Just talking is a good place to start

Martin Seeley, the Bishop of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich ANL-160122-093657001
Martin Seeley, the Bishop of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich ANL-160122-093657001
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We know about exercise, even if we don’t actually do it. We know about medical check ups, and we are pretty good at paying attention to these.

But when it comes to our mental health, we don’t seem to know where to start. Or we are afraid even to think about it, in case we discover something that we do not understand, or we are scared will set us apart.

Prince Harry recently disclosed how he has – and has not – coped with his mother Princess Diana’s death nearly 20 years ago. You can listen to his extraordinarily candid conversation with Bryony Gordon on her Mad World podcast.

Just three years ago, he said his brother Prince William encouraged him to deal with how he was feeling and get help. For two years his life was chaos – “I didn’t know what was wrong with me.”

But he started talking about it, to those close to him, and to a counsellor, “Some of the easiest people to talk to: a complete stranger who listens to you.”

Volunteering to help veterans suffering from the effects of combat, physical and mental, meant he got to hear their stories of how they felt, how they were coping. Talking about his own situation facing up at last to his grief at his mother’s death, and hearing the stories of others who were suffering helped him come to terms with what he had experienced. With the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, Prince Harry is coordinating the Heads Together campaign, with the aim to end stigma around mental health in the UK. They are, as he put it, ‘trying to normalise the conversation’.

I know from my own experience that there is no point keeping things bottled up. Not speaking about what is tough, painful, anxious-making or just confusing makes it worse.

The Archbishop of Canterbury’s daughter, Katharine Welby-Roberts recently recorded a video for Heads Together in which she talks about her experience of depression to her mother. She talks about how talking and writing about it helped her.

In Suffolk, one in five over-16 year olds report experiencing high anxiety – that’s about 115,000 people. Add to that the many people who carry their burdens without describing it as anxiety, or those for whom the burdens come and go.That is a lot of people who are bearing pressures that could be eased with talking about it. For some, talking to a professional listener – a counsellor, or therapist or psychoanalyst – is necessary. That has been my own experience, during substantial periods in my life. But for all of us, talking about what weighs on us is so important. It helps us process what is going on inside, and gain perspective and insight.

I urge our clergy too to find someone to talk to, usually a professional listener of some sort to share the burdens that others have placed on them. I need to myself. Prince Harry remarked that it is reckoned that three hours of listening to other people’s problems needs half an hour processing with someone else.

Many mental health matters are not solved just by talking, but talking is at least a start. People suffer from very difficult challenges in their mental well-being – all of which can be helped with the right attention.

I have two teenaged children and have become increasingly aware of the pressures and anxieties that our children live under. Apparently, 50% of lifelong mental health problems develop before the age of 14. About one-in-ten five to 16-year-olds in Suffolk experience mental ill-health.

We can make a difference in Suffolk in all sorts of ways, including by becoming a Friend of Suffolk Mind.

It costs nothing, but helps to demonstrate that we all have mental health and we can all promise to look after ourselves and those around us better, by finding out more.

You can join at suffolkmind.org.uk/friends

We can all make a difference as individuals, and in the groups of people we are part of – our church, our school or neighbourhood community, sports groups, clubs and other organisations.

We can make a difference by not bottling up our own issues, and finding someone to talk to.

It feels hard to start, but listening to Prince Harry’s interview may help you. Finding the right person is important, but that person is there to be found.

And then we can make a difference by talking about these issues with one another, letting this become a topic of ‘normal conversation’, in just the same way we talk about physical health and well being.

Talking will help us become healthier people, and an even more open, honest and caring county.

-- The Right Rev Martin Seeley is Bishop of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich