Monday 18th May marked the start of Mental Health Awareness Week 2020, and what a flipping time to be raising awareness of the importance of good mental health.
Being a locked-down runner who lives vicariously through Instagram, I’ve seen a ton of posts about the links between physical health (usually exercise and good diet) and mental health. One is often credited with influencing the other, whether that’s low mood or lack of motivation making it hard to get up and move around, or the head-clearing effects of a good workout. You’ll find 3.5 million Insta posts under the hashtag #runningmotivation alone.
This is not to say that mental ill health like depression or anxiety can be instantly cured by a run: for starters, although they’re often quoted together they are two very different things, can be experienced for very different reasons and in very different ways depending on who you’re talking to, and they are medical conditions not to be treated like a mardy half hour. But we also know that both are more widely reported now than, say, 40 years ago, in which time we’ve also seen an overall increase in sedentary behaviour, the introduction of smartphones, and a shift in the patterns of social interaction. (I’m not going to talk too much about this here but I strongly recommend Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism for a study of the effects of social media on social interaction, including a correlation between the introduction of the smartphone and a rise in anxiety in young people.) In any case, unless we can control for all the variables that define life in 1980 and life now, we can’t know for certain how much technology or lifestyle contribute to this increase, if at all. But we’ve worked out that we can use that technology to retake control of our lifestyle.
So it’s understandable that our sedentary, screen-addicted society increasingly pursues the idea of mens sana in corpore sano (a healthy mind in a healthy body) by following popular diet programs, taking up a new sport or activity (parkrun and CrossFit being pretty notable among these), and using apps and social media to create virtual communities with no physical base, such as the Lonely Goat Running Club and Runspire. My gateway drug to running was a pledge to raise money for the cancer charities that cared for one of my childhood friends; I stayed with it when my self-esteem rocketed; now I run because it gives me a whole new community of people that I’m proud to call friends, as well as a sense of self-worth and, most importantly, of control, of autonomy. If the growth of parkrun is any indicator, it seems there are thousands of others that feel similarly to me.
And now, here comes 2020 to hit us in the face with a massive brick. A massive coronavirus shaped brick. Bye bye mental health.
If you’re putting your life at risk every day just so the country can still rely on healthcare, groceries, education and utilities, there’s a whole new level of fear to face every day, compounded by the possibility of PTSD or moral injury among healthcare workers. If you run a small business or are self-employed, the risk of economic collapse could well be hanging like the sword of Damocles, bringing the anxiety of not knowing (or even having control over) when and how to safely restart operations. If you’re grieving the loss of a loved one, you’re likely doing it with little to no support, unable even to give them a send-off that they deserve and left without closure. Lockdown has presented the UK with a sharp uptick in reports of domestic abuse, and if you’re one such victim you’re faced with even less opportunity to escape. And if you’re one of the furloughed, working from home, homeschoolers and caregivers, isolation is probably forcing you to re-evaluate everything you thought you knew. Including what it’s like to talk to another grown-up.
So why am I talking about this on a running blog?
Something at the core of Cal Newports’ plea to digitally minimise our lives; something the LSE blog linked above calls key to the resilience that is “essential for key workers’ mental health”; something at the heart of both parkrun and CrossFit’s values; something that, frankly, pays my bills. Community, assembly, shared experience.
I create theatre for a living, I have done all my professional life and before that I traipsed around on my mum’s coat-tails as she did the same. An occupational hazard of working in theatre is being regularly asked why, especially when it pays so poorly and isn’t exactly key work, and the short answer is those three phrases: Community, assembly, shared experience. Coming together to share an emotional response, positive or negative, to see one thing from multiple perspectives, is the bedrock of empathy. Theatre, literature and the arts all allow us to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes, and this is crucial for our sociological development as a sort of low-risk exposure to the unknown. As humans we naturally commune, for safety and for fun. Assembling with others is how we tread the path to civilisation, whatever we believe that to be.
So for me there are obvious parallels between theatre and running, and it wasn’t until I had both in my life that I realised how the experience of one helped me articulate the other, and vice versa.
This article, which first appeared barely a fortnight into the UK and US lockdown hit the nail on the head for me. To quote: “The coronavirus is so insidious because it attacks one of the central yearnings of human nature, which just so happens to be the bedrock theatre is built on: our desire to assemble.” I think you can replace the word “theatre” with “running”, “football”, “gaming”, “a vegetable growing club” and it’s still true. My clubmates at Clapham Chasers don’t just give me motivation when I can’t be arsed to run, they help me see my own value when I’m feeling worthless and encourage me to help others through my experiences, to pass on the torch. It’s no coincidence that I don’t blog as much when I haven’t seen them for a while. However we choose to do it, assembly and social interaction provides us with an invisible armour, physically and emotionally; you only know it’s there when you need to use it.
Quoting from the LSE blog again: “Resilience is personal, organisational, family and community… that’s why our ‘clap for carers’ on a Thursday evening may have such significance for frontline workers beyond the immediacy of expressed appreciation.” We look to our community, whatever form it may take, for validation and for growth, for support and for constructive feedback. That doesn’t mean we don’t occasionally want to tell that community to sod off, but by and large humans are designed to be pack animals, not lone wolves. To me, it seems obvious that community is how we will survive the lasting impact of coronavirus, mental and physical, the same way it has done for countless threats before.
In much the same way that the war effort was credited with bringing Britain together, lockdown has highlighted the true heroes of the community, both among our selfless key workers and those who volunteer to support them. We’ve also seen more than enough examples of self-preservation, people behaving somewhere on a spectrum between blind panic and outright selfishness. Stress encourages us to classify information quickly as either good or bad so that we can respond appropriately to a perceived threat: during the chaos of the pandemic we have become accustomed to categorising people as “heroes” (Captain Tom, NHS staff) and “villains” (beachgoers, Hyde Park protesters). Presumably these binary definitions make for good headlines when there’s bugger all else to report on apart from death tolls, but the consequence is that you’re defined as either a good person or a bad person and you have to pick a side. To someone familiar with the curse of anxiety, this can lead to the logical conclusion that if you’re not a good person doing good things – fundraising, delivering sandwiches to NHS staff, staying alert and saving lives – then you must be a bad person. Even if the government instruction was, for starters, actual instruction as opposed to polite requests and secondly, completely unambiguous, I think the fear of somehow becoming a villain and being ostracised by the greater part of society will manifest as yet another risk to mental health.
How can we combat this? Well, a good first step is to be careful about the news you read and employ critical thinking. Evaluate and analyse the information you receive: its provenance, the source and its motivations, the details available, the age of the information (i.e. breaking news is not as trustworthy as an editorial summary a week later, for fairly obvious reasons). If you’re not sure what critical thinking means this might help.
And if we continue to be presented with heroes and villians, I think it’s important to use critical thinking to humanise “the villains” rather than demonise them. Did the loo roll shortage leave you wiping your arse with pages from the Tambury Gazette? How annoying. Still, ask yourself why people reacted to a global pandemic by panic buying. Better still, find an article that does it for you. Perhaps you’re a runner who suddenly found their usual route full of dog walkers, or someone on their government-approved stroll on a country lane having to veer out of the path of cyclists. Who’s in the right in each circumstance? You have to believe it’s you, because if you’re not the hero, you must be the villain.
It’s easy to mistake a kneejerk response for a rational perspective, but this is where community in all its forms can help. Perhaps we can’t physically assemble right now, but we can be together, we can try to exercise the empathy we developed once upon a time, and it might take an extra effort but we can do that. For instance, do you need to post that tweet about your neighbour’s annoying VE Day party? It was stupid of them, have a word if you have to but maybe leave the rest of the Twitterverse out of it. Social media, which has been a breeding ground for mental health risks for years, could be one of our only ways to assemble, but platform by platform it’s fast turning into a swamp of bile and fury. Zoom, Skype and Portal will soon be the only safe spaces left.
We must recognise that anger is a consequence of fear. Everyone has a right to be afraid but civilisation means resisting the temptation to turn every fear to anger. Our key workers go to work not knowing whether or not doing so will kill them, but knowing society depends on them. There are people trapped at home with their abusers, or their own torturous thoughts; despite the best efforts of the furlough scheme there are people scraping at the bottom of their overdraft to pay bills and buy food, not knowing when they’ll get income again; there are people overwhelmed by a double workload and half the resources to do it; there are people experiencing how isolating it is to be a stay at home parent, even though you’re never alone; there are people asking themselves what there is left to live for, if not the life they knew up until now; all of them are experiencing fear. If any of these sound like you, remember you’re not alone. You’re in that massive grey area between heroism and villainry just like the rest of us.
What I’m trying to say is: be kind. Be empathetic. If you can afford to stay home then stay home, because as far as we know isolation is the best possible defence against the spread of the virus (and because the sight of a beach crammed with sunbathers must be pretty frightening to a COVID ward nurse right now). But if you can’t – and there are many reasons why that might be – let’s not walk straight into a mental health pandemic by villainising each other. Community spirit isn’t about everyone doing the same thing, but doing what we can for each other. Assembly cultivates empathy. Empathy is what will keep us together when we can’t assemble.
I’m going to leave you with this BBC article which summarises the more practical ways to take care of your mental health right now, and some useful links below for those in crisis.
And then I’m going to pour myself a drink.
Love and cake xxx
For the UK:
For the UK, Ireland, US and Canada: