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An analogy to understanding mental health

14 November 2023

5 mins

Image courtesy of Getty Images

Dr Rebecca Higginson, a Reader based in the Department of Materials, is the Academic Co-Chair of the Staff Inclusivity Network. In this blog post, she explains an alternative approach to understanding our mental health and recognising the ups and downs we face throughout our lives. 

We all have mental health and as with all health, it changes, hour to hour, day to day, year to year, decade to decade.     

If our mental health is not “normal” (whatever that means) we try to hide it in fear of some detriment to our lives, careers, and relationships. 

I want to give you an analogy of a way to think about mental health. 

Your mental health consists of two parts: the first is a beautiful hollow glass ball. It has the smoothest surface and if you look into it, the contents shine with every colour and reflection of you. The second is a spherical terracotta vessel. It has a round bottom and bulbous sides so that you can wrap your hands around it. It comes up to a small opening at the top so that you can look down into the vessel.  The terracotta is glazed and shiny with a coloured strip around the rim top. 

Now if you put your glass ball in the vessel it will sit at the exact centre of the base. This would signify that your mental health would be perfect, 100%, top-notch, with not a care in the world. Now we all know that’s not possible, and the reason is your vessel is not perfect.  

Right at the very centre at the bottom is a little imperfection. It is a little cusp projecting from the bottom coming to a perfect point, and because of this, your glass ball cannot sit exactly in the middle. But it can be very near to it and roll and rotate about this point. 

As we walk through life, we hold the vessel and concentrate on rolling the ball around the centre of the bottom, but things happen in life that impair our ability to keep the ball here.  

Life can gently nudge our elbow; you lose your keys, your team loses a major match, you break your favourite toy, you sit on your glasses, you get a funny look from someone you meet, and so on.  These all cause a wobble in your vessel which means your ball is moved away from the centre and your mental health goes down a tiny amount.  But we can recover our balance and rotate around the centre point again. 

Other things can nudge our elbow more and sometimes these make it more difficult to control how our ball is moving.  Someone close to us dies, or someone close to us is injured or taken ill, there is an attack on us, and so on.   

Sometimes, our elbow is nudged only a bit, but over a long time, nudge after nudge can create a more significant impact.  And with these, it is not always evident that our ball might not be where we think it is.  We are so busy concentrating on the issues at hand that we forget to spin the ball around the centre. It may be sometime later that we notice that there is a problem and that our ball is away from the optimum position and has started to roll higher and higher up the wall of the vessel, nearer and nearer the coloured strip.  

You notice that to spin higher in the vessel the ball must move faster, your brain is moving faster, it is fixated on certain things, you cannot shut off, you cannot sleep.  Anyone who has had depression might recognise this; that feeling of spinning out of control, stuck in an everlasting spiral and as much as you want to get back to the bottom you feel unable to do so. The best you can do is to try and not spin any higher. It can be tough to get your ball back to the bottom without the right help. The danger always being that your ball spins to the top of the pot. 

There are ways to get your ball spinning where it should.  The trouble is no one else knows what is happening inside your pot unless you show or tell them. By doing so, help can come, and you can stop the ball from spinning so fast.  We may be afraid to let someone in, we may think that it will be detrimental to us but ignoring it will not stop the spinning.   

Remember, everyone’s ball is spinning around the optimum position which, in reality, is impossible to reach. How is your ball spinning today?

Any staff members who have or are affected by physical or invisible disabilities, including those who are carers, are welcome to join the Staff Inclusivity Group

For more information on the University support services available to you, please visit the Staff Wellbeing webpages.  

Health and Wellbeing

Wellbeing means being in a positive physical, social and mental state. Wellbeing is important to us as happy, healthy people who achieve harmony in their work / life mix are more creative, productive and help to create a great place to work.

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