Beginning of the year means difficult time for many struggling with their mental health. We speak to Niki Clarke – founder and CEO of My Black Dog Charity.
Maciej Klinowski (MK): Thank you for accepting our invitation. Just to start, could you please explain to our readers what is My Black Dog? Who do you work with? What kind of help do you offer?
Niki Clarke (NC): My Black Dog is an online peer to peer support service for people who are struggling with their mental health. What that means is that all of our volunteers have a lived experience of mental health battles and understand what it’s like to go through them. We are a chat function that is free and online every day.
What we provide is an empathetic space for people to talk to someone who understands. For many people, reaching out to friends and family can be difficult because they are worried about being judged or burdening loved ones. Similarly, you may feel uncomfortable talking to a professional; My Black Dog is a non-judgemental community from real people with real experiences.
MK: January – it seems to be a common perception - is considered quite a though time for many. What are the factors influencing this?
NC: January seems to be a perfect storm as there are lots of unconstructive factors that arrive this month: it’s post-holiday season, so there’s a general feeling that good times are over, people have often spent a lot during December and are now feeling the pinch, the weather is cold, wet and dark so that adds to the mood. Adding to that is a huge surge in advertising about getting fit and losing weight, which can lead to body shame and guilt. You can see how all of these factors individually might affect someone, but altogether, yes January can be rough.
MK: Seasonal Affective Disorder – could you share some information on this, please? Many people experience feeling low during winter, but when this can become a mental health concern? What are the signs/symptoms that indicate that external help/support might be needed?
NC: Symptoms of SAD can be similar to Depression: feeling a loss of pleasure in normal activities, irritable, thoughts of despair, tearfulness and a reduced sex drive, to name a few. The main difference is that SAD occurs repeatedly and specifically at certain times of the year: during the winter months.
If these feelings become overwhelming and you are finding it difficult to cope/it is affecting your daily life, then consult your GP.
MK: In your opinion, is this January (2022) tougher / more difficult than the previous ones? Are there any trends/indicators that you observe in context of your work?
NC: January 2022 continues to see extremely high levels of anxiety, and that is one of the main reasons that people visit My Black Dog. Uncertainty continues as we persevere with everyday life during a pandemic. Some people have still been unable to see family because of travel restrictions, there is still suspicion about human contact, fear of the virus, of the economy, of job stability is rife. This, in turn, can cause a “high alert” response that can result in anxiety. In addition, many people were not able to celebrate Christmas with loved ones due to the high infections rates of the Omicron variant and will have felt isolated and alone adding to feelings of depression and loneliness.
MK: Can you share your tips on how to look after own mental well-being during winter?
NC: Find the things that bring you comfort and concentrate on bringing them into your life. For some people that’s joining a yoga class, for others, that’s reading in the bath, some people enjoy a contemplative walk, whatever your “good place” is, really try to honour that by spending some time each day creating a slice a contentment in your routine. I would also encourage you to think about what is nourishing you and what is depriving you when it comes to food. What I mean by that, is to decide whether now is the time you’d like to make some dietary changes because it’s right for you, and not because it’s what everyone does in January. If you do decide to start a diet plan, consider if it is bringing you mental or physical joy. If it makes you feel good and you’re feeding your body with nutritious good food, great! Keep going, but if you’re lagging and anxious and you want some comfort food, don’t berate yourself over a slice of cake, enjoy it with thanks and a cup of tea and feel good about it.
MK: Finally – in context of our work – what advice would you give to employers in regards to MH? Are there any New Year’s resolutions that business owners should embrace this January?
NC: I think the greatest resolution for business owners would be to recognise the strength that comes from dealing with the debilitating nature of mental health. I know from experience that living with mental health struggles can consume and destroy you and it is not to be underestimated. Carrie Fisher once said that “living with manic depression takes a tremendous amount of *****. Not unlike a tour of Afghanistan (though the bombs and bullets, in this case, come from the inside).” Just because you cannot see physical signs of mental health, it does not mean that the individual struggling isn’t experiencing a full-blown war on survival. So, imagine, they are doing all of that and STILL managing to come to work and function, in my opinion, that makes them incredibly strong, not weak.
It’s about time all employers - especially those running smaller companies - recognise the need for building MH awareness and ensuring their workplaces are supportive.