Making a difference – MHFA at Leeds Mencap

dsc_2573_22389755988_oIt dawned on me with some surprise that I’ve been an MHFA trainer for over two years now – I’ve run around 18 courses I think, in Leeds, London, Burnley. I’ve had three different co-trainers, and also run some sessions alone.  Varying sized groups, each one different and with its own unique discussions and lessons to learn. But all have been in the same context – within my “day-job” employer.

Mental health is one of the leading causes of sickness absence, and of disability related unemployment. A lack of understanding of mental health issues in employers can make life very difficult for those of us who are trying to stay in work while managing our conditions. So I do not underplay the value of delivering MHFA in the workplace. Absolutely not – I doubt I would have held on to my job at certain points in the past few years had my employer not accepted their duty to make reasonable adjustments, and my managers worked with me to find out what helped me to keep delivering as they expected.

However, it can’t be denied that it is somewhat of a “safe” environment. A) a lot of our staff have perhaps a higher level of awareness of health issues, as that is the area we work in, and B) – if you go for a course in your own workplace, you are still very much in a work mindset, there is probably a consciousness than anything you might say might get back to your manager – or indeed you might be sharing the room with others who you might work with. There will inevitably be some element of holding back.

So – it was with some nervousness, as well as excitement that I arrived at Mencap Leeds to deliver my first freelance MHFA course “in the wild” – or out in the community. I knew that it would be different, and I was keen to find out how.

My co-trainer Sam had done the hard work of organising and advertising, so all I had to do was turn up, set up and bring my training mojo.

We had a full room, 16 trainees, from a variety of organisations. An interesting mix – from a law firm, construction company, local council, recruitment, charities and individual participants. A good group from the local Nigerian community so some ethnic diversity, though sadly only one man in the group (it really would be nice to get more men along.)

There was some practical / logistical learning for Sam and I – the group was a bit more prone to discussions amongst themselves, and the use of workbooks meant they could see ahead of time some of the exercises which benefited from the element of surprise – so we will need to learn to be a bit more “teacherly” and keep things more under control in future.

We had some excellent discussions – it is always a challenge to fit all the content in and still have the chance to share some  of the thoughts and experiences we each bring to the session, but it is I think where a lot of the real learning and changing goes on. We had people with personal experience, and who developed new understanding about people in their lives.

One aspect that particularly stood out for people was the number of men who die through suicide. Some of you may have seen recent campaigns aimed at raising awareness of mental health issues in men – getting people to realise there is nothing unmanly or wrong about talking about your emotions, admitting you are having a hard time, asking for help. It is a huge problem – and one which is even more pronounced in cultures, or sections of society which have more exagerrated or strongly deliniated gender roles.

Of 6,233 suicides in the UK in 2013, 4,858 or nearly 78% were men. And if anything we know this is under-reporting. For a variety of reasons some suicides will end up being coded as misadventure, accident or other reasons. Suicide in general is a major public health issue – it kills many more people than die on our roads. Most people who take their own lives have not been in touch with mental health services in the year previously, which suggests there is a major opportunity to help prevent these deaths – if we can help people to feel able to admit they are struggling, and talk about things with friends – then hopefully we can help them to seek help, and find the hope they need to hold on.

We also discussed the challenges faced in trying to increase understanding in some cultures where mental health is viewed in a very different way. It is difficult to manage our own frustration, disagreement, even anger, when faced with someone who, for instance, might see mental health problems as a sign of possession by demons, or even evil – but simply shouting over or dismissing another person’s belief is unlikely to help anyone. Even in our own country and society there is plenty of stigma and misunderstanding, and many people who would rather turn their back on people with severe mental health problems, or view people as lazy or weak, than take the time to understand psychosis or appreciate the impact of depression and anxiety. It’s not long since the standard approach to someone who experienced extreme distress, or detatchment from reality was to lock them away and forget about them. We can hardly be surprised that there are places in the world where this still stands (or is perhaps the best someone can expect). Our job is to keep trying to educate, and help people to understand mental health as a normal spectrum of experience – how this can develop and also that it can be helped.

At some point in the afternoon I realised – or more accurately, remembered, the importance of the work we do. That it is bigger than ensuring your manager understands to help you manage your stress levels and gives you the adjustments you need (though these are important in their own way) – but actually at root, the reason I teach MHFA, and strive to raise awareness and understanding of Mental Health – is that this is a life or death issue.

I have been on the brink of death. Though it is many years since I did anything about it, I have wanted to die. And I am sure I would have taken that step had I not learned some of the things which keep me hopeful, which help me remember that the clouds will pass.  But I did get help, I continue to find ways of coping with life and the muddle of emotions that sweep me this way and that. I can even control them more than I ever thought possible. Helping more people to understand that this is not something someone pretends for fun, or attention, but a very real and painful illness – is so very important.

And as we help to keep people alive, we must also help them live, build lives, families, relationships, have jobs, dreams and desires. Because we all deserve to be happy and fulfilled, and I am confident that with the right support and understanding, we can.

If you’d like to come along and learn how you can help make a difference, we’re running another session in February – you can book on Eventbrite, here:


All things to all men

MHFA logo

I keep saying to myself that I will do a bit of a reflective wash up after each course – to think about what I have learnt, what went well, what didn’t, what could be improved. So. Here I go.

I just ran a course on the 19th & 20th August – in my workplace. Slightly larger group than I have done before mostly, thanks to being able to get one of the larger “board” rooms which are usually occupied by branch meetings, large video conferences, or appearances by our senior management. Another thing that differed from usual was that it was two consecutive days. Feedback in the past has been that people find it hard enough to get one day away from the office in a week, let alone two – but August is a quieter month for some, and as my co-trainer was travelling from London it was more convenient for them to do it in one chunk.  After all, that is how the course is designed to be delivered – though it does feel quite intensive, and very tiring.

So – logistics wise. The room itself was a bit strange. It is large – the left hand side of the room has a big screen, which had rows of chairs laid out infront, theatre style – (and a smaller screen behind them); the right hand side of the room has a large board room set up, table with chairs around.  This presented a bit of a dilemma, as we needed trainees to see the screen for the presentations and videos, but the table area was more appropriate for group exercises, and general discussions. I initially intended to stick with the theatre arrangement, and move over to the tables for the exercises, but I could tell it wasn’t really working. People weren’t talking to eachother as much as usual, they were a bit closed off, – and not surprising as they were sat with their backs to others. So we decided to switch things around at lunchtime, and moved the tables over so people sat around – but could still see the screen.

We (the trainers) were happier with this. The group did seem to open up and gel a bit more then. However the table layout was mentioned negatively in some feedback, as it meant looking at the screen side on. I guess you can’t please them all – everyone has their own preferences. I still think I would do the same, as I don’t think we would have got the same development in the room had we stayed in neat little rows.

The room was relatively well air conditioned – with opening windows (like hens teeth in our building) – which again, was great for the trainers, who were overheating, but some people found it cold. On balance, having been in overpopulated tiny rooms that turn into saunas – I think it preferable, but I wonder is there a middle ground to be had anywhere in the building. All of the rooms make you feel like Goldilocks – this one is too hot, this one too cold, this one is too small, this one too big…  We can only work with the resources we have.

I had been a little concerned about the slightly larger group, wondering if I woud be able to keep control, if discussions would go on longer than we had time for, etc. but it was alright. In the end we still had three spaces below maximum, and it worked pretty well. Had there been more “talkative” attendees it might have been different but there was a balance really of the quieter and the “loquacious”.

Content wise – I will be honest and say it wasn’t my most successful session. We still got good feedback, but sometimes I come away feeling like people have really benefited / enjoyed / learned / bonded. Not so much this time. And I think it comes back to the issue of trying to be all things to all men. The people there were wanting quite different things, I think – some of them got what they were looking for, some of them maybe didn’t.

What is the course for, after all? We aim to raise awareness of mental health issues, challenge stigma, educate about symptoms and treatment, and give people some skills to use in offering first aid for people in mental health crisis situations. There is applicability in a work setting, and it is discussed, but it is a very holistic view. What you get out of it comes down to a number of factors – what is your level of understanding about mental health when you come in, what are your expectations, and can you empathise with what you are being shown? Everyone has different learning styles, so there are different kinds of content: statistics, images, video, group exercises, personal reflection. Different people in the same group will find different aspects more or less useful. Personal anecdotes and background discussion add depth to the content – but sometimes people want more.

The course is very recovery focussed, because that is the most important message. It is about giving people with Mental Health issues hope – because for the vast majority, recovery is possible, with the correct treatment and/or support. It is also about letting everyone know that recovery is possible, and that consigning people with Mental Health problems to the rubbish heap of life is not only wrong on a personal and moral level, but also a massive waste. Friends and family need to know that they can play an enormous role in helping someone recover, employers need to know that if they support a member of staff with mental health issues they will remember, and could be repaying that investment and belief for years to come, once they come through the other side. For there is another side, for an awful lot of people.

That being said, some people comment that they don’t get a real feel for exactly what some of the people talking about different issues in the videos were feeling before they reached the stage of recovery they are in. Sometimes we talk in euphemisms, which mean a great deal to someone else who has experienced a feeling, but nothing to someone who hasn’t. Perhaps there is a need for a little more bluntness.  But then – I don’t really want other people to understand how I feel. I wouldn’t wish that on them, if they didn’t need to. What I do want, is for them to take my word for it that it is as bad as I make out, and not assume I am faking / exaggerating / weak.

There is a note of caution in this kind of work – just as best practice reporting on suicide does not give details about the methods used, lest it encourage others to follow suit, – we don’t want to trigger worsening of individuals conditions by dwelling on the dark details. But sometimes it might be important to describe more clearly the way we feel and thing in our worst moments, to those who only ever see us when we are well.

We had a couple of more senior people in this group – which was interesting, they seemed more practically driven. How can I use this to support my staff, what does it mean. Which is heartening, as we certainly need to see managers thinking this way – and improving their understanding. However I think some of them were frustrated by the more basic elements of the course, feeling that what they needed to get out of it could be done in a shorter time, in a more directive way. But – MHFA doesn’t assume any basic level of knowledge, and it is not just for managers, or people with a good grounding in health already. Part of the important learning for me is about self reflection, and sharing amongst the group – and that only comes with time.

Which brings me back to the two consecutive days – it has its benefits – a good focus, perhaps. However I do think that a little gap in between, ideally including a weekend, gives time for processing, absorbing, discussing – and somehow makes for a more satisfying experience. Which is an interesting thing for me, as I always kind of wanted to be able to do it as originally intended. I don’t know. There’s also the issue of feeling rushed, and like people want to be back at their desks – which is inherent in a) being in the same building as said desks, and b) not being external trainers.

I only flicked briefly through the feedback, which was mostly good. some people rating my co-trainer better than I, some vice versa – only natural as I say – we will all have preferences, and relate more to one person’s style than another.  I don’t think I was at my best, but I’m my own worst critic – so long as other people are happy I will have to take their word for it.

My next training will be in Hebden Bridge, on 19th / 26th September – if this goes ahead. I currently don’t have sufficent bookings, so if you are interested do get in touch as soon as possible as I have to cancel in early September or I have to pay for the room anyway! If these dates are no good for you please also get in touch as I will be looking to plan something else in Calderdale soon.

Bricks in the stress bucket

Stress bucket
Image by Christian Schnettelker via Flickr, Creative Commons License

MHFA introduced me to the stress bucket. It’s so simple really. That we all have our “buckets” – into which all of the stresses of life flow. And which, if the stress becomes more than our bucket can handle, will overflow – at which point we can start to experience symptoms of mental ill health. We can use coping strategies to help tap the bucket, and allow stress to flow away in a healthy and manageable way.

However, no matter how hard we try, no matter how good our coping strategies – exercise, medicines, meditation – no matter how much we avoid the things we know are bad for us – sometimes life throws in a brick and makes it impossible to avoid the inevitable splash.

I’ve been coping pretty well with a high level of workplace stress, money worries, concern about family – for a long time. Mindfulness has been a massive help, improving my sleep; also being realistic and kind to myself – letting go, accepting that the task at hand is too big for me to be able to do everything perfectly, and that is ok. These things have helped me keep my anxiety and depression at bay – most of the time. But a few weeks ago we suffered a tragic loss – my mother-in-law passed away. She had been ill for some time, but was not expected to go when she did, and it was a horrible shock. The intervening few weeks, funeral arrangements, and supporting my husband, father-in-law, and the rest of the family – have been hard, and very very sad.

Coming out of the other side, and finding our way through this new world, is difficult. Death is a part of life, but I don’t think it is ever easy to say goodbye. And Death is a particular problem of mine, as I have written about before.  I have had a few very low days, and struggled to face work (and a particularly stressful issue there) after my bereavement leave – but I am coping. I am taking it day by day, and trying not to let my philosophical thought processes about the nature of life and the universe spiral into destructive negative thinking. And I come back to kindness.  Not beating myself up that I am not able to be Mrs happy-go-lucky, Mrs totally reliable, Mrs energetic and on the ball – not right now. I am dealing with a brick in my bucket as well as the usual heavy flow of stress, so it is going to take more of an effort to be on an even keel. And the only thing that will help break up that brick, help learn to deal with the loss – is time, and love, and that’s ok – it has to be.

[Come and learn more about the Stress Bucket and Mental Health First Aid in Hebden Bridge in September…]

Mental Health First Aid Training – Hebden Bridge – September 2015 – Cancelled

Image of Hebden Bridge Houses
Image of Hebden Bridge by Tim Green via Flickr, Creative Commons License

*** Update***

Unfortunately I have had to cancel this course due to low interest – I will be arranging something else in the Calderdale area in the future so please get in touch if you are interested.

I am pleased to announce an MHFA training course later this year in my home town of Hebden Bridge. I have selected the dates, (two consecutive saturdays for this two day course) based on the preferences of a small sample of interested parties. If you are interested but can’t make these dates, or this configuration is no good for you, please contact me and I will see if I can arrange something more suitable the next time around.

Mental Health First Aid Training
Saturday 19th and Saturday 26th September 2015 9am – 5pm
Hebden Bridge Town Hall, Terrace Room,
St George Street, Hebden Bridge

Cost: £150 per person

Mental Health First Aid Training aims to raise awareness about Mental Health, and enable people to understand and spot signs and symptoms of some of the more common, and more severe mental health diagnoses.

This two day course will teach you techniques to offer support to people in crisis, and also how to understand and manage your own wellbeing. We look at Anxiety, Depression, Psychosis and Suicide, as well as touching on eating disorders, self harm, and bipolar disorder.

With Mental Health problems affecting 1 in 4 people, and being one of the leading causes of sickness absence in the workplace, and disability – this is a vital course for all of us, as individuals, friends and family members, employers and colleagues.

To book, please email

Nb. – If you would like me to arrange a course for your employees / colleagues in your workplace, please contact me to discuss costs and available dates.

Hebden Bridge WI

 hebden bridge WI logo Back in March I gave a talk on Mental Health and Mindfulness to my local Women’s Institute – which was daunting but rewarding. I’ve been a member of Hebden Bridge WI for a few years, and it has contributed greatly to my Wellbeing in that time. It has helped me to get to know people in a new town, taught me new things, and enriched my life. 

The Women’s Institute has been a powerful force for good for a hundred years – most people don’t realise how radical an idea it was to bring women of all classes together in those days. They have campaigned on controversial issues and helped keep Britain going at times of crisis. 

In the post war years, the Institute fell out of favour somewhat, people became more isolated, and turned to the exciting world of convenience and ready made things, not being interested in learning how to do something an international corporation was quite happy to do for them. And who can blame them, after centuries of having to do these things, the luxury of being able to buy a nice jar of jam, or a machine knitted jumper, for not very much money must have seemed amazing. And as women started to go out to work the time available became much more precious.  

However, times change, and we began to see the consequences of industrialisation, and the value of hand made a little more. And perhaps it was my generation growing up and wondering why we didn’t know how to do things our great grandmothers would have been able to do blindfolded, things our mothers and perhaps grandmothers had not wanted to learn, or spend time on – which has lead to the recent revival of WI branches across the land, along with craft and cooking classes.  

Hebden Bridge WI is not “your stereotypical WI”. It couldn’t be, whatever that is anyway, as Hebden Bridge is not a typical town. We have such a concentration of diversity, creativity and talent, that we are very lucky to be able to draw on members for fascinating speakers, as well as paying for people to come in. (Not that I was necessarily fascinating) I know not everywhere is as lucky – I have a friend who is in a small rural WI with only a few very elderly members, and her experience is not the same as mine – though she enjoys the things they do.  Over the years we’ve had sessions on self defence, gin tasting, wild mushrooms, Palestinian cookery and the situation in Gaza, storytelling, tea tasting, gift wrapping, photography, fifties hair styling…. Much much more…. And of course, Mental Health.

I’m pleased to say it was one if the most popular sessions in the last year, with quite a few visitors coming along as well as regular members. I tried to outline the prevalence of mental health problems in the UK, the impact on our society and economy, discuss what mental health means, how we can try to improve our mental Wellbeing. And there was a nice little chocolate meditation at the end. I know how to keep a room full of women happy. I also know how to keep a room full of Hebden Bridge women happy, so there were a variety of alternatives including non-dairy, fair trade and organic options 😉

We had questions, one of which being why do people talk about mental health, when it’s mental illness they mean. To which I would say the point is that it is not just about mental illness. If you want to know how someone is, you might ask, how’s your health? Not how’s your illness? We want people to understand that mental health is something we all have, good or bad, and it changes and fluctuates, and some things which affect it we can’t do anything about, and other things we have a good deal of control over. Talking about mental illness, misses a whole side of the spectrum, and allows people who have never had a mental health problem to thing it isn’t relevant to them. When Mental health is relevant to everyone.

Several people came to speak to me after the session, and I got a good deal of interest in Mental Health First Aid, so I am hoping to put on a course in Hebden Bridge later in the year (see next post for details!). We also had an ongoing discussion on the group’s Facebook page. It got people talking and that’s what we need. So we can find solutions, and so we realise that even in our darkest moments, we are not alone.

So, if you are a woman, go and have a look at your local WI and see if it is as great as ours, many are – and if not, why not stage a coup, or set up your own? Or I am sure the other womens and community groups out there are just as rewarding. Meeting new people, learning new things, being a part of your community, all are vital parts of building Wellbeing. And for the fellas – well, there are all sort of options (not to mention of course mixed groups) – my husband thought he had found a funky speakeasy last week in Whitby – and old oak door down an alleyway, with the letters RAOB on the door, and the sounds of merrymaking within. A quick google search informed us it was the meeting house of the Royal Antideluvian Order of the Buffalo or something like that. Fascinating. And they have a Men’s Institute over the river. Who knows what they get up to.

Next Monday Hebden Bridge WI are learning about bees and bee friendly gardens. Awesome.

ps. If your would like me to come talk to your WI or order of the buffalo, drop me a line.

Post Natal Judgementalism

Part of my “day job” involves running news searches on various topics, one of which is Post Natal Depression (PND). Doing this I noticed a cluster of stories around the relationship between PND and breastfeeding. The research by Cristina Borra et al which prompted the stories is available here in the Maternal and Child Health Journal, and suggests that PND was least prevalent in women who wanted to breastfeed and did, followed by women who had never planned to breastfeed – and most prevalent in women who had wanted to, but found they could not carry out this plan when it came to it. However what interested me particularly was the way different news sources chose to pitch the story:

“Less depression among Breastfeeding Mums” – The Western Mail
“Failing to Breastfeed may double risk of depression in Mothers” –
“Breastfeeding helps fight post-natal depression” The Irish Examiner
“Mothers who breastfeed 50% less likely to suffer from post-natal depression; Women who planned to breastfeed but couldn’t even more at risk” – Independent
“Mothers who manage to breastfeed “less likely to get post-natal depression” – The Herald
“Mums at greater risk if they do not breastfeed” – Bristol Post
“Successful breastfeeding lessens post-natal depression risk” Belfast Telegraph
Failed Breastfeeding raises risk of depression – Daily Telegraph
“Breast feed link to blues / Breast-feeding link to happy hormones” Daily Mirror
“Mums choosing not to breastfeed twice as likely to get depression” Daily Mail

Some of the language there is very interesting. I think i’ll give the independent the gold star for balance / clarity, and Daily Mail the wooden spoon, though the Telegraph isn’t far behind. I stress here I’m talking about headlines. The full articles may be models of balance and background information – but headlines are absorbed by all, and the words chosen for them have power. This is where stigma and prejudice are written largest in our society, in bold print letters often three inches high.
Whether or not you breastfeed a child is dependent on many factors – and most responsible mothers / parents will weigh all the pros and cons before deciding whether they intend to try to breastfeed, and for how long. And for those who decide to try – and find it is for whatever reason not possible for them to do this – there is inevitably frustration and disappointment. However – what is unlikely to help mother or baby in this circumstance is judgmental and patronising attitudes from society. Society which has such a messed up attitude towards breastfeeding in any case – raising the breast fed baby as the epitome of all that is good, healthy, and pure – yet holding their stomachs in horror and disgust should a woman actually deign to try and feed her child in a public place, however discretely.

Most interesting of all – is the Daily Mail headline – “Mum’s choosing not to breastfeed” – they highlight that there seems to be a correlation between not breastfeeding and increased risk of PND. What they don’t make clear there is that there is an even stronger correlation for those women who “choose” to breastfeed, but cannot continue. They suggest a woman’s choice not to breastfeed is going to increase her risk of PND, whereas in some cases it will in fact be “choosing” to try and breastfeed in the first place which opens them to even greater risk. A woman feeling guilty about the choice not to breastfeed (for whatever reasons – I was going to say “valid reasons” – but to be honest no one should feel forced to do something with their body they are not comfortable with for any reason) may see that and think, well, if I breastfeed after all, I’ll be fine. Which is clearly not necessarily the case. People should be made aware of the risks and the benefits, to both mother and baby, and allowed to come to their own conclusions about what is right for them and their family.

What motivates the decision to say the glass is half empty, or half full? 50% less likely, for one option is 50% more likely for another. But each phrasing gives a different message. It’s slight, but saying you are 50% less likely to suffer PND if you breastfeed, has a more positive slant, you are reducing your risk by engaging in this activity. 50% more, means you are increasing your risk by not doing this. Which may be true, but without the added information that your risk is even higher if you try and can’t – you are effectively pushing the message that the way to reduce risk is to breastfeed. It’s important to have the full picture, the full range of pros and cons, in order to make an informed decision. The most valuable message to women is perhaps, really look into this carefully and be prepared, and have support for if you decide to try and it doesn’t work out – because you might find that really hard. But surprisingly few outlets decide to highlight that part of the research in their top message.

Using language of success / failure is heavily loaded – just as in discussions of suicide. Someone does, or doesn’t feed their baby from the breast. If someone has wanted to be able to, then clearly they will be disappointed that their plan didn’t pan out – but they shouldn’t be made to feel a failure, less of a woman, or any worse of a mother because of it. So long as you find the right way to make sure your baby is well nourished, and cared for, then you are doing your job. Don’t let anyone else’s ignorant and judgmental language or attitudes tell you otherwise.

The Science of Happiness

I have just done the first week of a really interesting free online course, “The Science of Happiness” – by Berkeley on the edx platform. (You should take a look – there is an endless stream of excellent free learning opportunities)

This course looks at positive psychology and some of the evidence based methods which could help people to live happier lives.

It is enlightening to be given the opportunity to examine my beliefs about happiness, and unpick some of the habits and patterns in my life which get in the way of being as happy as I can. You are asked to add your thoughts to discussion forums as the course goes along, so it’s also interesting to engage with other people’s reactions to the course content.

The first happiness practice they give is daily recognitions of the positives, like my “Friday five” (which I really should try harder to do regularly!) – but in this case it is “the three goods”. There is also a discussion of research suggesting a ratio of three positive emotions to one negative is required to be able to maintain a happy state. Other concepts introduced are the importance of mindfulness, kindness, and gratitude.

All of which has me revisiting some of the tenets of Buddhism, which I have long found interesting in the search for a peaceful mind. Somewhere we need to find a way to accept our woes, and let go of the negativity which can build and fester. To find a way to look on life with love and benevolence, even if it looks back at you with anger and hate.

Anyway – I am looking forward to the next nine weeks, I  don’t think it’s too late to sign up if you like the sound of it.

Death in the Mind of someone Living

The Impossibility of Death in the Mind of a Someone Living on Wikimedia

The artwork pictured, “The Impossibility of Death in the Mind of a Someone Living”, perplexes me. I went to the same school as Damien Hirst, the artist, though some years later. The art and science studios were dotted with strange, sideshow like exhibits, creatures in jars – two axolotls in a tank, (which I swear were completely motionless until one day, in the middle of a biology exam, one swam to the surface, peered over the edge, and then dipped back to resume its stasis). I wonder if those jars influenced Hirst’s proclivity for things in formaldehyde.

But back to the shark. I’m not a student of art. I am quite easy to please though, quite prepared to listen to the intentions of an artist, open myself to how a piece makes me feel, over and above what it looks like. I do kind of like this piece. But I don’t like its name. Or should I say, I don’t get its name. For me, Death is not an impossibility. It is life that seems impossible, improbable. For me, the shark is the inevitability of death, in the mind of the living. Like a surfer on the waves of shark infested waters, we know it is out there somewhere, and can never quite shake the fear that it is just beneath us.

My husband told me this morning he had been awake all night, thinking about death. This is unusual. It is usually me who stares blindly at the ceiling, feeling the terror of loss, the sad pointlessness of existence. He lies dreaming he is a superhero and saving us from alien invasion. Death is my poison. I can conquer almost any of my other negative thoughts or worries, but death, well. It’s inevitable, isn’t it. Perhaps this is why I was so obsessed with vampires as a child. I didn’t fear them, I wanted to be one. To have conquered death, found immortality. When going for CBT, they talked about how they would help stop irrational fears. Fearing death, though, isn’t irrational. It will happen. At the very best, we hope it will happen when we are ancient and sleeping. But we know it could strike at any time. And it is not just our own death we worry about, but that of our loved ones. As we get older the odds shorten, we know one day we will lose someone we can really not bear the thought of losing. Or is the alternative even worse? That we will be the one taken, and our loved ones are left alone to mourn, to deal with the loss and its impact? It is, I find, unbearable at times. My therapist was almost stumped when I tried to explain my fears. My sadness. Why, if we are doomed to lose everything we love, do we bother living at all? Isn’t it a cruel joke on the part of the universe? Of God, if you believe in one? I sometimes long for death not because I hate life, but because I love it so much, but cannot shake the dread of death enough to live it.

So how can we conquer death? How can we see the shadow of the shark beneath us but enjoy our swim regardless? I can’t say I have the answer cracked for me completely. And I am not alone. Death is a great taboo. So many ways in which we accentuate this bogeyman by not speaking of it. Suicide, miscarriage, both far more prevalent than you would imagine, but we don’t speak of them generally. For if we cannot talk freely of “natural” expected death, we certainly don’t speak of these unkind ends, of possibilities snuffed, of lives lived in pain.

Dying Matters is part of a movement to try and make death a more normal part of life. So that fewer of us face it alone, or surrounded by families unprepared to cope with the emotions it raises, or with our affairs not in order as we would wish. Have we shared what we want to happen, when the time comes? Have we written a will, or letters to make sure that the people we love are left with our words of comfort? The language of wills is so much about money and things, but our lives are more than that. I find the concept of a soul midwife very moving, in a way.

I was interested in this story from Korea- a form of Death Therapy which puts people through a kind of false funeral, in an attempt to reduce suicide rates and help people re engage with life. Almost born again but not necessarily in a religious context, you would get to see who cares enough to come, think about who and what you would miss, what your regrets are – and then be able to get up and try and do what you can to appreciate it all that little bit more.

I think for me, those times when I feel easier with death are when I am sure I am doing everything I can to live life. That those I love are in no doubt of it, and I spend time with them enjoying eachother, not just moaning about things. That I am pushing myself. I have so many regrets, some I can never change. But I want to try to be better at life. And also, just I case the inevitable comes before I want it to, make sure I have everything in order, that people know what they mean to me, and what I would want after I’m gone.

I think it is a good, if scary, way to take stock. What would you wish had been different, wish you had said, done – if you died tomorrow? (And had any consciousness of your regret). What can you do when you don’t die tomorrow to prevent that regret from needing to happen later on?

Listening to Hear

ear-clip-art-14 | For Lack of a Better Words

Listening is at the core of Mental Health First Aid. Listening is the most important thing any of us can do for another. It is the first thing a baby needs its parents to do. Listen, take notice, understand what it needs. If the baby cries, and the mother assumes it is hungry, but infact its nappy is wet, it’s going to keep on crying regardless of being fed. So we learn to listen, to interpret, to hear subtle differences.

With adult communication though listening gets harder. There’s so much noise, both actual and metaphorical. So many of our own beliefs, emotional responses, opinions, get in the way. And as my co-trainer so often points out, usually, we listen in order to see what we have to respond to. We listen to answer. So half of our mind is taken up thinking of what we think about what is being said, so we don’t actually hear it properly. To listen to hear, and understand, is quite different. It requires us to put our own beliefs, opinions, emotions, to one side for a while, and just open our ears and hearts. Understand what is being said and how it feels, what it means to the person speaking. You can reflect on how you feel later, after you have listened.

It isn’t easy, but it is enormously generous and valuable if you can be there and listen for a friend in need.

A poem over on the moodscope blog says it pretty well too.