Resources for mental health awareness

Creating space to care for yourself and others

Illustration by Moonassi

With it being Mental Health Awareness week, I was asked if I would share my personal journey at an online event. I have never openly discussed the impact that mental illness and addiction has had on me and my family in a public space. I reluctantly said yes, knowing that it would be challenging but with the hope it might bring some healing too –– and I’m glad I did.

I’ve learnt through my own experiences that there isn’t a manual on how to deal with difficult memories and feelings. However, there are things you can do to practice self compassion and establish boundaries in life. Boundaries that help us recognise when we’ve wandered away from ourselves. I now deeply understand the importance of slowing down and doing the internal work first, before you can properly help others.

This isn’t a blog post about ‘quick wins’ because there isn’t an easy fix for root issues in our lives, and everyone’s mental health journey is different. In this short post, I want to share a few habits and resources that have helped me along the way:

It is worth mentioning that in addition to the work I have done on my own to better understand and manage my own mental health, therapy and coaching have also played a huge role in my journey.

Make space for creativity and reflection

The past year has been difficult for all of us –– I’m sure we have all had moments where you’ve felt wobbly. When times are tough, it’s hard not to be in same room with people you care about. I was planning to go home in March of last year, but my flight was canceled right as we went into lockdown. In August, it will be two years since I’ve seen my family and that’s been difficult.

During these dark times, the pandemic has also taught me a lot. It gave me space to heal and process difficult memories. I think in order for us to heal collectively at the macro level, we need to turn inwardly and reflect on a micro level first. For me, a lot of that reflection and healing has come from regularly practicing creativity. As artist Dorothea Tanning says,

“Art has always been the raft on to which we climb to save our sanity. I don’t see a different purpose for it now.”

The beautiful thing about art is it’s an act of self-expression and reflection, there is no wrong way to go about it. Regardless of your experience and ability, it can offer a meditative space and medium to promote wellbeing. Practicing creativity is a huge part in dealing with my own mental health, however it hasn’t always been this way.

After the first lockdown in London, I felt desperate to find a creative space. There was a lot of stuff going on at the time and I needed a space to process it all. I feel very lucky, and privileged, to have found a small desk in a studio in Hackney.

Drawings from lockdown

For a long time, I felt numb and unable to produce anything I was proud of. Surprisingly, I created more art during the pandemic than I have in years. I think this was partly because I was forced to sit with my restless mind. It was very uncomfortable to open old wounds, but it was necessary because I started to channel all of that emotion in a healthy way.

Practicing creativity has brought me clarity and focus. I now regularly make space for art and daily reflection to become a better person.

Illustration of a rhino that I drew

Through my art, I’ve realised that I am obsessed with repetition. Part of wanting to feel control over my life –– especially, when life feels overwhelming –– is to find stability through repetition and routines. I’ve learnt to direct my love for patterns in healthy ways, like through marking art and writing daily reflections.

I often use a technique called pointillism, which consists of small distinct dots applied in patterns to form an image, like the rhino above. It is a tedious process, which can take hours, but I find that through this process, everything slows down and my mind becomes calm.

Whatever technique that resonates with you, I would highly encourage letting go and playing around with different ideas. For me, it’s important when practicing creativity and reflection to create something for yourself, and nobody else. Post-pandemic, I hope we all remember to make time for the small creative moments where we look inward and find some calmness. In Panthea Lee’s powerful blog post, In Times of Grief, Joy Fuels My Fight, I came across this beautiful quote by Ben Okri:

“The most authentic thing about us is our capacity to create, to overcome, to endure, to transform, to love, and to be greater than our suffering.”

Inform yourself about mental health

I’ve spent a lot of time reading, researching, going to Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), and being coached to learn more about mental health. All of this has stemmed from my desperate attempt to find answers and solutions to the problems around me. I wanted to gain deeper understanding about mental illness and addiction so that I could help fix things.

There was a breaking point where I realised I needed to ask for help and that I couldn’t fix it. The reading and self-help wasn’t enough for what I was going through. I was not coping and needed to unpack how these traumatic experiences and memories were impacting me.

Illustration by Moonassi

There have been a few times in my life where I didn’t have the inner capacity, tools or knowledge, to deal with my outer reality. This usually manifested itself through me over exerting myself at work, as a way to distract myself from other realities taking place.

I’ve come to learn through the work of trauma expert, Laura van Dernoot Lipsky, that “our ego is a related addiction we often overlook, at least when it is linked to our culture of productivity-based identity.” It took me far too long to realise I was addicted to my work. It was an unhealthy escape, which was complicated because it was also tied up with my ego.

Upon reflection, I now realise that I was using work to distance myself from overwhelming feelings going on around me. For me, my work life also made me feel in control, when everything else was seemingly falling apart. Having gone through some of this inner work pre-pandemic to understand how I was using work as a crutch, I established personal boundaries and identified signals to lookout for, such as listening to my body, during times of isolation and at home working. It’s far from complete and is an ongoing process –– one that I have to regularly keep in check –– so I don’t get caught up in the busyness of it all.

Throughout my journey, I have learned to understand how I had been coping and how it had negative impacts on other parts of my life. I now have the tools and knowledge to better manage and deal with the complex emotions, feelings and experiences in my life.

It can be hard to know where to start. Thankfully, there is an abundance of incredible books and tools out there around mental health and awareness –– not to be confused with the wellness industry that often focuses on the self, which is essential, but shouldn’t stop there. Please see the list of books below that have helped me understanding how to look after my inner wellbeing and resources for cultivating a more caring society.

Looking back in order to look forward

Arundhati Roy says the pandemic, “is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.” She explains that “it’s a chance for us to rethink the doomsday machine we have built for ourselves. Nothing could be worse than a return to normality.” Now is our time to make change individually and as a collective.

Practicing creativity and reflection is a time investment (and a privilege), which means you will likely have to drop something else in order to make space for it. It’s difficult to see the value of slowing down and taking a step back to reflect. However, I assure you that the effort is a worthwhile investment in yourself and subsequently the people around you.

I would love to hear from you if you have other resources or tools that have helped you. You can find me on twitter — @AlyBlenkin

Images of the book covers written below
Book covers detailed below

Books to cultivate a caring society

Videos and frameworks

Artists exploring mental health

There are too many artists to list! Here are a few that really resonate with me:

Interested in the intersection between design, technology, and social impact.