Mental Health Awareness Week

Laura Richards talks about Mental Health Awareness Week and how important it is for employers to adopt an inclusive and supportive culture.

“Body image (noun): a subjective picture of one’s own physical appearance established both by self-observation and by noting the reactions of others” – Merriam-Webster dictionary

Organised by the Mental Health Foundation, the UK’s Mental Health Awareness Week starts on the second Monday of May every year.  The aim of the week is to raise awareness and encourage change around a certain mental health topic.  This year’s theme is body image – an extremely relevant concept to us all, including myself.

For as long I can remember, my body image has always been poor.  I was never what you’d class as a big child, but I certainly had a little puppy fat (probably due to my hatred of sports and love for less physical activities like reading).  Around the age of 10, I started to notice a lot of girls in school were thinner than me.  I also remember seeing gossip magazines everywhere, from supermarkets to friends’ houses, championing thin celebrities and ridiculing those who weren’t.  The constant reminder of thinness got more intense when I entered high school, which coincided with the rise of social media.  All of these factors, alongside bullying, undoubtedly contributed to my self esteem hitting rock bottom in my late teens.

Thankfully, I’m much happier today.  I’ve always had an extremely supportive network of family and friends, but I was very secretive – the real turning point in terms of my body image was when I started asking for help.  I undertook Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) which made me think more clearly and realistically.  Previously, I equated thinness with happiness and made myself miserable in the process.  Now I understand that a certain body ‘ideal’ does not define someone’s worth.  I still have bad days (like everyone else) but I am a lot kinder to myself.

I am far from alone in struggling with poor body image.  Concerning statistics suggest that, in the last year, a third of adults felt down or low about their bodies, whilst 20% felt ashamed and 19% felt disgusted.  Even more worryingly, 13% of adults say they have felt suicidal due to their body image.  These statistics show that, regardless of gender, race or any other variable, negative body image is something that affects many people and has major implications on mental health.

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Body image statistics from the Mental Health Foundation

This has got to change, from better education in schools to just being generally kinder to each other as a society.  I also think that the media has a lot to answer for and has a responsibility to promote a healthy body image, particularly amongst impressionable young people.  Tabloids are quick to publicly humiliate a celebrity for a change in their appearance, such as weight gain or a nose job, whilst social media is full of celebrities promoting cosmetic surgery or harmful diet products (for example, detox teas and appetite supressing lollipops).  All of these can be extremely damaging to our perception of body image.

Although this all sounds very negative, I do believe there is a light at the end of the tunnel.  Organisations such as The Mental Health Foundation and Mind have been doing some fantastic work around general mental health, from organising mental health lessons in school to working to influence mental health policy.  In addition, the Be Real and I Weigh campaigns are making some really positive contributions to the issue of body image.

Employers also have a responsibility to encourage transparency to remove the stigma that is still associated with mental health.  I consider myself lucky to be a part of Ryder – we are all seen as individuals rather than numbers and are surrounded by supportive colleagues.  Our Ryder360 board was established last year (as a replacement to the Ryder Council) to continue to listen and respond to the wellbeing and development needs of colleagues, which I am proud to be a member of.

Although daunting at first, individuals should also take responsibility for their mental health and speak up if they’re struggling, as employers cannot help if they aren’t made aware.  This two way communication ensures that a supportive culture is created and maintained, positively impacting on mental health in the workplace and therefore improving people’s quality of life.

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