It's that time of year again- new beginnings, fresh optimism and for lots of us, a long list of new year's resolutions overhauling our health, hobbies, lifestyle...the list goes on.
I used to make the same old clichéd resolutions on an annual basis to lose weight, learn a new language from scratch, begin exercising regularly, etc. I rarely made it to February with any of them in tact, leaving a lingering sense of failure and disappointment.
My new approach is not to make resolutions that involve a complete overhaul of my eating habits, an entirely new exercise regime or setting myself near-impossible tasks. Instead I propose more manageable, positive and fun resolutions. This year one of them is to go to the theatre more often. I made that one last year, too. I believe I went to precisely zero plays in 2017. So what will be different this year?
According to BBC Reality Check, we are more likely to keep our new year’s resolutions if we involve other people. In 2018 I have resolved to see more theatre with a friend who is also a drama enthusiast and who has independently made the same resolution so I may be on to a winner.
My conclusion about new year's resolutions generally is that the broader improvements to my life such as doing regular exercise do not come about from a rash decision made on a foggy-headed early January morning. Rather they should be habits formed gradually. With exercise the ongoing benefits to my physical and mental wellbeing have lead to them becoming simply part of my life now. Drastic changes don't seem to be sustainable, boring as this realisation may be.
Last year I tried to go vegan a number of times. The first time I went cold turkey (or should that be cold seitan?!) I found it unsustainable, going back to dairy after a few short weeks. The second time was successful for slightly longer, but ultimately the pull of cheese was too strong and I returned to my cheddar-chomping ways, making up for lost time. I tried again, for the third time, but this time I tried a new approach: flexibility. I gave myself permission to be flexible in my newly-formed veganism. I decided to chill if there weren't any decent vegan options when eating out (less and less of an issue nowadays), allow myself to buy eggs occasionally, nibble the odd piece of cheese without beating myself up. I now eat a roughly 90% vegan diet. Hard-core vegans and carnivores alike may scoff at my lack of total commitment to the cause. But my mostly vegan diet makes me feel like I'm making a difference, living compassionately and, crucially, I know that it is something I can sustain in the long-term.
I have realised that with new year's resolutions and changes I want to make to my life being kind to myself is key. Allowing myself to 'fail', not do something every day, sometimes have a break from whatever change I'm ultimately trying to make. As the Guardian's guide to making New Year's Resolutions states, “the biggest obstacle to new habits is self-criticism. Study after study shows that self-criticism is correlated with less motivation and worse self-control, in contrast with being kind or supportive to yourself, as you would to a friend – especially when confronted with failure.” That's the bottom line, and one I plan to hold onto in 2018.
“What do you hope to get from coming to therapy?” I recently asked a new client. She replied that she didn't really know what to expect. “All I know about therapy is what I've seen on TV.”
This got me thinking about how the media portrays therapy, and the Hollywood version of it that we regularly consume. Often when therapy is shown on TV or film I am left frustrated by the therapist's lack of boundaries. For example, Naomi Watts' baffling Netflix show Gypsy in which, among other cardinal sins, the therapist embarks on an affair with her client’s ex-girlfriend and turns up at the house of another client to offer emotional support.
Even when the (fictional) therapist adheres to boundaries I'm left banging my head against the wall as the 'expert' therapist tells their client what to do, completely disempowering them in the process. An example of this presented itself in the otherwise excellent HBO series Big Little Lies (spoilers follow).
In Big Little Lies the therapist explicitly tells their client (Nicole Kidman's character Celeste) what she has to do. Celeste is in a vulnerable position. She is in a domestically abusive relationship with a man who is controlling, manipulative and holding all of the power. Her therapist witnesses this and makes a plan for the client to get out of the relationship, urging her to follow it. The process is not collaborative. The therapist dictates the plan to the client with no attempt to empower her in doing so.
There is no regard shown for the complexities of the situation. Statistically the most dangerous time in a domestically abusive relationship is once the survivor leaves the perpetrator. According to domestic abuse charity Standing Together, 76% of domestic homicides happen after the point of separation. Ordering someone to simply up and leave that relationship is not therapeutic, nor is it necessarily the safest option. Celeste is a privileged woman with the means to secretly rent her own apartment to take herself and her sons to at a moment’s notice. Leaving may be simpler for her than for most women in this situation who face relocating to a completely new area, finding work, childcare, housing, with the ongoing fear of being discovered by the perpetrator overshadowing it all.
I am not arguing that a therapist should sit back and say nothing when a client is in an abusive relationship. But our role is to meet the client where they are, and start from a place of understanding and affirming them. In therapy the client has a space that is theirs alone. In a therapeutic relationship where they are valued, accepted and understood I believe that the client will connect with their strength, resilience and power as the therapist reflects this back to them. We must start from a position of 'you're ok, you're doing your best.' Not 'you are wrong. You should be doing this instead.'
I always stress early on that I am not there to tell a client what to do, or offer my opinions. This can be met with disappointment or frustration. The therapeutic process may be slow and laborious. It certainly would not further the plot of a TV show very efficiently. Real life therapy would probably make for dull viewing. I understand why therapy is glamorised in TV and film, but it's worth remembering that a client's expectations of therapy may be informed by these portrayals, and taking a moment to be clear about what real-life therapy might look like. It might not be pretty, it will not be glamorous, but ideally it will be a nurturing space in which the client will grow and achieve something meaningful and substantial.
The recent Children's Commissioner report into vulnerability shows 800,000 children in England aged between 5 and 17 are experiencing mental health issues.
The facts are shocking. There is a pervading sense that young people nowadays have it harder than previous generations- greater academic pressures, constant social media scrutiny/competition, the economic reality of post-Brexit Britain beginning to filter down... But are we looking back with rose-tinted glasses on our idyllic childhoods and making unfavourable comparisons? Perhaps the 80s and 90s of my childhood were a more innocent time in some ways. After all, ignorance is bliss! How many of us were were struggling in silence, lacking the language to say how we were feeling?
The BBC reports that five secondary schools in Cardiff have taken part in a pilot study by Samaritans Cymru teaching mental health lessons. Afterwards students reported having a better awareness of mental health, and Samaritans propose that these lessons should be mandatory.
My school days are not that far behind me. I don't recall mental health ever being discussed in my lessons. Had the curriculum covered mental health or wellbeing I may have known what to say when a friend was off school for a while with depression. Perhaps I would have had more compassion for myself when I struggled during sixth form and put this down to a mysterious chronic fatigue-type condition which with hindsight I believe was, at least partly, caused by depression.
Research by in-school children’s mental health charity Place2Be, showed that of children who received individual counselling:
There are a number of charities doing great work to promote discussion about young people’s mental health and wellbeing, and providing essential support where schools are falling short. Young Minds campaigns to raise awareness and works with policy makers in the UK. They also provide practical support and expertise for young people, their parents and professionals. The Mix (formerly Get Connected) offers online support, a helpline, and telephone counselling to anyone under 25.
Encouraging school students and teachers to talk about mental health can only be a good thing. Providing therapy and emotional support to our young people and keeping an open dialogue about how we are all feeling is essential. The more we talk about it, the more we understand ourselves and each other. We can start to take better care of ourselves, prioritising our mental health as much as our physical health.