Our mental health requires looking after just as much as our physical wellbeing.
In the approach to World Mental Health Day on October 10th, I thought a lot about my Aunty Ruth. It would have been her birthday.
Both my aunt and my godmother, Ruth was a hugely influential figure in my life, I was extremely close to her. When she took her own life, I was absolutely devastated. No one had known she was struggling and her actions came as a huge surprise. She was a driven, ambitious individual, the founder and CEO of a successful company in South Africa. She was the life and soul of any gathering. Yet behind the scenes, she was fighting a very private battle with her mental health and, thanks to what were the social norms at the time, didn’t reach out for help.
Reflecting on the book Love’s Executioner by Irvin D. Yalom, what strikes me about my grief for Ruth is the sense of ‘what could have been’ or ‘what should have been’. I still have moments when I speculate how my life would be different if she were still alive. She was a figure of guidance, offering support, warmth and love at my hour of greatest need during a very difficult situation as a child; what impact would she have had on the rest of my life?
At major life events, I still think of Aunty Ruth and wish she could share them, and wonder what advice she would pass on to me. I draw a lot of my drive and ambition from the person she was – she inspired me. The pride I have in her, for who she was and what she achieved through her life, gives me a boost to push myself further. Her effect and influence transcends her death.
The saddest part for me is how avoidable this could have been if there had been less stigma and more support available at the time. We understand so much more about mental health today but we still have some way to go.
There are factors that can positively and negatively influence our mental wellbeing and we must recognise these and help those who are struggling to take positive, preventative action. The more we talk about, seek support with and normalise these experiences, the fewer people there will be who feel that they have no other option but to take their own lives.
Mental health isn’t just something that happens to people who are facing crises – you don’t have to be at breaking point to take care of your own mental health just as you look after your physical health. Once everyone recognises that mental health is a core part of being human and it needs to be strengthened and supported, not just brushed under the rug, well-being can become a stronger focus in all areas of life, at home and at work.