'In this endlessly demanding world, self-care and leisure time isn’t selfish – it’s essential'

Teachers, you're no use to anyone if you break yourself. Here are the five friends everyone needs in a time of mental health crisis, writes the former government mental health tsar and mental health campaigner

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This time last month, I was what can only be described as utterly wretched. I’d been struggling to get a handle on "Nigel" (my anthropomorphised anxiety) since autumn 2016.

With so many commitments, I literally had no time to properly address the symptoms. I’d languished under the surface, semi-suffocated by repetitive, intrusive, paranoid thoughts it took all my energy to dismiss, and panic attacks and palpitations for months.

Then, in the last week of January, I made the mistake of using a nasal spray to try and combat a heavy cold (you shouldn’t do that, I’ve since discovered – nasal sprays are for when you think you might be getting a cold, not when you already have one) and gave myself sudden onset sinusitis.

So, in addition to the omnipresent lump in my throat which characterises my mental illness at its worst, I couldn’t stand up without feeling like I was on a dingy during a tempest.

Trapped within the confines of my tiny flat with only Netflix and an inbox screaming fruitlessly for my attention for company, I completely lost my mind.

I’ve since found it, you’ll be pleased to hear, but I couldn’t have done it without support.

A lot of help from my friends

In tribute to my last column calling for more consideration of teacher wellbeing in the ever-spiralling mental health debate, here are the five friends I believe everyone needs in a time of mental health crisis. Now might be a good time to identify who yours are, just in case:

1. The friend who asks, ‘What do YOU need?’

Empathetic people tend to instinctually do what they would like done to them. As lovely as this is in theory, it presents a problem in that everyone is different. For example, whilst some people experiencing depression want a cup of tea and an ear, others need time on their own.

When I texted my friends to tell them I was struggling, most of them suggested I came to their house or we arranged a night out to chat. Which was very kind, but not particularly conducive to the dingy situation and not considerate of the fact that when you have acute anxiety, the thought of leaving the house is akin to climbing Everest with an African elephant strapped to your back.

What I really needed was for someone to reassure me that it was OK, that my emails would wait, that the world would carry on turning without me and that I should just take some time out and focus on getting better, without guilt. So thank you, Grace.

Having said that, you also need:

2. The friend who reassures you that you’re important

One of the more charming side-effects of mental illness tends to be the huge dollop of snivelling self-pity. So whilst, of course, it’s lovely to know one can occasionally take one’s foot off the gas without disasterous consequences, anxiety or depression will tell you that it means you are insignificant.

The antidote to this feeling is the friend who texts you to ask if you’re OK. Then, when you inevitably don’t reply, texts you again to say they don’t want to bug you but they must know that you’re OK and just to reply with an emoji if you are, so they can sleep. Thank you, Claire.

3. The friend who’ll listen but not hold it against you

It presents something of a dilemma when people around you want to know what’s wrong, but you don’t want to tell them because you know it sounds ridiculous. We’re always advised to talk about what ails us, yet, logically, you know that your fears are unfounded.

Of course, that doesn’t stop you having the same anxious conversation with your own brain for the three hundredth time that day. It helps to let it out, but anxiety will also tell you that if you do, everyone will think you’re mad and the contents of the conversation will be brought up in incriminating circumstances.

What you need is a friend who says "however silly it is, just say it" and then wipes the slate clean however many times it needs to be wiped, because they know you know you’re being absurd. Thank you Nadz and Caroline and also my ever-patient husband, Marcus.

4. The friend who makes you proactive

During an anxious period your worries spiral, multiply into an unmanageably huge, toxic snowball, as the things you can change become indistinguishable from those you can’t.

What you need is a pragmatist – the ideological equivalent of someone who’s really good at untangling necklaces.You need someone who can say: "Right. As I understand it, these are your problems. Let’s disregard the ones you can’t change (Trump, climate change, man’s inhumanity to man) and make a list the ones you can.

"Now, what steps can you realistically take to make this better?" Thanks, Dad (thanks also Mum for listening nonjudgmentally and supplying hot chocolate during these conversations).

5. The friend who can always make you laugh

Laughter really is the best medicine – in fact, it’s been scientifically proven that having a sense of humour about your experiences is a key component in mental health recovery. If you can laugh, and mean it, that’s a significant step towards the mouth of the vortex and on to solid land.

So thank you, Amy, who advised me to simply text her the word "c*ck" if I was having a bad day and wanted someone to know, but didn’t want to go into detail about it.

Thanks also to Amy for arranging the weekend away in the Cotswolds I’m about to embark upon, sans BlackBerry and therefore emails (yes, I am the only person in the Western world who still has a BlackBerry), for some all-important, stress-bucket emptying time out.

What this episode taught me most of all is that self-care and leisure time isn’t "selfish", it’s essential.

Whilst there is always, technically, some work I could be doing in this endlessly demanding world, I’m no use to anyone if I break myself.

Teachers and, perhaps more importantly, their leadership teams, as well as the people making the policies that drive them, should take note.

Natasha Devon is the  founder of the Body Gossip Education Programme and the Self-Esteem Team and former UK government mental health champion for schools. She tweets as @_NatashaDevon

For more columns by Natasha, visit her back-catalogue of articles

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