By Leigh Carey

I was a smoker for about 15 years. I finally stopped for the umpteenth and FINAL time 3 weeks ago. For 15 years I was very aware that it was not good for me, I was reminded all the time by non-smoking (or worse reformed ex-smoking) family and friends, every cigarette packet I picked up…oh and the subtle but persistent cough I had in the morning. But none of that made a difference until I made the decision to take action.

We are all aware of many things that affect your physical health – diet, exercise, booze, cigarettes. We are all aware to a certain degree of what actions we can take to avoid certain conditions, lengthen our lives, have more energy and feel physically better on a day to day basis. We all do our best to actively engage in being physically healthy, within the limitations of our daily lives. Time, money, support, access, social life, purpose…all these things factor into their way in which we look after ourselves physically.

One thing is for sure though… the awareness about physical health does not improve our physical health on its own. Knowing fatty foods increase my cholesterol and knowing what a stroke or heart disease is, does not lower my cholesterol and protect me against illness.

Change does that. Using knowledge to guide my choices, allows me to consider my diet and exercise… my action to address it, that suits me as an individual, creates the change. I’m sure you know where I’m going with this.

There has been a huge drive over the past few years to raise awareness of mental health. In the media, through massive funded campaigns, right down to small community groups, there has been an enormous amount of time and energy spent talking about mental health to reduce stigma and encourage people to think about their emotional wellbeing. All of this work has made a huge difference in reducing isolation for those who are suffering from mental ill health and increasing “mental health literacy” for many who just don’t know much about it and that should still continue.

My point is, then what? Once a person knows about it, are the same organisations that are reducing the stigma then upskilling society in how they can make choices within their own personal circumstances to stay mentally well? I spoke to a senior manager in a health trust recently, who had been involved in a large mental health awareness campaign. Its aim was to reduce stigma and highlight very basic “wellness” steps to improve mental health. This person told me that the evaluation of this campaign revealed that actually, participants were coming away from this talk more vulnerable than before. The feedback was that they were being told all of these facts, figures and conditions… some of which sounded all too familiar to many, but then gave them idealistic and often unrealistic soundbite solutions.

We all could look after ourselves better mentally and physically, but anything we do has to be sustainable, achievable and supported. Knowledge of the risks and things that affect health has to be combined with action on a personal level and I believe that, now that mental health organisations and stakeholders are having an impact on awareness, we also need to upskill society to make achievable choices around their mental health that suit their individual circumstances. The action is vital – the choice about what is right for the individual must be driven by the individual. Our job as professionals is to impart the skills people need to understand the benefits and strengthen the willingness to make room for sometimes challenging decisions, to build their mental health resilience. That’s what the Hummingbird is all about…learn, adapt and move forward positively no matter what your circumstances. Understand, Unlock, Uplift.  

I’ll keep you posted on the success of giving up smoking…

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