Mental Health Awareness Week is an annual event that was started by The Mental Health Foundation 21 years ago, which aims to encourage people to talk about mental health and reduce stigma in relation to asking for help.
Each year there is a different theme and this year the theme is “Nature”, which was chosen because of the positive effect that nature can have on mental health. However not everyone can easily access nature and so part of the campaign is also about highlighting the need for greater access e.g. the inclusion of green spaces in development plans.
Although there is greater awareness of mental health issues, there is still room for improvement and for this awareness to be translated into action. This was highlighted when I talked to Gemma Whittaker of Infinity Initiatives about mental health awareness, the impact of Covid-19 and how she finds that nature helps with mental health.
1. Firstly Gemma, can you tell me a little about yourself and Infinity Initiatives?
I set Infinity up at the end of 2015 after working for almost a decade in Local Authority / Criminal Justice. I wanted to create a space where people could access the support they need without fear of feeling labelled or shamed. Infinity is all about asking for help when you need it and giving it where you can. Life takes us all on some very unexpected journeys and I feel a supportive and responsive community is absolutely vital.
2. What has been the impact of Covid-19 on your work?
We have been able to adapt services well moving over to online wherever possible however owing to digital exclusion, poverty and language barriers there have been many examples where this isn’t possible and so we have had to very carefully continue our support in person. Demand on our service has increased week on week and shows no sign of slowing down. It’s been sad to see the café empty knowing how many people rely on us and the friends they have made there.
3. Awareness weeks are helpful and there has been an increase in awareness of mental health issues, but do you think that we are doing enough to understand the underlying causes of poor mental health?
I really don’t – I see it all too often where the support people get comes down to the postcode they live in or the amount of noise they have made. Services are stretched and waiting lists are getting longer and longer. In turn criteria is getting stricter and I have even experienced people being untruthful in order to get the support they need. People are self-medicating or finding escape in other unhealthy lifestyle choices. It’s often this ‘bad behaviour’ we as a society choose to view and respond to rather than the underlying issue.
4. In your opinion, what more needs to be done for mental health in the future?
We have to start listening to what people want and need. We should not presume that they do not understand what is best for them. This may not be medication or traditional treatment, it could be recreation, sport, music etc. I strongly feel central government should be investing in these areas and local authorities should be ensuring that they can provide a wealth of opportunities for people to participate in positive activities in the area they live in. We should also acknowledge the importance of listening to and supporting the wider family. Mental health affects us all. Life can be really difficult at times and its natural to feel upset, confused, defeated etc. It’s about balance and for most of us we manage that balance well with support, logic, routine and choice but not everyone is that fortunate.
5. As a manager, how do you support members of your team in managing their mental health and wellbeing?
We are a close team and we speak regularly both formally and informally. The team have a choice of staff they can approach should they need to and we have an open door policy. We never shy away from conversations and we continue to learn together. We have socials, treat days and we share reminders so the team know how valuable they are to us. A lot of our volunteers are ex-clients who have loved our work and asked to join. Many have or have had complex needs throughout their lives so it is important to us that we understand this and the impact it has on their day to day life. We have been fortunate that our volunteers have educated us and helped us to shape our work and environment to a place where everyone is accepted, valued and treated equally.
6. And personally, how do you maintain a good work life balance and what do you do for self-care?
I find it very difficult to switch off I must admit. I am trying harder to practice good time management but this is work in progress! I also work in Wales and feel relaxed when I can hear the seagulls and that sea air certainly helps me sleep so I am really happy that we are allowed to travel again. I suffer from Vertigo and my body will tell me when I need to take some time off. In these instances I will watch a good documentary and get an early night listening to guided sleep meditation to help me nod off. That never fails!
7. The theme for this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week is “Nature” – do you find that nature has a positive impact on your mental health?
Absolutely! The mixture of sounds, smells and sights is so good for our soul. When you are busy with work and a family life it can feel like another chore getting up and out of the house but I guarantee you will always feel better for doing so. When I stand next to the sea and look out to the horizon I always feel so so small, the same when I look at the star filled sky. It really does put things into perspective.
8. Are there any resources (e.g. books, podcasts etc) that you would recommend that may help someone that is currently struggling with their mental health?
I love guided meditation. There are some fantastic ones on YouTube but be warned they may send you to sleep so be careful when you do them (probably not good for a ten minute coffee break!) Regarding resources I would like to say that we don’t always need a book specifically aimed at mental health. A good book which reminds you what an absolute force you are can really make you feel great and give you a newfound confidence and outlook – same works by giving yourself a good talking to! I always say give yourself the same advice you’d give your best friend...and listen!!
9. What are your goals for the future for both yourself and Infinity Initiatives?
In addition to our services in Manchester and North Wales we will be providing mental health support and counselling to an area of Scotland. We also plan to extend our support to young people across 2021. We have big plans in North Wales to provide social opportunities for people who are isolated and struggling with their mental health. This past year has proven so difficult for so many people and we have a lot of work to do moving forward but I have no doubt in my mind that we will do it.
10. Finally, what advice would you have given to your younger self?
Professionally ….be brave! Know your worth and don’t look back. Personally…make more memories, take more pictures and always trust your gut.
Gemma Whittaker is the founder of Infinity Initiatives which is a Community Interest Company supporting those deemed to be vulnerable and presenting with multiple needs and /or at risk including anti-social behaviour/offending, substance misuse, homelessness, debt and social exclusion and isolation in both Greater Manchester (predominantly Tameside) and North Wales. They also run a “Pay What You Can Café” in Ashton-Under-Lyne. If you would like more information, then you can contact Gemma at firstname.lastname@example.org.