25 November 2020

I am writing this as we mark eight months since the UK was first put into full lockdown. Something that we thought at first would go on for no more than three or four weeks – then three or four months – is still with us and looks likely to remain with us well into the New Year. At first, many of us responded with either sang froid or a particular brand of Covid-induced gusto. As weeks began to turn into months there were those summoning ‘the Blitz spirit’ that we imagined our grandparents must have shown during the war to help get us all through. But as we approached the six-month milestone and saw that, instead of moving out of the crisis, we seemed to be returning to it, I can’t have been the only person who felt my enthusiasm and can-do spirit begin to wane.

It is important to say that this is not the sign of a weak spirit or a weak mind: this is an entirely natural reaction to unprecedented circumstances we are living through. The simple fact is that a large part of our engagement with life is inevitably bound up with our work and with our enjoyment of art, culture, travel, socialising and/or team sports and physical activity. For many people it has simply not been possible to work for much of the past eight months, or at least not in way or in a role that gives them much purpose or meaning. And for all of us, we have suddenly found ourselves deprived of the opportunity to engage in the activities and relationships that bring us enjoyment and which, we now realise, are the things that gave us our reason to live. In such circumstances we can keep going for a bit with the memory of those things, but, after a while, no matter how hard we may battle against it, our life begins to feel meaningless and therefore futile.

When we say that someone is mentally ill, or that we’re concerned for our own mental health, this is really what we mean: that without access to the people and things that give our life meaning and give us a sense of purpose, there doesn’t seem a lot of point in struggling on. We can’t see a reason to keep on going.

The important thing to remember at times like this is that we are not the first people to face this challenge, so we can learn from the experience of others and take encouragement from it. One group who are the subject of a number of studies around mental health, is former elite athletes. Elite athletes often find a sporting aptitude early in their life and from that moment on the whole of their life is focussed on their goal of reaching the pinnacle of their sport. But no matter how talented and dedicated they are, there will come a point, usually by their mid-thirties, when they can no longer meet the elite standard and need to retire. Many struggle to adapt to a life without top-level sporting endeavour. Again, this is not because they are weak people; it’s because the thing which gave their life purpose and meaning and has been taken away from them. All the research around athletes battling with poor mental health shows that the secret is not try and hold on to the past, not to try and keep coming back like an old prize fighter, but to find a new purpose in your life. This involves acknowledging that one chapter of your life has closed and that you may wish to grieve for it for a time. But it also involves looking forward and saying, “I can’t do that anymore, but I can do this.” Once retired athletes find a new purpose their life has renewed meaning.

We may not be elite athletes, but it feels to many of us as though many things which we valued are simply not possible any longer. What I’ve discovered is that, whilst it is fine for us to mourn those things, there are still plenty of things that can give us a purpose in life. When we’re struggling to think of a reason to keep on going, what we also can learn is that, actually, the process of winning our mental health battles is seldom best embarked on alone. It is other people who can help us discover a renewed purpose – or perhaps rediscover a purpose that we’ve lost.

The process of dialogue with a friend or confidante helps to heal us. It might be tough sometimes, but frequently it is other people who can put our woes into perspective. Things which seem insuperable obstacles when mulled over in the secrecy of our own minds, suddenly begin to seem ridiculous – or, at least, less overwhelming – when we articulate them to someone else. It’s not that our misery itself is any different, it is that it takes its place in a broader landscape which a friend can draw our attention to. In so doing, they might help us to see the obvious solutions we cannot see for ourselves.

What are habitually called ‘mental health problems’ are not some terrifying and unnatural state; they are one part of what makes us human. We cannot avoid them by ‘good living’ as we might hope to avoid a bad back or IBS. But we can face them with the support of people around us. We can choose to find another purpose. And we might even find ourselves having been enriched by the process, however terrible it feels at the time.

Alain de Botton writes:

“If there is any advantage to going through a mental crisis of the worst kind, it is that – on the other side of it – we will have ended up choosing life rather than merely assuming it to be the unremarkable norm. We, the ones who have crawled back from the darkness, may be disadvantaged in a hundred ways, but at least we will have had to find, rather than assumed or inherited, some reasons why we are here. Every day we continue will be a day earned back from death and our satisfactions will be all the more intense and our gratitude more profound for having been consciously arrived at.”

Read the full article here.


Alan Fraser is Group Chief Executive of YMCA Heart of England.