Mental Health Week. The name itself tells us of a difference in attitude between physical and mental well being – you will notice that we don’t have a physical health week.
The reason for this is, I think, the secrecy and the stigma that still hangs over the very idea of being ‘mentally unwell’. It perhaps conjures up negative images of sufferers, when the reality is that they could actually look like the person sat next to you on the train, or a friend or a person you admire. It could look like Keith Flint or Robin Williams.
Mental illness also can also provide feelings of guilt or weakness on the part of those it affects. Thoughts along the lines of ‘I’m sorry I’m like this’, ‘I’m sorry other people have to put up with me when I’m like this’ or ‘If I was stronger I would be able to deal with things better’ can make us feel worse and can feed a cycle of self recrimination and worsening illness.
Maybe it would help if we took the word ‘mental’ out of ‘mental illness’, maybe a lot of these negative images and damaging feelings or our lack of self-worth would lessen. We don’t tell people we have been ‘physically ill’, just ill. Maybe this is something we should adopt for issues that affect our mind as well as our bodies.
If we tell people we have a cold or if we hurt ourselves in an accident there are none of these attendant negative feelings associated with it. Yet we are as unable to stop the likes of depression or anxiety as we able are to stop getting a cold.
This can lead to much more serious consequences for those caught up in these kinds of health issues, it can stop people feeling able to discuss their illness. And this can in itself lead to feelings of isolation which can again worsen and deepen the whirlpool that we may feel is dragging us under.
One way to try to reverse this is to talk about our problems. Unlike a cold or flu, the simple act of discussing how we are feeling can sometimes help. It can help us realise that we are not alone in what we are going through, that other people have felt like this and may know what it feels like when we are ill. And with that comes comradeship, support and the externalizing of our once pent up turmoil.
During a particularly grim time for me, I kept everything hidden under a surface of smiles and a forced normality, telling people I was fine, just tired. When some good friends were able to get the truth out of me, I almost immediately felt a little better. Not cured, not well, just a little better. And that was the most important step on a long and eventful journey towards better days.
From then on I have vowed to discuss my battles with my own mind with no regard to any supposed stigma. I don’t care who knows about it, I no longer feel it reflects badly on me as a person. If somebody thinks I am trying to get attention, let them. In all likelihood the time will come when they or someone they know will be affected by similar health issues and they may then be given a clearer understanding of the problems or survival techniques involved.
People can show the scars they have from operations, accidents and suchlike and get sympathetic responses. But people discussing the scars they have from self harm are again often though of as attention seeking. But personally, these are my battle scars, they show I have survived. I’m not proud of them exactly, but they prove that I won, so I refuse to hide them or not give honest answers when asked about them.
Twice in my life I have been prescribed Prozac, there may well be other times in my future where it will again be needed. Again, I think I will be able to tell people if it came up in conversation with the same lack of shame or embarrassment than if I were to tell people I had taken a pain killer.
I do think this is key. If I were unable to do this I think there is a very good chance I would not be here to say so. Talk. Open up to friends or family. You are not being a burden, you are being a human being.
The people nearest to you may well be looking for a way to help you; let them in and let them help. Friends and family may be glad of the chance to be able to help.
We all need help from time to time, be brave enough to ask for it. It will be better for you.
If you do not feel able to talk to your family or your friends about it, there are some excellent organisations out there who can connect you to a stranger who is prepared to listen and to help. It may be that the anonymous nature of these organisations would suit you better, so please do call them – details below.
Official statistics say that one in four of us will be mentally unwell at some point in our lives. Personally I would put this much higher, much nearer 100%. If this one in four estimate is based on those of us who seek medical help or who are willing to respond to a questionnaire, then the whole thing of not telling people kicks in again.
This can, of course, artificially lower the reported percentage, making sufferers again feel like they are in a more isolated minority when the truth may be very different.
And if we count those who are impacted by somebody else’s illness this figure rises exponentially.
We can be surrounded by people who can relate to what we may be going through, who have some direct experience of the stresses and worries that may be taking us over and we may never know it. So talk. Talk about it with those around you.
The more we do this, the less stigma mental illness can hold over us. Each conversation we have removes a little bit of that stigma and the more we do it, the weaker that stigma gets and the stronger we become.
If you are going through a tough time at the moment, I wish you well and I can assure you that, no matter how dark things may be at the moment, brighter times lay ahead. This is the nature of life, no situation is permanent, no bad times are forever. The skies will clear again after the rain and the sun will shine on us all in the future.
Talk to each other, support each other and we can get through it.
Mind, the mental health charity. We won’t give up until everyone experienceing a mental health problem gets both support and respect.
The Samaritans. We’re waiting for your call. Whatever you’re going through, a Samaritan will face it with you. We’re here 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.