Is it you or the environment? Reflections from #MentalHealthAwarenessWeek

This week has been Mental Health Awareness Week. The theme has been nature. It feels like the perfect theme, particularly since so many of us have connected with the outdoors in the pandemic. There have been great examples all week about the steps we can take as individuals to support our mental health, but it’s got me thinking about the role played by our personal environment on our wellbeing. By personal environment I mean our families, our friends, where we work.

In terms of raising awareness, this week has worked! All week my social media feeds have been full of people engaging with nature. I’ve seen them take mindful walks, spend the night in tents, work in the garden. It’s been great. Every picture has been of someone smiling. The stories being shared signal the powerful benefits of engaging in the outdoors and have been motivating and I’m sure I’ve spent more time noticing the growth in my garden as a direct result.

Another benefit of this week, one of the ongoing goals of the Mental Health Foundation, is the removal of stigma associated with mental health. Just search on #MentalHealthAwarenessWeek and you’ll find plenty of posts, from the incredibly personal to the objectively informative. There’s no doubt, we’re much happier talking about it than we were.

In all the posts I’ve seen, I’ve been struck by the way the responsibility is placed on each of us to take care of our own mental health. Of course, as adults we are responsible for ourselves. We have to take ownership of our behaviour and make sure we act in our best interests. For example, I know I hide in work. I turn to it when I am at my most stressed and can actually feel myself relaxing as I concentrate on what’s on my computer screen. It’s a short-term fix but in the longer term it leaves me feeling isolated and ultimately exhausted. If I want a more sustainable and healthy solution, I need to stop hiding and address what’s causing the stress in the first place. The only person who can do that is me. It’s definitely my responsibility. But what if the environment I am living in resists? What if it doesn’t want to let me?

I often hear people described as over-analytical, over-emotional, too demanding. Perhaps it’s saddest when the people being described are children and it’s the adults around them calling them a problem child and wondering what’s wrong with them. For me the truth lies in a mismatch between the individual and their environment. By environment I mean the others in the family, workplace or friendship group, essentially the people describing them as too much. It’s not that they’re over-emotional or too demanding. Instead, it’s that the people describing them are not okay with what they feel is being asked of them. The person could have a perfectly average amount of emotionality but someone who has no history of connecting with their own emotions will experience it as too much and describe the other as over-emotional. The impact on the individual being described can be profound and long-lasting.

Engaging with nature boosts our mental wellbeing. Taking a walk at lunchtime and really noticing the feel of the breeze, the colours and the sounds can be incredibly rejuvenating. Perhaps most importantly, it can give us enough space to notice what’s going on in our world and its impact on our sense of wellbeing. It gives us the resources to ask some important questions. Is the environment I live in nurturing? Is it okay to unapologetically be myself? I don’t mean we can ignore everyone around us and that there must be no pressure or stress. We do need to notice others and the environment can be challenging. I definitely appreciate being pushed, but not if it’s unremitting, if what I need is completely ignored. And certainly not if I feel I’m missed or about to be attacked, however subtle the attack might be.

#MentalHealthAwarenessWeek has presented plenty of ideas and information about how to boost our own wellbeing. The theme this year might be nature but reflecting on our own environment might be the most important thing we can do to improve our wellbeing. My final thought is to reflect on the environment I create for others. What is my role in creating their environment and do I help to create one that supports and encourages them to be who they really are?

By Cathy Connan

I'm an integrative psychotherapist. I help people invest in their wellbeing and live the life they want.