My Journey of Understanding
By Jess Dando
As preparations went underway for us to undertake the ‘Journey of understanding’, and some much needed exercise with great company, it started me thinking about the journey, what it meant to me and how much it still does.
The journey, in a nutshell was a walk in West Wales through all the counties on the 20th of September 2014, that aimed to bring together people with or without mental health problems to challenge the stigma around mental health. It was a wonderful idea, and it was a step in the right direction.
Recently, when asked a question about mental health and stigma I began thinking again about my part in the journey, when someone asked me what I thought could be done to further challenge the stigma attached to mental illness, I couldn’t answer straight away and took long enough to consider what my thoughts were on it. A good few years later I have a better answer, so thought I would share it.
Our modern society has become a lot more tolerant and accepting of mental illness over the last decade, but it would be naïve to suggest there is not still a large amount of work to be done in continuing to educate people about it, and to make sure that the stigma attached to mental health does not stop people who really need it, getting support. There are several reasons why I think mental health has the stigma still attached, whereas physical illness elicits a more sympathetic response. Firstly, the environment we live in is increasingly becoming one that rewards selfishness and lack of empathy rather than kindness, seeing it as weakness. Secondly, is lack of awareness and education, spurred on by misinformation and scare tactics from the mainstream media, used only to sell papers without a thought about the consequences. There are several more theories, but they are the most important to me.
Before personally experiencing mental health difficulties myself, I am ashamed to admit that I found it hard to understand – despite trying my best to do so. Depression and anxiety, coupled with addiction have all sat on my shoulders for most of my life, every now and again weighing me down so that It was too heavy to carry, making me feel like life was too difficult to manoeuvre and manage, leaving me feeling hopeless and helpless, it would then result in me drinking alcohol to self-medicate and to make it feel less painful. After my own experiences with poor mental health, and coming so close to the edge of doing something I would never come back from and with the help of family, friends and the people at Reconnect in Nature, I developed a deeper understanding of the complexities associated with mental illness and experienced first-hand how hard it is to reach out for help, to tell people you are ‘broken’ (which I am most certainly not, and realise that now) Through my own experience of shame, I finally understood how frustrating and upsetting it is when people suffering are told to ‘snap out of it’ when they are depressed, or to ‘calm down’ when they feel anxious.
My thoughts drifted towards how different my life would have been, if I had learned how to manage my depression earlier on in life, to be able to go back and fix the mistakes I made in the past, the moments lost forever through loss of memory due to using alcohol as a crutch. But I don’t think I would change anything, to suffer is to relate to others who are suffering, and if my life hadn’t been the way it has been then I wouldn’t be able to understand or connect and feel for others the way I do. It also wouldn’t have led me to discover what makes me content, and what I need to do when I feel depressed or anxious. I rediscovered my love for nature, connection with others and music and I realised how much these things mean for my stability, and recovery.
The journey of understanding, for me, was an opportunity for us to connect, come together to understand mental health and to realise that the people who suffer are often the most wonderful; creative and kind souls who are fighting a battle every day that some will never comprehend. There is, no doubt a long way to go to educate people and dispel the myths perpetuated about mental illness.
The Journey of understanding held so many lovely memories for me, the beauty of walking next to the river; looking out over green landscapes; and connecting with other people, supporting each other by carrying bags that others found to heavy, or sharing a story about our lives – to learning about habitats and foraging on our walks. That journey brought me closer to my own journey, to understanding my own path, and to empathise with others.
We are on the precipice of facing a mental health crisis, post COVID-19 and we will all need to come together as communities and support one another, to find better and more comprehensive ways of helping those who need it. I want to say thank you to the facilitators, and the owners of Reconnect, firstly Andrew Dugmore, an incredibly inspiring person who has lived experience with mental health, helping many other people with a wealth of information on pretty much anything to do with West Wales and the history of all four counties. On his wonderful walks he shares his knowledge of foraging, mindfulness, building fires and shelters, and generally supports people who are struggling by facilitating nature connections and bringing people together to combat isolation and loneliness. And Mike Erskine, who was responsible for all the digital media, wonderful photographs and videos, and helping others find their love of photography, as well as supporting them in the way Mike does, to connect with nature and others, and ultimately themselves.
Since the journey, reconnect has grown significantly, and I am proud to say that I now volunteer alongside them, inspired by their wealth of knowledge and the mission of the organisation to help those who need support, to connect with nature; themselves; and one another. Suzi Tarrant has now joined the team, a highly qualified mental health professional with a wealth of information about the natural world and mental health. I am really looking forward to creating some videos over the next 12 months that will offer a closer look at the organisation, and the work they do, and will enable a more in depth look at the people behind the organisation, and tell their stories.
My final thoughts: Stigma and ignorance are sometimes incredibly hard to defeat. Together, we need to fight for early intervention and support our friends and family when they need us, as well as practice self-care for ourselves, to enable us to be strong enough to support others. I have always had a problem with that last one, learning to love myself is a journey, with many winding roads. It isn’t easy to tell a story or a truth that you have hidden from for too long, but I am still on my journey, and by finding my own way through rivers and woodlands; making music that allows me to tell my story and recognising and acknowledging when I am struggling and asking for help, the roads are clearer and the road is less bumpy.
Watch the Journey of Understanding video
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