This week we mark Mental Health Awareness Week. It is an opportunity to acknowledge that, in this time of Covid-19 and lockdown, our mental and emotional health may be suffering acutely. For some, there are specific reasons for this, as many are grieving the premature deaths of loved ones or are exposed to the pain of people affected by the virus. For others, the realities of lockdown may have unleashed a tide of unfamiliar and frightening emotions. For me, anxiety has been a new shadow that I’m getting to know. It is not something I was previously aware of suffering from, but now I feel it arise on a fairly regular basis for no apparent reason.
But actually, in these new experiences, I have come to realise something. Part of our human condition is the desire to have certainty and to have solutions. And also to push on through, regardless of what our body, emotions or wider environment is telling us. And so my anxiety, like that of so many others on this planet right now, is a signal of this ongoing inability to do what us humans do best (to a fault): to pretend that we have the power and ability to carry on as normal, no matter what. To find the answers to all our problems. The ubiquity of conspiracy theories is evidence of this underlying anxiety to want answers and to regain control.
In the work environment, I’ve noticed that whilst many people have been put on furlough and so have a lot of time on their hands, others are continuing to work from home; often far busier than before, because now they are juggling the pressures of their job with the pressures of home schooling or caring for family members – as well as endless screen time that leaves them feeling more tired and unfocused and less able to complete specific tasks in the usual timeframe.
There is thus still a dominant narrative that we can carry on with business as usual. In the aid sector we know this pattern well; put aside our own problems and focus on the needs of the communities we serve. Yet unless we confront our own vulnerabilities, our shadows of fear, guilt, anxiety, we are losing a core element of what it truly means to be a humanitarian: to understand our humanness, in all its complexity. Business as usual within the aid sector runs the risk of being ‘always the hero’, whilst it is only ever the other, in the countries aid interventions take place, who is vulnerable. And thus an age-old power imbalance that echoes our colonial past remains in tact.
And so with these problems arising in our societies and in our work ethic, what can we do for our personal and collective wellbeing? What can we be exploring, discussing and practising in Mental Health Awareness Week and beyond? Here are a few thoughts:
First of all, enough of assuming that one size fits all in our approach to mental health and wellness. We need to start seeing these concepts as socially constructed; determined by a person’s position and how they are viewed within their family, community, by their leaders and wider society. Thus my sense of wellbeing as a white middle-class able-bodied cis woman is likely to be very different from that of a person of colour, a person with a disability, someone with diverse sexual orientation or gender identity; or any mixture of these (or other) personal attributes or lived experiences.
Offering mindfulness exercises or yoga practices may be well and good, and much needed, for some people. But we have to acknowledge that these wellness practices have been commoditised in a way that fits a neoliberal agenda; one that individualises our happiness and wellbeing and diverts attention away from systemic and structural problems that influence our experiences. As someone who has practised meditation for many years and is nearing my certification as a yoga teacher, I am not about to completely dismiss these practices. But they are now used in work environments and yoga studios as the panacea to all ills. They suggest that if we only learn to breathe better, or to be more present with our thoughts and emotions, then we can carry on with business as usual. Whilst these assumptions continue to pervade wellness interventions, we are missing the opportunity that is being handed to us right now to think, and be, different in how we approach our lives, our work and our collective wellbeing.
The approach I take, and have been applying through workshops I recently ran for a humanitarian organisation, attempts to challenge the assumptions that keep us stuck in the same routines that damage ourselves and our societies. What we need right now is not simply a list of breathing and meditation practices; this must be complemented by a space in which people can explore their relationship to each other, their work and their own fears and desires. Where they are given permission to feel. To get to know their own shadows from a place of care and compassion. To cultivate enough courage to speak their own truth about how this pandemic, as well as ongoing social and economic inequalities, directly affect them. And where they can start to daydream, and reimagine, a different social system or community or work environment or relationship; one where as an individual we feel safer, more connected and more supported.
The work I do is not about finding concrete, measurable solutions to our problems. This habit to rationalise and problem-solve has dominated our societies – and our work within the aid sector – for decades. And it has been at the expense of our other human capacities that are less cognitive and more emotional, less analytical and more creative. Our habit over so many years to be lead by our brains does little to connect us to the lived experiences of others. It is through our bodies and our emotions that we can feel this more clearly. Which is why I come back to what this pandemic can teach us, particularly as we mark Mental Health Awareness Week: to be aware of our sameness in our emotional bodies, and also our differences, that are framed by the social systems that benefit some more than others. It is from this space of collective care and awareness that we may create together the societies and communities that nourish all of us in mind, body and soul.
Do you want to reimagine wellbeing for yourself and your workplace, in a way that challenges old hierarchies, routines and assumptions that no longer serve us? Then please get in touch!