Updated: Jan 15
Reflections on the first MentalHealth4All online peer support group (Now: IMEC Support Groups) Written by Natalie Fraser https://meaning.org.uk/
Yesterday evening, Thursday 26th March 2020, I co-facilitated the first online support group hosted by MentalHealth4All (Now: IMEC Support Groups). MentalhHealth4All was set up in 2019 as part of an initiative to provide a safe and supportive space for people to be able to connect and share themselves with others in a non-judgemental way; a space for people to slip through the labels society has given them and leave any accompanying stigmas at the door.
2019-2020 has been a provocative enough period of time already, with previous MentalHealth4All groups supporting members through challenges such as racism, climate change, and the dreaded B-word... Brexit. The intense ramifications of the UK's decision to depart from the EU has not remotely had the chance to settle, with many companies and individuals starting the new year in a frantic scrabble to navigate their new post-European terrain of life. And then, in a manner that no one could have predicted (or if they did, they managed to keep it pretty quiet), these already-challenging times have now been interrupted by an invisible and deadly force which within months has infiltrated the lives of the global population... the Corona Virus Pandemic.
Within a matter of weeks, boarders have closed, schools and shops have been forced to shut down, and not a single toilet roll has lived on a shelf long-enough to tell the tale.
As the people are panic buying and the governments are panic lying, individuals across the globe are in the most part having to fend for themselves in their endeavour to, as MentalHealth4All would say: "stay sane at these insane times".
And for this reason, like a slightly startled by very passionate little phoenix rising from the fresh ashes of lost hope and isolation, the MentalHealth4All organisation committee has worked together to step up and provide the citizens of the world a safe space to connect with new and old faces. And with that initiative, so grows a community in which individuals can connect and face these challenging times together.
In the urgent and focused hussle and bussle of working towards setting up the online group, it occurred to me only afterwards that I hadn't taken the opportunity to imagine the reality of how meaningful the experience might be when it came to fruition. People of all ages, backgrounds, professions, and nationalities logged in from across the globe, and despite the distance and in spite of the context which led them there, a profound connection and comfort was cultivated by all involved.
For those who did not manage to attend, I wanted share a few reflections that were gained from this humbling and inspiring experience - now to be a weekly occasion, with new attendees ever welcomed.
Combat Your Estrangement From Strangers
With severe restrictions placed on much of the population to prevent the spread of the virus, so too have our day-to-day social interactions been removed. In life pre-pandemic, how often did we spend each day reflecting on how lovely it was to say "hello" to the owner of the corner shop; "Thanks sir!" to the bus drive; "no I don't need a bag thanks, I've brought my own today!" to the cashier at the supermarket; or "a receipt? Oh no I definitely don't want to remember this purchase!" to the exasperated bar tender at 1 o'clock in the morning. We did not plan these interactions, we may not even have noticed them.
While we may be readily aware of how grateful we are for our friends and family, these little fleeting communications with strangers may previously not have been obviously meaningful. Yet at times of isolation when all our usual encounters have been removed, we are offered the opportunity to realise how significant the seemingly-insignificant connections that we had really are. We are social and sensory beings, and the value of being stimulated by the newness of a strangers' existence as it fleets past your own - if only for a moment - is immense.
From this understanding, we are invited to relish in a new gratitude for what we had, and may appreciate these moments more deeply in the future. As for the present moment? We are reminded of how important it is for us to continue to make a conscious effort to plan opportunities to connect with many others in new and connective ways, not just our friends and families.
When the robotics of routine are stripped away, we learn to understand what really makes us humans
Regardless of our lifestyle choices before the pandemic struck, Corona Virus has had an impact on almost everyone's daily routine.
For those who are still working, their jobs may be weighted with extra pressure and new responsibilities. For much of the population, jobs are now on pause or no longer available. Especially for these newly unemployed individuals, they have for the time being become their own boss. And perhaps the hardest team-members to control are the ones inside ourselves - those complex elements of our selves who are in charge of our attitude towards this new way of life.
As if the sudden financial carnage wreaking through our economical worlds wasn't enough, we are now in a starkly obvious way, responsible for filling our days with meaningful ventures. And all within the confines of isolation. While psychological research is demonstrating that this is having an overwhelming impact on mental well-being, it is important to remember that we are the person who created our old routine in the first place - and therefore we can be the person who creates our new one.
At moments like these, we are invited to look at our past routines and question, "Did this fulfil me as a human, or have I been functioning like a robot?" What can we do with our answer to this question in the present moment? Well, as the likes of Sartre and Frankl have been saying for much longer than we've been ignoring them: as humans we have the freedom to create uniquely meaningful worlds, and we're bloody well responsible each and every day to do just that.
If they could do it from concentration camps and Parisian opiate dens, then we can make it happen from our bedrooms.
Even superheroes need naps
However nasty the Corona pandemic is, one thing has been revealed on a prodigious scale: human kindness has the power to rebel against any negativity which impedes on the human experience.
As Corona has swept the globe taking many of lives and breaking many hearts in its wake, the human family has stepped up in solidarity to push through this together. Through tiny gestures of good will and massive acts of courage, humans have looked deeply within themselves and shared their internal and external resources in compassionate and creative ways to combat the Corona pandemic.
Nurses are risking their lives on a daily basis to treat the ill, as are supermarket staff, postfolk, emergency services and many many others. Essential produce suppliers have upped their game and are donating to those in need. Neighbours are meeting - at the recommended 2 meter distance - for the first time and sharing kind words and good deeds. People are opening their land to those with nowhere to go, and others are offering their knowledge in the hope that it goes a long way. The internet has never been so busy with new supportive initiatives starting up in many forms in attempt to fill the many gaps now raw and open in people's lives... to the point that there is a real risk of being stuck in 'traffic' despite all the cars now being parked in their driveways.
This pandemic is with us for an indefinite amount of time. But within this under certainty one thing is definite... humans are heroes.
HOWEVER, while we have enough love to go a long way, it is fundamental that we save some for ourselves too! There is infinite meaning in being there for others, but this should not come at the cost of neglecting ourselves. It is not selfish to P A U S E and S T E P B A C K from our good deeds, in fact, it is the only way we will be able to continue doing them.
In every moment, good or bad; fun or sad, we must find the balance between being there for others and being there for ourselves.