Top tips for taking control of your mental health
I caught up with Paul Shanahan for a behind-the-scenes look at Go Get You – the charity that he’s set up to help us all look after our mental health.
Having navigated your own mental health issues over the years, what led you to decide to set up a charity to help others?
Ever since I was a teenager, I’ve always been involved in one cause or project or another at any one time. Settling down with a 9-to-5 job was never for me – my life has always been about creating change and following my passion.
I helped set up a luncheon club at school for elderly and disabled people. After moving out of home – because of homophobic abuse from folks other than my family – I got involved with an LGBTQ charity in Northampton.
Setting up my own charity just seemed to be the natural next step.
Has setting up the charity itself been a therapeutic activity?
My mental health remains something that I work on daily, through my own practice of KoDo. For me, the charity is also a way to maintain my own mental health by giving back to my community and helping others explore alternative ways to help improve their own mental health.
I guess when it comes down to it, it’s about sharing experiences and for me to share my skills. Although – like anything else – it can be stressful at times, it’s definitely a very deeply therapeutic experience for me.
It’s sometime difficult to see where I actually end and the charity begins.
Are LGBTQ people more susceptible to mental health issues than other people?
I think we are all susceptible to mental health problems regardless of our gender, race or sexuality. But, I do think – particularly focusing on my own experiences – that LGBTQ people face unique issues when it comes to dealing with mental health problems like depression.
For many of us, there is a lot of stigma around our sexuality, the stress of being honest with our loved ones, and not being sure how they would react to it.
Coming out is a very stressful experience that can lead to severe anxiety and stress. It’s an experience unique
to our community, that’s for sure.
It took me forever to finally be honest with my family. I remember, initially I lied. I told them that I was bisexual,
because I thought they might take it easier. When it finally came to the crunch, I was so nervous I actually just laughed uncontrollably whilst telling my family I was bisexual – when in fact, I knew I was gay.
But coming out isn’t the only point that something like depression can descend into the life of someone who is LGBTQ. There’s all the abuse that comes after – from people who don’t understand – which can create a very real sense of fear and dread.
There have been more than enough stories of how LGBTQ folks of all ages have taken their lives, because of abuse and the struggle with mental health because of it.
I think we need to tackle mental health as a unique community, but also as a society at large. Like HIV, conditions such as depression and anxiety don’t discriminate – if you’re alive, you’re a target for it.
What sort of work does your charity do to help queer people who are struggling with mental health issues?
The work the charity does is everything that has been fundamental to my own mental health and physical recovery – particularly my back injury in 2001, and my broken arm last year.
I’m also very keen on help to mobilise folks into getting active. We have this great set-up where people can earn points for each class or other event or activity they attend – it’s based around the NHS guidelines for the amount of time people should spend being active each week – it makes a good little motivator for people.
One of the best things about the classes I run is that nothing is taken too seriously, I’d hate to be one of those fitness professionals who are serious about it all – it needs to be a bit fun so that people really connect with each other in class. We even have an online forum.
We’re all about learning something new to keep well, and making friends – those are the things that make for a happy life.
What are some of the techniques that you use to keep your mental health on track?
The things that have been a crucial part of my 10-year long recovery are Mindfulness, Tai Chi, Qigong, Resistance Bands, and Interval Training.
Learning Mindfulness, back in 2008, was the key to unlocking the door that led to me making the positive steps I
needed to take for my mental health. When I started at University, I was pretty much at a point where I wanted to end my life for a few different reasons. Mindfulness was then dropped into my lap in the form of an optional module on my degree course. I’m really not exaggerating when I say that it saved my life, it really did.
Practising mindfulness in class and at home started giving me more space in my head to think more clearly, to work through my experiences and feelings in a more rational way. Up until that point, I’d been riding some pretty nasty white water rapids, but mindfulness gave me the opportunity to step on to the shore and see those rapids from a different angle – I no longer felt like I was trying to keep my head above water every minute of every day.
Having found a way to clear the path a little, allowed me to move forwards and explore this new version of myself, as well as other techniques that could help me stay on balance.
Tai Chi and Qigong appeared to fit very well with what I had learned from Mindfulness, although my reasons for learning those were more weighted towards looking after my body and physical health in addition to my mental health.
I’d suffered a back injury back in 2001 – 14 years later I was in a lot of pain most of the time, which kept trying to
push me off the balance that I had found. I saw it as a challenge.
With my mental health I met that challenge by learning Mindfulness. This time, I wasn’t going to let chronic pain ruin the hard work I’d already done. I met this second challenge by learning Tai Chi and Qigong.
For anyone who hasn’t heard of either of these, they’re quite slow and deliberate exercises, but not to be underestimated. They may look easy and gentle, but they do give you a good workout, and are exceptional for your quads and glutes.
Since then, I’d broken my arm in a few places back in 2018, which is when I came into contact with interval training and resistance bands. This injury led me into a period of stress and depression – by this time, I’d been running and
teaching my classes through the charity for a few years. Everything seemed at risk, but with the help of a truly amazing NHS Physio and his resistance bands, we worked tirelessly on getting my arm back to health and moving again.
Earlier this year, I finally put togethr everything that I’d learned. It was a little like just testing and trying a new recipe
to see what worked best, and what eventually came out is a practice I engage in daily which I called KoDo. It sounds like an odd name but there is a story behind it. I studied Japanese at school, and KoDo comes from two Japanese words – Kokoro which doesn’t directly translate but is equivalent to Mind and Body, and Doteki which is equivalent to dynamic movement. What I had brought together was a Mind-Body practice which incorporated slow, gentle and continuous movement in an interval training format.
Every morning, when I get out of my bed, I do my warm-up and stretches first, and then practice KoDo, with a nice mindfulness meditation to finish. It leaves me feeling in a state where I’m ready to take on any challenge.
If someone felt as if their anxiety, or depression, or issues in their life were becoming unbearable, what advice or guidance would you give them?
I do regularly come into contact with folks struggling with the same issues I did, and what I suggest to them is go down the route of speaking to your GP – get counselling, and all the normal things. Then I tell them to explore what they can do themselves, finding something that resonates with them.
I always suggest that people try the things I did, because I know they work. But you could also try things such as going on long countryside walks, regularly running in the park, or joining a special interest group at your local community
For me, a key part of dealing with depression, anxiety and other issues is to take control and responsibility for your own recovery. When you do that, and you start feeling better, that sense of confidence and achievement is very empowering – it makes you realise that you have the power and strength to influence your own health and well-being.
That’s what I’m about – empowering people to take charge of their own lives like I did with mine.