Mental health awareness and acceptance has certainly come a long way in a last few decades. The freedom with which people now speak about it- both in open conversations and in seeking help from others- is a very positive development. For all that, it still remains so difficult to properly understand, let alone treat, and the almost chronic nature of some battles can be truly heartbreaking.
Ben Hirst is a passionate and tireless advocate and champion for mental health. His own site, Run for Mental Health, shares not only his running journey as he embarks on ever more unbelievable challenges, but also positive messages and advice about maintaining mental wellbeing. Because while Ben’s incredible courage and sheer running capacity is truly inspiring for me, there is something about him that I think is even more important. He doesn’t just run for mental health, he also walks the walk- honestly and openly showing others how he deals with his own difficulties.
I wrote about Ben last year after he had been forced to make the difficult decision withdraw from another challenge mid-race. Even in his supposed failure, Ben’s open honesty and resilience provided an inspiration to others in overcoming their own disappointments.
Last week Ben completed his latest challenge- a 48 hour treadmill challenge in which he completed an incredible 272 kilometres, raising money for the charity, Speak Up Stay ChatTy. I was privileged to be there for the last hour of Ben’s Herculean effort and the final moments will stay with me for many years.
I wrote above that society has come a long way in our recognition and de-stigmatising of mental illness. Most of us know (academically at least) we can talk to our mates if we are struggling and that we can ask our friends when we are worried about them. But by my estimation, there is a corollary of all this that I feel many people miss.
Because mental health awareness is not a momentary thing. We don’t just show awareness of it through our involvement in viral push up challenges, Movember and other fundraising activities. We also show our awareness every day in how we treat the people we interact with! If the way we treat people has a negative impact on their mental health (even without our knowledge), then we really are not showing an awareness of mental health. Hence the need to be cognisant of the possible mental frailty of those around us all the time.
Conversely, we don’t have to wait until we know someone is struggling with their mental health to show compassion or kindness. We can choose to show it all the time, even to strangers, becoming the kind of people friends would feel comfortable confiding in. It is tiring, but it is possible. And the positive ripple effects of what we do can impact far more people than we realise. Ben really embodies this philosophy. He always has an outward energy and compassion for others- I had a chat to him just before he completed his 47th hour on the treadmill and even exhausted as he was, he was full of interest and advice for me about my next run.
He also knows the value of small acts that bring a smile to others. To this end he has founded Run funners- a group of Tasmanian runners who participate in local fun runs wearing silly costumes. To some runners, it may seem trivial, but to other participants, it provides a much-needed moment of levity or distraction at a time they are nervous or struggling.