Guest blog

Guest Blog – Mental Health Awareness Week and Me

Blog by Adam Smith

Reading Time: 5 minutes

This week is Mental Health Awareness Week (10 – 16th May). It provides an opportunity for the whole of the UK to focus on achieving good mental health. The Mental Health Foundation started the event 21 years ago, and each year the Foundation continues to set the theme, organise and host the Week. The event has grown to become one of the biggest awareness weeks across the UK and globally.

Mental Health Awareness Week is fantastic because it provides everyone with a chance to highlight their particular problems, (and I doubt I would have written this blog had it not been for Mental Health Awareness Week), it helps reducing the stigma, and highlights that the problems and things you can do to help are the same whether you work academia, healthcare or something completely different.

It’s all about starting conversations about mental health, and the things in our daily lives that can affect it. This year the Mental Health Foundation want us to think about connecting with nature and how nature can improve our mental health.

So to play my part, I thought I would share my own short story.

As my bio says, I was born in the North, a long time ago – a child of the 70’s, brought up in a time, and place, and in a family that didn’t much talk about Mental Health. Mental Illness was something concealed  and only ever discussed in hushed terms, and there was no real discussion at all about how to maintain good mental health or to recognise when you might have a problem.

Thankfully, times have changed. However, despite my being better informed about how to ensure good mental health and what the opposite might look like, I don’t think I really had a real appreciation of what a problem might feel like.

This years message is to ‘connect with nature’ the film at the bottom provides more information.

Looking back, I can identify times in my life when I have been low, anxious, depressed – but somehow I always just shrugged this off, or found it easy overcome (thankfully). So, in January this year, at 1.00 am when I suddenly, and for no apparent reason, starting to feel ill – I was convinced I was on the verge of a heart attack or stroke. I am not as fit or healthy as I could be – and the more I thought about this, the more my brain worked against me, symptoms worsened, and I called 999.

I went to A&E waited, had a few tests… and then slowly over the next hour, I felt back to my normal self. The amazingly kind doctor diagnosed an anxiety attack. Which immediately resulted in my feeling rather silly, ashamed and embarrassed – I apologised a lot, for wasting his time, and I came home… (now I realise that I probably didn’t need to feel this way, but hey, I’m just being honest) and slept… for almost 24 hours straight. It happened again the next day, this time I didn’t call 999. However, I realised that the more I thought this would happen, the more likely it became, to the point where my brain was hyper focussed on my breathing, my heart beat, every twinge – I knew it was probably another anxiety attack, but my brain said ‘what if it isn’t this time… what if you’re ignoring this and its bad’, thinking ‘what if my brain was the boy who cried wolf?’. The things you’re told to do in this situation didn’t help. Thinking of something else, walking, focussing on breathing, all the things the internet will tell you to do, just didn’t work. But eventually I had to just trust that the feelings would subside – and they did.

Five months later, and it has happened a few times since, and it has genuinely scared me. All those symptoms you hear about – spinning out of control, palpitations, feeling hot, heart racing, they are very real! So for someone who had never really thought about mental health, it took sometime for me to accept that I have an issue.

I’ve been looking at why this might have suddenly happened, and I realise now, that all the signs were there – working long hours, getting less fresh air, some depression, oh and a pandemic with a 24 hour news cycle of worldwide death and despair!

So, now I accept that I have a problem, but the good thing is, that I know how to treat it and that is thanks things like Mental Health Awareness Week.

My problem wasn’t brought on because of some unique issue relevant to academia, I can’t blame my job or work, it is simply because of life in 2020 and my own lack of self-care and awareness.

My regime to get better is one that could be found on pretty much every mental health guide you will ever have read:

  • Time away from screens
  • Getting sleep
  • Not working too much
  • Better diet
  • Exercise
  • Finding time to relax
  • Tending my allotment

All very obvious and things, which I could easily have listed before I felt like I needed them. The challenge is to now follow that guidance, and sustain it.

There are a few days of Mental Health Awareness week left, so use that time to get outside this weekend, connect with nature – and if you related to anything in this blog, drop me a line, talking is good.

Thank you


Adam Smith was born in the north, a long time ago. He wanted to write books, but ended up working in the NHS, and at the Department of Health.  He is now Programme Director in the Office of the NIHR National Director for Dementia Research (which probably sounds more important than it is) at University College London. He has led a number of initiatives to improve dementia research (including this website, Join Dementia Research & ENRICH), as well as pursuing his own research interests. In his spare time, he grows vegetables, builds Lego & spends most of his time drinking too much coffee and squeezing technology into his house.

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