Mental Health Awareness Week

Mental health. It’s interesting how people start to fidget and look uncomfortable when they hear those words, like they’re something to be scared of. No one wants to be associated with them, with their negative connotations which are weighed down by judgement and prejudice. It’s better to look away, to avoid the conversation, than to talk about mental health.

The reality is that we all have mental health, just like we all have physical health. Some of us have good mental health, and some of us have poor mental health. And many of us have a mixture of both, depending on what’s happening in our worlds at a given moment in time. So why are we so scared of something that we all have? Perhaps it’s because it’s something that, for many years, we haven’t really talked about and therefore don’t properly understand.

This week it’s Mental Health Awareness Week. So it’s the perfect opportunity for each of us to check in with our own mental health and that of our family, friends and colleagues, and to learn a bit more about mental health so that we can all get to a place where we understand it better.

Why not take a few minutes this week to ask yourself what your mental health looks like – is it good, or is it poor? And if you don’t like the way it looks, what can you do to change it?

Knowing where to start can be overwhelming, but there are countless resources that are available online which give advice and guidance on everything from stress to sleeping problems. You could also spend this week following a new Instagram account to get some ideas on how to better look after your mental health. Some of my favourites are MindMental Health Foundation and Time to Change, but there are many more – find one that has the right tone and content for you.

Instagram accounts, like that of the mental health charity Mind (@mindcharity), can be a great source of information and advice

You could also watch some of the programmes being screened by the BBC this week as part of their Mental Health Season, programmes which help us to realise that its normal to experience poor mental health and to better understand what its like living with a mental health problem.

But nothing beats talking. Maybe this is the week that you start a conversation with your friends, family or colleagues about your own and their mental health. You might realise that you’re not alone in the struggles you face, and that the people you thought may be quick to judge you are actually there to lend you their ear and to share their own experiences. Starting a conversation might end up with you getting the support that you need, or giving that support to someone who has needed it for far longer than anyone realised. We should be having these conversations 52 weeks of the year, but we’re not. If there was ever a time to start having them, it’s this week.

Speaking about mental health and mental health awareness in Libreria bookshop, London

A few years ago I was struggling with my mental health, and I started my own conversation with some of my friends. It wasn’t easy, but it was a first step in the right direction. And I never dreamed that that first step would lead me to where I am now. I spent last week and will also be spending this week standing at the front of a room of people, some of whom I know and some I don’t, talking about mental health and mental health awareness.

What the last few years have taught me is that talking about mental health is contagious – when one person opens up, so does everyone else. And that although that first conversation may be difficult, and you may try to talk yourself out of it for fear of being judged and ridiculed, subsequent conversations are always much easier.

So start that first conversation, open yourself up and be open to others. And together we can make the words “mental health” nothing to be scared of.

The art of walking

There’s something about walking. Something soothing, something meditative about its repetitiveness. Something simple.

When the idea to journey from London to Rome started to take shape, people asked me what my mode of transport would be. I’ve got friends who have embarked on epic overland voyages by bike and on horseback. But I’ve always felt the pull of a journey that’s entirely stripped back. A journey that involves just me and my two feet.

Hiking in Patagonia, Argentina

Walking has long been something of a kind of therapy for me. When I get into my rhythm my body moves without thought or instruction. While my body works my mind can wander – sometimes I find myself mulling over a tough decision I have to make, sometimes I daydream of memories happy or sad, and sometimes I agonise over what I’m going to cook for dinner. And then there are those magic moments when my mind quietens and I get lost in the sights, smells, and sounds of my surroundings.

As I walk to Rome I’m certain I’ll have all manner of thoughts running through my head. There will be self doubt, and the temptation to throw in the towel. There will be thoughts of relaxing in the sun on a paradisiacal beach somewhere, and a fixation on the number of days left until I reach Rome. But there will also be plenty of opportunities to assess, to reflect, and to switch off.

Life threw me some curve balls a few years ago, and I found myself in a very bleak place that I wasn’t at all familiar with. I craved the therapy of walking and felt an overwhelming urge to return to Nepal, a country that I’d fallen in love with many years before. For me Nepal has healing properties, and my hope was that a return visit would help my journey to recovery. So I embarked on a 16 day trek to Everest Base Camp, and in the world’s highest mountains I walked my way back to me.

The view of Mount Everest and various other peaks from the top of Gokyo Ri, Nepal

My walk to Rome isn’t driven by the same need for therapy and healing. It is, however, driven by the deaths of two of my friends who took their own lives last year. As I walk to Rome I’ll spend some time thinking about mental health, and plan to share those thoughts with you. Mental health awareness plays a huge part in changing the way we perceive and respond to mental health problems, and it’s something we all need to engage with.

As you track my progress to Rome, maybe you’ll feel inspired to get out on your own two feet and go for a walk. You may have a dilemma that you need to think over, you may need to get some headspace and perspective. Maybe you want to go for a walk with a friend and have a chat about your mental health. Or maybe you just need your feet to carry you to a place where you tune into the birdsong and tune out of everything else.

Happy walking…

Where it all began

It was a Sunday afternoon in London, and I found myself with nothing to do. I felt the urge to head into the city and wander its streets. On days like these when I have plenty of time and no agenda, it’s like some sort of homing beacon kicks in. I find myself gravitating to Covent Garden to wile away the hours in one of my favourite shops, Stanfords.
 
Stanfords is the world’s largest map and travel bookshop. For someone like me, it’s a treasure trove that jolts memories and inspires in equal measure. Walking its floors is akin to flicking through my passport, mulling over its many stamps and recalling travel experiences from years gone by. And my wanderlust is given space to breathe. As I browse the shelves I indulge myself, planning a lifetime of adventures in countries near and far.
Stanfords Map and Travel Bookshop

I was browsing through the Italy section, when a book caught my eye. It was a walking guide to the Via Francigena, a pilgrimage trail that runs from Canterbury to Rome. I was familiar with the Camino de Santiago, a popular pilgrimage trail that culminates in the Spanish city of Santiago de Compostela. But I’d never heard of the Via Francigena.

Before I’d even picked the book up off the shelf, I knew the Via Francigena would be a journey that I’d make at some point in my life. It seemed too perfect – a trail, and adventure, linking the countries of my heritage. England and Italy.

As I thumbed through the book and made my way to the cashier, I didn’t dwell on the question of whether walking the trail was possible. I jumped straight to the question of when.