Our Mental Health Awareness Week blog has been written by Chris O'Sullivan, Head of Business Development and Engagement, from the Mental Health Foundation.
Today marks the start of Mental Health Awareness Week. Every year, the Mental Health Foundation sets a theme, and conducts research to help focus on an aspect of mental health. This year’s theme was due to be sleep – a critical factor in our mental health. The research was done, the report almost drafted. And then the pandemic arrived and changed things. Even though sleep remains extremely important, we’ve decided instead to focus on the power and potential of kindness.
We hope it could be the most important week we’ve hosted, not least because our research shows that protecting our mental health will be central to coping with and recovering from the pandemic. The psychological and social impacts are likely to outlast the physical symptoms of the virus.
We've chosen kindness because of its singular ability to unlock our shared humanity. Kindness strengthens relationships, develops community, and deepens solidarity. It is a cornerstone of our individual and collective mental health. Wisdom from every culture across history recognises that kindness is something all human beings need to experience and show to be fully alive.
Kindness and mental health
When you think of 'being kind', what first comes to mind? Maybe you think about a friend or family member who you can rely on for comfort and support. Perhaps you think of a neighbour who always makes an effort to be friendly when you cross paths or those who volunteer to help in their communities.
There are many definitions of what it means to 'be kind' and kindness is often entwined with empathy, compassion and altruism. At its core, researchers suggest that kindness is a gesture motivated by genuine, warm feelings for others.
We know from the research that kindness and our mental health are deeply connected. This research shows that kindness is an antidote to isolation and creates a sense of belonging. It helps reduce stress, brings a fresh perspective and deepens friendships. Kindness to ourselves can prevent shame from corroding our sense of identity and helps boost our self-esteem. Kindness can even improve feelings of confidence and optimism.
Kindness is an act of courage
But kindness is an intrinsically risky endeavour. It can risk us looking foolish or being taken advantage of, which is why we sometimes retreat. To receive or to give kindness is an act of courage. We want to use Mental Health Awareness Week to support each other to take that brave step and harness the benefits for both giver and receiver.
But we also want to shine a light on the ways that kindness is already flourishing at this time. We have seen it in 100-year-old Captain Tom Moore as he walked his garden to raise money for the NHS and in the mutual aid groups responding to local needs. We want that kindness to spread further in every community across the UK.
Finally, we want to use the week to explore the sort of society we would like to emerge from the coronavirus pandemic. We’re also launching a policy brief today, looking at how we could, if we chose to, put kindness at the centre of public policy, as we move through and beyond the pandemic.
A kinder society?
We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity for a reset and re-think about what kind of society we want to emerge from this crisis.
Our own reports, and others such as Sir Michael Marmot’s 10 years on report, reveal how inequality is rising in our society and its harmful effects on our health. Life expectancy is falling for the poorest for the first time in 100 years. As child poverty rises, children and young people in the poorest parts of our country are two to three times more likely to experience poor mental health than those in the richest areas. After the 2008 credit crunch, it was the most vulnerable in our communities who experienced the most severe consequences of austerity, with devastating effects on their mental and physical health. This is not the hallmark of a kind society. We must not make the same mistakes after this pandemic.
Applied kindness could have a transformative impact on our schools, places of work, communities and families. As the former Governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, has said, now is a time to put values above valuations. We must seize this time to shape a society that tips the balance in favour of good mental health for all of us and especially for those who are most vulnerable.
Kindness matters – what you can do
This week, we will release new data to reveal how many of us experience kindness in the UK and a summary of the latest evidence about its important mental health benefits.
We know that one act of kindness can lead to many more. This is the type of community action that we need to inspire others as we discover our connection to each other and extend kindness to ourselves.
During Mental Health Awareness Week, we are asking you to do three things:
- Reflect on an act of kindness. Share your stories and pictures (with permission) of kindness using #KindnessMatters and #MentalHealthAwarenessWeek.
- Use our resources in your family, school, workplace and community to join with thousands in acts of kindness to yourself and others during the week.
- Share your ideas on how you think we could build a kinder society that supports our mental health using #KindnessMatters and #MentalHealthAwarenessWeek.