical perspective it’s because of the transfer of power. As mentioned above, when a disease doesn’t discriminate, the value of money and possessions disappear. This can be seen as the entire global financial market has all but crashed, hitting a brick wall, and all it took was a matter of days and one virus, pretty scary right?! What does however increase in value is the worth of the individual. Just a few years ago, junior doctors were hounded off picket lines for wanting a fair wage and safe working hours. Now they are being praised as modern day heroes. In fact, only a few months ago our “delightful” home secretary Priti Patel announced a new, post-Brexit immigration rule which would classify anyone on below £24,000 a year as unskilled, meaning they would not qualify for a visa. Imagine the disaster we would be in now if that would have happened. Nurses, carers, mental health workers, shop workers, bus drivers, teachers and so on would all be classified as “un-skilled” and therefore worthless! Now, as with doctors, they are being praised for being the very people holding the fabric of society together.
    Be under no illusion, this new found sense of worth and transfer of power will not last long after the pandemic is over. Therefore USE IT WISELY! Vote well, know your worth and demand better from all of those who once told you you were insignificant, because when the time came, it wasn’t billionaires or tech giants that saved the world, it was the key workers.
  2. Mental Disorders
    For almost a century, the West has grappled with the worst pandemic it has ever faced, with common mental disorders (such as anxiety and depression) now thought to affect at least 1 in 4 people in the UK alone. To put into perspective the true enormity of the mental health pandemic the world faces, the WHO estimates that over 800,000 people worldwide die each year from suicide, that is equivalent to a virus 12.5x more deadly that COVID-19 (at the time of writing) sweeping the globe Every. Year.
    So why then do common mental disorders and investment in mental health infrastructure amount to such a small percentage of funding each year? Again, in comparison with COVID-19, the UK spends roughly £12billion per year on mental health research and infrastructure. That’s less than 3% of what has been spent so far by the UK on COVID-19.
    As highlighted previously, the current outbreak does require vast resources, and I am by no means critiquing the governments spending to try to stop the spread of the virus. BUT, as mentioned in the inequality section above, the vast amounts of spending on COVID-19 demonstrate that such amounts COULD have been spent on other areas in the past. “Why is this relevant to stopping COVID-19 though?” I hear you say. Well, because the main spreader of this virus is humans, and the main ways to stop the spread is social distancing, isolation and a complete change in human behaviour. “Who knows about human behaviour and how it can impact whether we adhere to government guidelines?” I hear you ask. Mental health professionals, that’s who. You can spend all the money on policing, press briefings and adverts you have, but if you don’t have a serious and comprehensive understanding of how humans behave, it’s pointless as it will all be ignored.
    Not only will you have a lack of adherence, you will also see mass hysteria, civil unrest and therefore an increase in deaths related to the virus. Isolation fatigue is a serious and real issue that many countries face, and needs to be addressed urgently.
    When humans panic they tend to increase risk taking behaviour and act irrationally, a key example of which is the continuation of mass social gatherings and the torching of 5G masts. Both of these are very risky behaviours, and both are completely irrational given the circumstances. Threats from government and a slap on the wrist from police, will not however work in the majority of cases to stop these behaviours. Instead, the government must take into consideration the way humans behave and respond appropriately based on EXPERT OPINION ALONE.
  3. Greed
    It’s been said already by many newspapers and members of the scientific community, but COVID-19 is a pandemic of the privileged. It was spread by wealthy, mobile Westerners globetrotting with little consideration of the potential dangers. That is mainly due to the immense privilege most Westerners have that we are no longer aware of.
    For a vast proportion of the population in the West, travelling is seen as an entitlement, not a luxury. Again, the individual thought to be responsible for bringing COVID-19 to the UK was himself returning from a skiing trip in Italy where he contracted the virus.
    For too long now our greed and entitlement has led us to recklessly travel the globe with little thought for the impacts it has on the world around us. For decades the world has been on fire, drowning and suffering horrendous climate disasters due to our desire to take pictures on a beach on the Costa-del-sol and using a plane to get there. The irony of this whole situation is that the lack of air travel, vehicle usage and other polluting behaviours means the West may have actually prevented the premature deaths of tens of thousands of individuals due to climate change and pollution.
    Our vapid consumerism cannot continue. Whilst i’m not saying we shouldn’t strive to better connect the world, we should make far more of an effort to explore the safe and fair ways of doing this. Now, I am no hypocrite, and I fully appreciate that I have also had the privilege of travel, and am not a conscious consumer as much as I should be. But, this pandemic really has highlighted the areas that I need to change, and I hope it does the same for you.

Over the coming days, weeks and months it’s safe to say that many of us will face challenges we weren’t expecting to and aren’t prepared for. It’s important during this time to be patient, caring and kind. As mentioned previously, there is more to this than just “staying at home”, and just because your privilege may have meant you can stockpile, remain indoors safely and bare the financial pitfalls weathering this pandemic involves, this doesn’t mean that this is the case for everyone else.

Now is not a time for criticism. It’s a time for awareness, acceptance and compassion. Without these, not only will we not overcome the COVID-19 pandemic, but we will also fail to address the silent pandemics mentioned above, all of which should be equally as important as the other.

As always, Stay Safe

Keep Calm and Quarantine – How to keep your cool during a Global Pandemic

Well, i’m sure you’ve all heard by now, but for those that have somehow managed to escape the news, social media, the enormous queues in every single shop and that one Aunt that keeps posting motivational quotes on Instagram (viruses aren’t killed by Gandhi quotes Aunt Babs), there is a Global Pandemic happening right now called COVID-19 (Novel Coronavirus).

During these times it’s often hard to catch your breath, with the constant sea of misinformation, panic articles and posts of despair. This blog has been thrown together in order to try and sum up a few things I (a person who suffers from anxiety on a daily basis) find useful in calming my mind and lowering my anxiety.

  • Educate yourself! One of the biggest contributors to high levels of anxiety is misinformation, especially during public health crises. Therefore, make sure you have a good read of the TRUSTED sites, and no, millennial in the corner that DOESN’T mean BuzzFeed articles on what type of virus you’d be. I’m talking about the Government approved scientific advice. This is normally easy to find (such as NHS online) and can put a lot of your concerns to bed there and then.

  • BREATHE! It seems ridiculous and obvious, but breathing really can be one of the best things to help reduce anxiety levels and stabilise mood. There are hundreds of great breathing videos online which guide you through simple but effective routines! Even if it’s just 5 minutes in the morning and 5 before bed, doing breathing exercises has shown to be one of the easiest but most effective methods of reducing stress and anxiety.
  • Download a mindfulness app. Mindfulness is something we should all practice every day anyway, and with the invention of apps such as HeadSpace and Calm this is now easier than ever before! The apps are designed to take you through a variety of different exercises aimed to reduce stress and boost mood. They even have a free trial!
  • Listen to Music! Music has been a common feature of human existence for centuries. It is widely available across multiple platforms and can be used for a variety of different things depending on the genre. For example, if you’re feeling stuck at home and therefore sluggish, whack on some disco, funk or dance music and allow yourself to dance around your flat like nobodies watching. This increase in heart rate can massively increase your production of endorphins which can majorly boost your mood and reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression. For a more relaxing approach, and thanks to the generosity of the Berlin Philharmonic, you can now enjoy their music FREE from the comfort of your own home via their virtual concert hall! Check it out on the link below to find music to help you relax or even focus.

  • Embrace NATURE. Fun fact: you can’t catch Coronavirus in wide open spaces such as parks so long as you’re more than 2 metres away from others. You CAN however catch a glimpse of spring kicking in and enjoy the restorative effects of nature. Many researchers have demonstrated that taking regular time to walk through natural settings can majorly boost mood whilst also improving physical health and memory! Now’s as good a time as any to explore your local park! And for those of you self-isolating, whilst you can’t take a walk through nature, why not open all of your windows in order to connect a little more to the outside world. It’s not ideal, but it’s better than nothing!
  • Distance yourself from online life! Whilst social media is an amazing tool for keeping everyone connected, it’s also a breeding place for misinformation and panic. As hard as it may be, try to only spend a maximum of 20 mins at a time on social media before giving yourself a break! It’s really important to remember the important facts during times like this and social media is not normally where those are kept!
  • Touch in with friends and family. In times of mass hysteria and panic, there’s one thing you can be certain of: you’re probably not panicking alone! Checking in with those who know you best can ease the pressure on your shoulders and also gives your loved ones a chance to help out if possible!

At the end of the day, there will be many challenges we all face in the coming months. Whether we look after our mental health however will be a massive contributing factor as to whether we’re able to stay at home and self isolate and follow the advise of governments. Therefore this should be taken extremely seriously (suicide still kills around 800,000 people worldwide per year, worth putting things into perspective)! For the safety of yourself and of those around you PLEASE take care of not only your physical health but also your mental health. Be kind to yourself and show kindness to others. These are strange times we’re living through and many people may not be acting as they usually do. Try to be patient with yourself and with others and for god’s sake, wash your hands!

Don’t hate the player, hate the game.

I lost…

Although I may have lost this particular round, I certainly have not lost the game. “What are you talking about” I hear you muttering under your breath. Well, to clarify, my title and opening remark is mostly centred around my recent application to start my training on the Clinical Psychology Doctorate (DClinPsy) course. Now i’m sure it doesn’t require a PhD to figure out that unfortunately on this occasion my application was not successful.

Although this may seem insignificant to many people reading, those who know me will know that for a number of years now the Clinical Doctorate has been my dream and the inspiration for almost all of the things I have done (whether academically or professionally) over the last 4 and a half years. How then am I expected to carry on as normal when that dream has all but disappeared in the space of 4 short but lethal emails? Simple. Don’t hate the player, hate the game.

Now, I know that in most contexts that phrase is used to encourage people to direct their anger away from individuals and more towards the wider situation or circumstances, which ultimately are more to ‘blame’ for their anger. Whilst this is of course important and I will discuss this more a little later, I also think it is exceptionally important to bear this phrase in mind when we are directing anger at ourselves. More often than not, the first thing we do as humans when faced with failure is look inwardly. Within moments our mood can switch from one of optimism and self love, to one of despair and self loathing, as we continually pick over all of the things we think we could have done better to change the situation. This is not healthy.

Of course, being able to reflect constructively about our personal limitations is a vital part of emotional and personal growth, but this must be done in a controlled and compassionate manner. I could probably sit here, creating a list of things I think I could have done better to increase my chances of getting onto the Doctorate all day, but will that change the outcome? No. Will it damage my self esteem and overall mood? Most likely. Therefore I have to find a healthier way of approaching the situation, all whilst still validating my feelings and being aware that I do have these thoughts around self worth and competency. That’s where mindfulness comes in.

The first thing I wanted to do when I read the fourth and final rejection email this morning was crawl into my bed, hide away and cry myself to sleep whilst eating chocolate. Unfortunately that approach won’t pass my Masters degree, it won’t pay my bills and ultimately it won’t help me pick myself back up again. Now, this is not to say that those thoughts and feelings are not valid, and in many situations it is extremely important to give yourself a break away from things, and allow your mind to recover. But you also have to be able to ensure that whilst those thoughts and feelings are valid, they are not dominant. It is for this reason that instead of lying in bed and eating chocolate, I am channeling these thoughts into a blog, something which I personally find extremely cathartic and meditative.

Now, this may come as a surprise to some of you, but for those of you that aren’t aware, meditation doesn’t have to be in the form of sitting cross legged, in a candle lit room with sitar music playing in the background whilst 15 different flavours of incense burn at once (although if this does work for you, then 100% own it!). Meditation can be in any form that YOU find personally rewarding and relaxing, whether thats through exercise, cooking, prayer or music, ANYTHING can be meditative so long as you are able to be present and accepting of any and all thoughts you have.

Although this blog post has been mainly inspired by my recent applications, it has been brewing in my mind for a number of months. Over the past 2 months, the team at SLV.Global have been trying to incorporate various different mindfulness practices into their daily lives. By sharing weekly updates and practicing various different group techniques, the team have tried to get a feel of what works for each individual. Although many of these techniques seemed extremely easy, what I found astounding was just how much of a difference incorporating them into my daily routine made, even if it was just for 5 minutes a day!

This need for mindfulness and reflection was highlighted even more as “Feeling-low-February” dragged on. During what felt like the longest month since records began, it felt that almost everyone I spoke to, whether that was at University, home or work, was experiencing a lower mood than usual. This low mood seems to have spread and now turned into panic and despair due to the constant poor whether, and the ongoing outbreak of COVID-19.

The truth is, it’s very easy to say “Be more mindful” or “think about your mental health”, but we all know that practicing what we preach is exceptionally hard. In this increasingly vapid society it can be extremely hard to find colour, meaning and passion in things that we do. It can also be frighteningly easy to lose sight of what we really want, and more importantly what we need in order to thrive, something I constantly battle with in an attempt to be more mindful and present. Whilst there is no easy answer or “quick fix”, I highly recommend taking the time to reflect and be kind to yourself. More often than not, your feelings and frustrations are not a reflection of who you are, but more a reaction to the situation or circumstance you are in. Therefore, take the time to pause between thought and action, and, in that space allow yourself to breathe. Take stock of what your thoughts and feelings are, how they came about and how through being kind to yourself and others you can turn up the light at the end of the tunnel. The next few days, weeks and months will continue to highlight increasing challenges for all of us, and as is the case with life in general, some of these will often seem almost impossible to overcome. But with the right support, whether that’s in the form of some needed self love or with the help of friends, family and professionals where needed, you can not only overcome these challenges but use them to grow and flourish!

0.15 Seconds, can YOU spare it?

So, for those of you who may be wondering what on Earth my title is about (which I presume is most people reading this post), i’m talking about the length of time it takes to “think a thought”. Of course there is no real way of accurately measuring how long it takes for humans to think thoughts, but for the sake of this blog post I am going to use the basic assumption that it takes roughly 0.15 seconds to “think a thought”. Of course if someone can find more concrete data and explain it to me in simple enough terms that I can actually understand I will be more than happy to revise my estimates!

Of course the real reason for choosing to use the concept of how long it takes to think a thought is not just so that someone smarter than me (of which I’m sure there are many people) can give me more conclusive information about the actual time it takes, but more to reflect on how easily thoughts are dismissed or conscious/subconscious decisions are made.

Earlier this week I posted on Facebook about an encounter I had had on the way from work to University. Whilst waiting for the overground train at Shoreditch High Street station I noticed a homeless man enter the platform. After walking about 20 paces, he knelt down with his feet hanging over the edge of the platform and his head on the ground. Whilst I can only make observational assumptions, it was clear that this 19 year old (he kept repeating his age whilst asking for money) had significant learning difficulties and had been homeless for a significant period of time. Sadly, this occurrence was not the event that had caused alarm, something which in itself highlights the shocking level of homelessness (especially in London) and the fact that for most citizens the sight of homeless individuals is no longer alarming, but instead a part of regular daily life.

The thing that caused most alarm and upset to me personally was what happened next. As the train approached the platform, not only did no one offer to help this man away from the edge, but multiple people consciously chose to move away from him. In that 0.15 seconds it took to think the thought of “should I help?”, those individuals collectively washed their hands of responsibility and decided “no”. As has been the case with marginalised, oppressed and impoverished individuals throughout history there was not a single apparent look of hesitation or remorse from a single person that turned their back. Could this be because the thought they had was spontaneous, fast and therefore not a true reflection of their true opinion or values, or could it be for deeper societal reflections on the state of humanity. Fortunately, I had realised that it was not good enough for me to simply expect others to intervene and I managed to reach the man before the train and pulled him away from the platform.

The reason I felt the need to write this blog post was not because I want praise for my actions but because I simply cannot rationally understand how my actions were not replicated 10 times over by others standing on the platform. Helping someone up from the ground and away from immediate danger to me is no act of heroism but more an act of humanism. Surely, given the immensely short period of time it can take to “think a thought” time constraints cannot be used to explain why no one reacted. As mentioned above therefore, I feel as though this event, something which came and went within 5 minutes but yet could have had enormous and devastating effects, was more of a reflection of the way society as a whole functions and how humanity has somehow been programmed to think and act in this way.

Some cynical people would probably comment that based on the reflections above therefore there is no hope, but I would have to disagree. Shifting the blame away from the individual and more on to the collective helps us to understand better how these apparently inhumane and “thoughtless” thoughts and decisions are actually made. Humans think thousands of thoughts every day, with the brain constantly being bombarded with messages and information. It’s no wonder that some thoughts and decisions are more “throw away” than others. This bombardment is made even more complex when humans interact with one another, desperately trying to find the right way to socialise and making split decisions constantly about hundreds of different things. Therefore, it is not surprising that as societies we have created hundreds of complex frameworks of which decisions and thoughts we think are “good” or “bad”, creating them based on hundreds of subtle contextual factors. This is something we then spend decades teaching our children and ourselves through both education and trial and error.

Whilst this process is fundamental to creating “harmonious” societies, left unchecked these collective thoughts can become distorted, and an element of compassion can be lost in an attempt to create a more efficient and superior ability to process “throw away thoughts” faster, allowing more time for more “complex” decision making to occur. For me, this is what happened on that platform. Do I think those people that walked away are fundamentally bad people? No. Do I think that they have probably grown up around a certain way of thinking or living that naturally prejudices those that are worst off or even just different to them in society? More than likely. Now, please, don’t think I am labelling anyone as anything, I myself still constantly challenge myself to think “better” and be “better” and am more than aware that I am still extremely far away from achieving that, if such a thing is even possible.

What I am saying however is that it is no longer good enough to see, hear or read these “bad” thoughts, opinions and actions and just let them pass on by. It is all of our collective responsibilities, whether it be as scientists, psychologists, philosophers or anyone else, to keep challenging these things where we notice them. Of course there will always be differences of opinions on politics, religion and many other things, these are not the “bad” things I am talking about. I am talking about the fundamentally amoral things such as racism, homophobia, transphobia, classism, sexism and religious persecution.

So, my challenge to you: before you think that 0.15 second thought and make your decision, stop. Pause and reflect. Even if it is only for another 0.15 seconds give time and space to consider what the actual implications of your thought may be, whether they may be good or bad and how they align with your own personal morals, not just the ones of the society you are a part of.

Standing still in a World that’s spinning: A first term summary

Well, there’s no prizes for guessing what this blog post is about after perhaps one of my least cryptic titles. It seems almost a lifetime ago that I stepped off the plane from Bali, sporting my very best attempt at a sun tan (no comments required about the poor result!) along with a rejuvenated sense of purpose and passion. What seems even harder to believe than the fact that the event aforementioned only happened around 3 months ago, personally, is the fact that an entire term of my Masters has already been completed!

Receiving my Masters confirmation letter in Bali, I always knew that the term/year that lay ahead would be filled with challenges, obstacles and plenty of “plot twists” to keep me occupied, but what has unfolded so far has certainly been beyond any of my wildest dreams. In just 3 months I have moved back to the UK, moved into a new flat, started not one, but 3 new jobs and most significantly started my dream masters. If that isn’t enough to leave even the most level headed and mellow minded person feeling a little dizzy I don’t know what is!

Starting my masters programme in Global Mental Health at Kings College London and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, it fast became apparent to me that the following term would be filled with rich and diverse discussions with some of the most fascinating individuals I have ever had the pleasure to learn alongside. From discussing mental health policy, to receiving lectures on the use of evidence in the field of mental health, this course has certainly felt like a real step up from my undergraduate. Whilst this engaging and challenging conversation has now just about become familiar, it is worth highlighting the imposter syndrome I felt upon starting the course (not least because I turned up a week late, classic!).

Looking back now and reflecting I feel foolish to have forgotten about a similar period which occurred during my undergraduate. Much like the start of my masters, this period during undergraduate was filled with feelings of being an imposter, and overwhelming feelings of being completely out of my depth. It is challenging to overcome these feelings, and the first term “wobble” is something that most university students struggle a lot with. What is important to remember though, for anyone reading this that is about to embark on a university applications cycle, or perhaps is still going through this “wobble”, is that it is completely natural. Speaking with my fellow MSc students, many of whom are far more advanced both personally and professionally than myself, it has been heartening to hear that I am not alone in this feeling. Hearing of their own struggles with adapting to University life, whether it’s because they are returning after a hiatus, are joining from a different profession, or have moved countries to pursue their dreams, has given me a sense of reassurance and a reminder to be patient and forgiving with myself.

This patience and forgiveness has also been a common theme reflected throughout the other challenges I have faced during the last 3 months. It is safe to say that returning to the UK after a summer working in Bali with no home of my own (although i’m exceptionally grateful to my amazing sister and her flatmates for putting me up for the time they did!), and the prospect of living in London with no job for the first time in 3 years gave me a fair few anxiety filled days and nights. As time went by, this anxiety turned into frequent panic attacks and desperate frustration at the fact that so much of my time was being consumed by filling out job applications and viewing countless flats all across London.

These feelings combined helped to warp my own perception of time, making me feel as if it had been months of searching when in reality it had been only a number of days. Luckily however, with the help of my new found friends at University, along with the help of some old friends and family, I persevered and reminded myself of the need to be patient. This eventually resulted in me not only finding a lovely flat, equipped with two exceptionally kind and caring new flatmates, but also securing the first of my 3 jobs which I now hold.

Being able to practice my passion is something I feel exceptionally strongly about and finding a job that was relevant to that passion was something I desperately wanted to do. I had always toyed with idea of working for SLV.Global, ever since my feet first touched the ground in India in 2017. Their work has been a constant inspiration to me, and their ability to challenge me in new and exciting ways has most certainly contributed to a lot of the successes i’ve had, both professionally and academically. It is true that I could probably talk about SLV.Global until I am blue in the face, and most people know my thoughts and feelings by now, but being offered a tailor made flexible position within their London HQ as part of the “Unicorn Post” (find me a more suitable candidate for that position, I dare you!), has been one of the highlights of the last 3 months. Getting to continue the SLV.Global dream and carry on talking to and (hopefully) inspiring future volunteers, has given me a whole new understanding and appreciation for the company! Having their support throughout the last 3 months in particular, as the flat hunts and job interviews have raged on, has given me a sense of stability that I have been in desperate need of in such an ever changing environment.

Using that sense of stability, and now finally settling into my masters, job and new flat, I felt it was the best time to flex my newly awarded Psychology degree “muscle” and see if any doors really had been opened. Alarmingly and much to my surprise it seemed they had!

Much like London busses, I heard back from not one, but two potential jobs on the same day. The first of which was to work as an Honorary Psychologist at The Loss Foundation, and the second of which was to work as an Honorary Assistant Psychologist at the South London and Maudsley NHS trust. Both in the run up to, and during these two interviews, the mental pressure felt enormous. Not just because I was very aware of the sparsity of such jobs and the high level of competition, but more so because this would be the first time I was being judged on my ability as a Psychologist. This brief foray into the world of professional psychology was something that was both exciting and petrifying at the same time.

Again however, it was due to the input of my friends, families and colleagues, assuring me to take a step back and see the world around me, allowing it to spin without me for a brief moment, that I was able to successfully navigate the interviews and come out the other side. This ability to stop and put space between a thought and action, is something I have tried to practice constantly throughout the last 12 months of my life. This is mostly due to reading and learning about the late great Viktor Frankl. I often use his words to steady my mind and challenge my process, remembering in particular his quote:

Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.

Viktor Frankl

Looking to the future, the end point of this academic year is still obscured a great deal by the new challenges I will face. Whether it’s the intensifying master’s schedule, the beginning of my work at SLaM and The Loss Foundation, or the potentially draining and rigorous DClinPsy application process, there are certainly a number of things that will create a whole new set of challenges for term 2. What I can take great comfort in however, is the knowledge that I am surrounded by exceptional human beings in every aspect of my life, and that through practicing some of what Viktor Frankl says in allowing myself time and space, I can allow myself to be free of many mental restraints and be allowed to grow.

I want to say a massive thank you to everyone that has read, liked, commented on and shared my blog in 2019, and would like to wish everyone a peaceful and reflective festive season! I hope that despite the many challenges we all face, you too are able to find personal strength and growth in the coming year.

Writing the lines to read between: How science fell on it’s own sword

So, despite previous promises, it’s been well over a month since my last blog post and it’s safe to say that in that time an enormous amount has happened! Not only am I almost 1/3 of the way through my Masters in Global Mental Health, but i’ve also graduated, moved flat and applied to continue studying after my masters!

One thing that has been on my mind throughout the last few weeks of my course however, is the topic this blog post is based around.

For years now, science has come under increasing scrutiny, as its validity and place in society has been rigorously questioned by every person it influences. The most frustrating part of this situation however, is perhaps the fact that it is almost entirely self inflicted and also something that many scientists are still ignorantly trying to ignore.

For me, the moment at which I realised that science was no longer being held in such high regard by the general public, was when I watched the current Duchy of Lancaster (the then Justice Secretary) Michael Gove say that people “no longer trust experts” when being interviewed in June 2016. This, for me, seemed utterly ridiculous! How could people NOT trust experts I thought, they are literally the top of their field for a reason. Fast forward a few years, and a whole lot of political chaos later, and it’s clear to see that Gove was actually speaking some truth. Not only can this distrust be seen through the horrifying rise in easily vaccinated against communicable diseases, as the Anit-Vaxxer movement has spread, but also across the field of Global Mental Health and every other field of science.

One of the biggest problems with this enormous rise in anti-expert opinions is the fact that it is completely self inflicted. The obsession that science, and more recently mental health workers in particular, have with evidence based practice, something that was once the crowning glory and Holy Grail of all science, has soon become the sword on which the field has fallen. Take the anti-vaxxer movement for example, had it not been for the publication of the paper from Andrew Wakefield (the now discredited British Psychologist), which linked the MMR vaccine to autism, it is arguable that the anti-vaxxer movement may never have occurred. This may have then meant that the subsequent resurgence of previously eradicated diseases would have remained just a nightmare. Because the paper contained “statistical” evidence however, and of the growing obsession medical and research journals have with publishing controversial and “exciting” new research, the paper was somehow published, before quickly being redacted and discredited. How then, do scientists manage to convince the general public that they have any credibility therefore, when they had to discredit one of their own for making errors they didn’t realise until it was too late? They can’t.

Not only has this abuse of science led to the publication, and subsequent removal of hundreds of false papers, but it has also severely damaged the public’s trust in the field itself. This lack of trust is fast becoming a prominent feature within the field of Mental Health, as (often) Western psychologists and psychiatrists still desperately try to prove themselves as “real” scientists in some form of poorly made pinocchio fantasy. This means that still, despite the dire need for new and diverse interventions, psychologists try to employ the gold standard Randomised Control Trial and evidence based practice wherever possible, often scoffing at any alternative approach as inferior. This snobbish approach however, has not stopped the change of opinions across societies as those suffering from mental health issues are increasingly turning to “alternative therapies” in defiance of the old evidence based practices.

“But we have CBT” says Dr Bob, the middle aged white male psychologist from the West, “and that’s evidence based AND based on more alternative methods of treatment”. Correct, CBT is fast becoming the main form of treatment across the West for mental health issues. It is however still hemmed in by guidelines written mostly by individuals who understand very little about the populations that are receiving the treatments. This means that, regardless of how many glossy research papers you produce, and no matter how small the p value may be, people are increasingly becoming less bothered by interventions that are created with the goal of being able to add to more statistics about how “effective” the treatment method is. Instead, increasing numbers of individuals are far more interested in interventions where they have just as much of a say in how the intervention is created and conducted.

The power is in our hands however. As scientists, it’s our job to write the lines that people read between. We have the opportunity to stop the wave of disapproval before it causes anymore damage.

How? By coming off our high horses about what constitutes evidence or not, and by finally embracing the fact that science needs to be open, accessible and flexible. We cannot simply pretend that people’s lived experience isn’t valid, just because we have a research paper and a reference list of a few hundred citations that prove them “wrong”. This is perhaps most critical in the field of mental health, where lived experience still takes a back seat when writing policy compared to the gold standard of evidence, despite the massive lack of generalisability and concrete methods of researching between mental health issues.

If we wish to break the cycle and finally build trust back up again, we have to be ready to give up some seats at the table. Not just to professionals from the East, South and North, but most importantly to those who are relying on those services and the science itself the most. Only once that has happened, and we see true diversity and equality across the field will we see trust in experts restored.

The Power of Purpose – a note on World Mental Health Day

Well, it’s been almost 3 weeks since I landed back in London, leaving behind me a paradise which now seems like a distant dream, in order to pursue a new academic avenue in the form of a Masters course. After suffering heavily from post Sri Lanka blues the previous year, I was determined to give myself enough tasks this year to keep myself occupied and thus, avoid any form of post Bali blues. This of course, has not so far worked!

Until only this morning, I had always attributed my constant desire to ram my diary as full as possible to my need to be constantly occupied. I always used to joke that, given more than 10 minutes to sit down and relax, i’d not likely get back up again for a week. It wasn’t until I attended an amazing workshop at the SLV.Global Office, led by the exceptionally gifted Positive Psychologist, Mirna Šmidt (member of The Happiness Academy & Workshop Facilitator at SLV.Europe) that I realised my desire to constantly be busy and have things to do wasn’t because i’m inherently lazy, but because I crave having a purpose.

As I began thinking about this more in depth, my mind would’t stop raking over the previous life events where I hadn’t had that sense of “busyness” or what I now know to be purpose. All of a sudden, these periods of my life, such as flat hunting at the end of first year, returning from Sri Lanka or finishing my Undergraduate amongst many other things, have started to make a great deal more sense to me in terms of understanding why I struggled so much to motivate myself. The reality is, my lack of “productivity” wasn’t due to having 10 minutes to sit down, but was due to a lack of purpose and the subsequent knock on effects that had on my own happiness.

Although this World Mental Health day is themed around Mental Health promotion and Suicide Prevention, I really felt after trying to further understand my own struggles, that so much can be achieved by giving an individual a sense of purpose, ourselves included.

Something I feel I am hearing more and more frequently, especially within the context of listening to my fellow MSc Global Mental Health colleagues at KCL and LSHTM and my old and new colleagues at SLV.Global, is the need to empower service users to the point that they feel validated, relevant and that they have a purpose within life. Despite this awareness and passionate goal however, there is still a worrying amount of people, especially mental health professionals not practicing what they preach, something I commonly fall foul of.

Referring back to the workshop I mentioned earlier with Mirna, another key component she highlighted when discussing the meaning of happiness was the need for gratitude, not just towards others but also to ourselves. Again, this is something I feel is very commonly discussed, whether that’s in the classroom, on the way home or even abroad on volunteer/work placements, but seldom practiced, either by mental health professionals or those who advocate for following said practices.

So, this World Mental Health Day, and for every day that follows, I would like to challenge you, yes YOU to find the purpose in everything you do. And once you have found that purpose, be GRATEFUL for it! Having the ability to discover why we do things and how that serves both our present and future selves is a skill that all should practice, and something I will personally be pushing myself to do wherever possible.

Only once we as individuals have gained this understanding of our own purpose and have truly expressed gratitude towards ourselves for everything we do, is it possible, in my opinion, for us to empower other individuals to do the same.

Just BREATHE – An anxious mind abroad

Just over four years ago I experienced my first panic attack, which subsequently kick started a period of anxiety of roughly a month long, during which, I experienced for the first time in my life the truly extraordinary ways in which Anxiety can completely infect your entire body within moments, before leaving sometimes just as fast. This was, for me at least, a very rude awakening and extremely frightening experience, as is the case with many who suffer from any form of anxiety, whether diagnosed or not.

Being several years older and a whole psychology degree “wiser”, I now feel as though, whilst I cannot stop the episodes of anxiety from happening, I have at least reached a stage where I am able to turn them into periods of learning and self-development. That hasn’t however always been the case. Those of you with an eagle eye and a keen interest in language will have noticed that in the previous paragraph I referenced how Anxiety infected my entire body, something which many people would not think a common symptom of Anxiety. The reason I highlight this however is that for many people, especially those currently experiencing higher levels of anxiety, the causes my not always display as ones limited to the brain. An example of this would be the fact that for months (and even still to this day in small amounts) I was convinced that my panic attacks were actually due to a severe reaction to some off food that I had eaten, which would then result in me refusing to eat. So dramatic was this dissociation that during my month long period of prolonged anxiety, I actually had myself tested for coeliacs disease, something which runs in my family.

Of course, and much to my frustration at the time, the tests came back clear and it wasn’t until after my final exam had finished that all of a sudden the enormous weight was lifted and I realised how easily i’d been tricked by my anxious brain into replacing all logic with sheer panic.

Fast forward several years and I find myself sat here in Bali, still occasionally being tricked by my own brain into thinking that something majorly wrong is going on and it is probably due to either having Bali belly or something even more sinister. I sit here writing this blog in fact, with the confidence to say that I would not have been able to write a blogpost such as this just last week, due to the recent high levels of anxiety i’ve been feeling.

I am also sat writing this, not to encourage messages of sympathy, but in fact to share my own experiences with past, present and future volunteers, and with anyone reading that may suffer from anxiety or know of people who do. There are many challenges that volunteers face when coming on placement, not least the language barriers, dietary changes, increased temperature and constant need for hydration, mixed with the differing and often challenging projects themselves. Therefore, adding any other form of preexisting anxiety can always seem like a daunting and worrying scenario. Working for a global mental health company does of course mean that mental health is constantly discussed through open platforms and support is constantly on offer and frequently encouraged.

As the saying goes however “the best doctors make the worst patients”, something I really feel resonates with many mental health professionals. Despite being surrounded by mental health professionals, and seeing first hand the effect that seeking help can have, I find it personally baffling how I can still have such a blasé view of my own mental health. Over the last fortnight in particular, it’s only been once my body has forced me to take a break that I have actually sat and evaluated where my current mental health state is at. Despite this ignorance however, I will still confidently talk in a CBT workshop or to fellow volunteers about the various different ways in which individuals should cope with their anxiety, almost forgetting that I am the first person to completely throw that logic out of the window when I am in a period of heightened anxiety.

Perhaps one of the most frustrating – and subsequently least helpful – things to say to anyone suffering from any form of diagnosed or undiagnosed mental illness is to tell them to “just breathe”, and yet, the two words have become a core part of many teachings, self-help books and have even become entwined within therapy sessions themselves. Those of you that have come to know me, know that my obsession with language leads me to be fascinated about the various different ways in which the same messages are conveyed through the use of different words. “Just Breathe” is a prime example of this, the activity of breathing itself is of course essential to life, and has in many research papers been shown to dramatically decrease the effects of anxiety when practiced regularly. But how, when an individual (myself included) is in a stage of panic, do we, either as mental health individuals or as just friends/family trying to help, convey such a logical instruction without it sounding condescending?

I’m not sure I, or anyone else for that matter, would ever be able to fully answer that question, as each individual interprets different things in different ways. What I may consider ignorant, may be considered helpful to another person. Therefore, I can only speak from my own experience in that, when logic seems to fail, it is actions that prove most effective, not words.

Coming to the end of my placement with SLV.Global, I have been extremely fortunate to continue enhancing my non-verbal communication skills whilst in Bali, something that has not only helped me communicate with those that are unable to understand the language I speak, but has also helped me reconnect to the more basic aspects of how I personally feel I should approach my own mental health.

Personally, when I am experiencing episodes of panic, I don’t feel capable of having a conversation, nor do I feel comfortable being left with my own thoughts. How therefore, can anyone help me if I won’t allow conversation but also won’t seek solitude? Actions. For me, having someone who is calm and neutral in my presence when I am going through the motions of a panic attack makes an enormous difference. This may be something I require on a personal level, but for all those considering working in mental health, whether it’s at home or abroad, considering how you could convey the ideas you wish to convey through actions and non-verbal communication, instead of easily misinterpreted language, may just be the break-through that a person has long been seeking.

I will never be fully in control of my anxiety, it is not something I can own or prevent, there will always be some level of anxiety that I feel around particular things. What I can do however, is continue to learn from my own experiences and use the experiences of others to mould how I approach not only the maintenance of my own mental health, but helping others with their own personal mental health maintenance.

This world suicide prevention day (10th September), I really feel strongly that the sharing of experiences and the encouragement of openness and acceptance can be the difference between someone seeking help or not. In particular, I encourage all those mental health professionals I have come to know, and all those I haven’t, to really take the time, space and help offered to focus on their own mental health and to use those experiences, if possible, to help others less able to reflect more on the challenges they face themselves.

In sharing my own experiences, I hope I have helped in some way bring some understanding to the many different and often unapparent ways that anxiety in particular can effect individuals from all walks of life. For me, having an anxious brain abroad has fortunately never stopped me from pursuing my dreams, and I have been exceptionally lucky to face the challenges I have faced as part of an exceptional team of professionals in Bali with the SLV.Global team.

For now though, I hope that all those that have read my blogposts in Bali have found them interesting, and I look forward to writing more upon my arrival back to London.

Samaritans hotline for those in need: 116 123 (UK)

Spirituality: The Dark Side of Paradise

Well, it’s now over 5 weeks since I touched down in Bali and during that time i’ve been fortunate enough to delve even deeper into the complex and fascinating Balinese culture, along with getting a brief week-long glimpse at Javan culture.

As with every country however, what I find almost the most fascinating is the prevalence and impact of religion and spirituality on the culture and therefore the way in which various different things (such as mental illnesses) are approached and discussed.

Being a majority Hindu Island, Bali stands out from a lot of Indonesia as a more relaxed and liberal culture, helped further by the high levels of tourism which bring with it the opportunity to diversify into different cultural traditions. Despite this however, many Balinese people’s lives are still strongly dominated by the traditions and celebrations that come as a part of such a vibrant religion such as Hinduism. In many instances, this intense regime of ceremonies can provide a strong community feel and helps to bring villages together on a regular basis. In some instances however, these ceremonies can help to cultivate a challenging environment, in which levels of economic and social status are clearly laid bare.

Holding religion in such high regard can also cause a number of difficulties, especially when considering the concepts of Karma, whereby behaviours or even issues can be excused as something the individual deserved or earned either in their current or a previous life. Despite recent efforts by the Indonesian Government to adapt the mental health laws, due to the complex geographical nature of Indonesia (there’s over 17,000 Islands with a population of over 200 million), paired with the wide ranging types of religion followed across the different Islands (Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and Christianity), these changes often take years to fully implement, with no real way for the Government to keep track of how closely the laws are being followed. When considering these issues therefore, it is no real surprise that in most cases the main way of finding resolutions to any problems (physical, mental or social) will often be through contacting the local spiritual leader or finding a spiritual healer (also known as a Balian).

Whilst often very knowledgeable individuals, these healers do not necessarily have any formal qualifications in either medicine or mental health, as can be seen with a brief view at the history of mental health treatment in Bali. Whilst there are still thousands of cases of Pasung across Indonesia, there have been enormous efforts made by both the Government and multiple NGOs to eradicate the practice. Pasung is the term used to describe the chaining or imprisonment of individuals, commonly in a hut or shed close to the family home but away from sight. In many cases, the individual would be naked and left in the hut to eat and defecate in the same space for months at a time. This ancient practice has long been eradicated in most Western Countries, but still remains in many Indonesian Islands (including Bali) where spiritual healers or families presume the mentally ill individual is in fact possessed by a form of evil spirit or suffering from a curse inflicted on them by another member of the community.

Perhaps the most extreme version of where religion and spiritual beliefs can cause issues, especially with the treatment of mental health disorders, the practice of Pasung also forces those who still have a rose tinted perception of mental health treatment in many South East Asian countries to take a hard look at reality. The practice also brings to light however the many unsung heroes, both national and international and the need for more comprehensive education.

What struck me most about spirituality in Bali however was not hearing about the practice of Pasung, or the structure of treatment at the Psychiatric facilities, or the availability of therapies but in fact the self enlightenment that occurred when I attended a workshop conducted by a Balian. What shocked me most was not what she said, but the level of subconscious superiority and Western privilege I had taken into the room. Not being a particular follower of religion, I have always carried the belief that religion should be kept separate away from the treatment of Mental Health.

After attending the Balian workshop however I was enlightened somewhat to my privilege and have begun to appreciate the need to work alongside religious beliefs, especially in very religious countries, when constructing mental health interventions. This is perhaps one of the many reasons I’m such an SLV.Global fan, the way in which they sensitively approach any and all cultural and religious differences with an open mind and never with the view that ‘West is Best’ is something many Western individuals and NGOs could do with observing and learning from.

The fact is, whilst I don’t personally understand how people can so devoutly follow a religion that they would risk abandoning their own family members, I have also grown up in a completely different environment with a completely different set of values. Whilst the practices of Pasung and the beliefs in “Dark Magic” do create often pressing and immediate risks to those suffering with Mental Health issues, there is a lot to be said for collaborative work between trained professionals and the religious community.

I know that there will be plenty of learned individuals reading this who would argue that religion should just be completely banned as the misinterpretation of such massively important things can often have devastating effects. I would however argue that this task is simply impossible, and, whilst the issues created should never be ignored, neither should the massive benefits such views can have when used carefully. Being invited to participate in the Balinese festival of Galungan a few weeks ago was a prime example of how an entire community all of a sudden felt a lot more closely connected. Friends and family were celebrating, dancing, eating and praying, each with their own personal problems but each also connected by the wider feeling of being part of something bigger.

I’m not sure i’ll ever be sold on religion personally, but Bali has certainly opened my eyes a little more to the wide ranging positive effects and the desperate need for Western NGOs to actively engage and educate the community on how their beliefs can create a positive impact further.

Thanks so much for reading, as you may have seen from previous posts I am currently fundraising for my time in Bali. The 12 weeks I am out in country have been completely self funded and I am working voluntarily, this however means that purchasing resources and my weekly expenses can sometimes become difficult. Any help would be greatly appreciated!