At the risk of sounding sanctimonious and losing you in the first line of this blog, running has been a good friend to me through Corona times. It has given me a Covid smile although – probably like you – I am heartily burnt out. Before you dip out, let me acknowledge that other wellbeing strategies are available and ‘work’ just as well. I love an open discussion about how people around me are managing to keep at least one eye on their mental health; I wish we could do this more – after all, we are free and easy when we share recipes for banana bread (I am totally over sour dough), and share our surplus veg plot fodder with our neighbours (unfortunately I can not do this since Favourite Man butchered my tomato plants).
Working with young people, I know they find it patronising (they tell me) when older people (moi) share wellbeing tips. I get that, after all what works for my 56 year old self is unlikely to offer a shining beacon for a struggling 17 year old, but I am happy to point out that even older wrinkly people (moi again) need to have to watch their mental wellbeing in the same way they do their physical health. Headlines about young people’s mental health, ‘going through the roof,’ feel unhelpful when anyone with any head space left is trying not to catastrophise or lie awake at night worrying about the long waiting lists for mental health referrals.
Speaking of headlines, we ask a lot of our young people right now. Last weekend’s newspapers were full of photos of university students out partying, representing them as the scourge of Public Health England. I found my blood pressure rising (I went running and brought it back down again) at this broad-brush criticism when I know that many 18 year olds are already nervous about going to university but feel they need to push on with their lives after a brutal summer of no exams, U-turns on grading and dissolving apprenticeship offers.
I can only imagine how it felt as a parent to drop your son or daughter at their hall of residence this year. Children leaving home is a rite of passage anyway – I cried all the way back from Leeds and Newcastle respectively for each year Favourite Son and Favourite Daughter insisted on choosing a university as far away from home as possible – but this year, many students were only allowed to take one adult with them for this cry fest. Students had to book an arrival slot and say goodbye in the car park, so had no assistance lugging their books, stationery and sensible coat (ok, make-up trolley, flat screen and freshers’ week wardrobe) up three flights of stairs to their cell. Those students who have escaped their home bubble to actually arrive on a university campus are now facing another lockdown, remote lectures and the threat of a campus Christmas – imagine if they then discover that they don’t like the other students in their flat and that none of these flatmates can cook. Looking for a silver lining, Turkey Twizzlers may have arrived back on the market just in time.
Young people are amazing though. I heard a fresher at a Scottish university being interviewed this morning and she was relentlessly realistic and upbeat at the same time. ‘We’ve got no Wifi,’ she said, ‘but that is probably a good thing because it has meant that we’ve really had to hunker down and talk to each other . Thank goodness my mum insisted I take a few board games away with me.’
It is not exactly a park run for young people who are ‘hunkering’ down at home either as they try to ride this weird world out and wait patiently for employment and apprenticeship opportunities to reappear. These young adults will be surrounded by the adults in their life who are also doing their best to keep from languishing. How we now laugh (she typed ironically) at our younger selves who moaned about ‘cabin fever’ after a week of family ‘fun’ at Christmas. Now the students I teach tell me that school is ‘light relief’ (mmm) from arguments at home over ‘office’ space, wifi and access to a computer. I think these are the lucky ones, many also have the challenge of shielding parents undergoing chemo, caring for grandparents and dealing with family redundancy. Against this context, I sense that a virtual assembly about the benefits of running may not be well received.
On reflection, when exams were cancelled this summer, I wish we had taken the opportunity to put some wellbeing training in place – not just for students, for all of us. I think understanding our own mental health – and helping others to do that – is the key to navigating the next few uncertain months…and those clocks that still insist on going back.
It has taken me a life time to realise that you can’t be happy all the time and that in bad times, there can also be happiness. At a basic level, I think that if we realise this, we can then accept that we all have mental health, and sometimes it can be ‘good’ mental health and sometimes it needs nourishment and support, or even specialist help. * I can nurse a sprained ankle myself if I am patient enough, but if I break a bone, I need to accept expert help. I worry that we may be encouraged to always talk about mental health negatively and helplessly – or even worse, to not talk about it at all. With catastrophic headlines, it is understandable that we sometimes go to red alert and avoid some practical self-help steps that may just nudge us back to happier times.
I think we are all much more resilient than we think we are, and that we can all be more supportive of each other. I think my dream of a mental health tag team has legs.
I don’t pretend to be an expert. Over time, I am learning to be more resilient and I am becoming more self-aware. I am blessed to work with young people who will readily talk about their mental health and who are really inquisitive about how to manage it themselves – they don’t necessarily want to hear our stories for they may not be relevant for the world they are now navigating through. I love hearing more people being brave enough to talk about their wellbeing – good and bad – and giving it the importance they only used to apply to taking vitamins and eating ‘clean’ food. I hope we don’t lose the shift we made at the start of this pandemic to really listen to the answer when we ask someone, ‘how are you?’
I think I am speaking to an older audience here, so I will finish where I started. Running has been a good friend to me. I have not banked any PB’s (no organised races to enter anyway), my legs still ache when I even think about running an incline, and local stores have imposed a jelly baby ration since I moved into the area, but I still maintain that running has minimised the wobble potential that Covid could have inflicted/could still inflict on my wellbeing. Running is my own mental health tag team baton.
My reasoning goes that if I can get my lardy backside out of bed, I never feel worse for a run. Running allows me to chat to my friends – and like walking – I believe people find it easier to share personal stories when they are by your side, not looking into your eyes. Running allows you to set your own little goals – goals that don’t matter to anyone else but that matter to you in a time when it is difficult to measure progress. Running on my own allows me to be nosy and curious – I am navigating my way around a new postcode both literally and metaphorically. Running allows me to think; like dreaming, I often find that a longer run can tease out a solution to a road-block problem. Running reminds me to do yoga – stiff limbs cry out for stretching and I could provide my own wellbeing list of yoga benefits.
I realise some of you hate running/hate the thought of running. You will have already dismissed me as a running nutter/bore and I choose not to judge you. But you can run (sorry) this list of benefits for all manner of other wellbeing strategies that I know people are applying; cooking, meditation; painting; writing; walking; sitting in the sun; having your nails painted; gardening, reading, detoxing from a mobile… let me know your strategies and we can get a virtual wellbeing group set up as soon as I am back from my run – I would count this as a Covid smile.
*I am lucky enough to have worked – alongside my students with Fabienne Vailes and recommend both her books, ‘How to Grow a Grown Up’ and ‘The Flourishing Student’. She is far too modest to share her wisdom with you but I wish these books had been around when my children were growing up. No money has crossed hands for this shameless plug; Fabienne has no time for shady dealing, for she is too busy ensuring that our young people flourish rather than languish