10 October 2016

I talk because

As I wasn't initially planning to write a post specifically for World Mental Health Day. However, the volume and variety of voices speaking out has motivated me to write this. As recently as this year, I often began Mental Health posts with an "apology for talking about this again."

Today, I am apologising...  to me. For apologising in the first place. I would never apologise for talking about diabetes, cancer, poverty or any subject deemed  "important" for societal wellbeing. In this context, the subject of Mental Health is inescapable.

25% of people will experience a mental health problem every year; 1 in 6 report poor mental health each week. Mental illness accounts for 43% of working days lost, costing UK employers an estimated 26 billion a year; even the heartless Tin Men of the world, compassion aside, cannot overlook the economic repercussions. Thousands of students each year are driven out of education, faced by an ever-winding road of stop signs.

    Anyone can support First Aid for Mental Health          

... It is not an issue for 'other' people. It affects us all. We all have mental health and we all, therefore, have a responsibility to recognise it and respond. The theme for this World Mental Health Day is Mental Health First Aid for all I and I can't think of a better choice. Education is a fundamental to Parity for physical and mental health health education, particularly in Education and the Workplace. 

I have heard workplace anxiety dismissed by "we all have it". At University, my department's  head of student 'welfare' remarked that "I thought DSLA was only for real illnesses." My the GP had encouraged me to ask about extensions and disability allowance for train fares, as I was travelling to Bristol for weekly therapy; Exeter Services had been unable to offer support. In this moment I felt like a fraud, a feeling that I am certain is not exclusive to me.

While MHFA is a specific course in Mental Health First Aid, we can support its ethos in a variety of ways. We can educate ourselves through websites (Mind), articles and blog posts, or simply talking to those with more experience. Additionally, we can educate others through volunteering, joining University mental health societies, writing for Student Minds, organising awareness days and sharing our own experiences. Through education, we can unlock the room and Let the Elephant Speak.

     It shouldn't be a big deal     

While I so thankful that Prince Harry and the Cambridges are championing mental health, Prince Wiliam's words rung true: "It shouldn't be a big deal." When James Arthur mentioned WMHD on the X Factor stage, it was rightly met with huge gratitude across social media... yet such a response also highlights the absence of conversation. We have come such a long way over the last two years, but I will never lose sight of how far we have to go; how many more lives could be saved by speaking up.

Following the latest #TalkMH chat on twitter, I saw someone mention the idea of a fundraising night for Mental Health, inspired by Comic Relief and Children in Need. There has been a huge rise in mental health depictions across the Arts, from the 2016 Edinburgh Fringe, to authors such as Bryony Gordon, Matt Haig and Nathan Filer. Moreover, Mental Health has garnered a Star Cast of advocates, including Miranda Hart, Adele, Graham Norton, Stephen Fry Zoe Sugg... forget one evening, you could take a month and still have material to spare!

Seriously though, this could actually happen. If we make it happen. Let's make it happen!

     Mental Health stereotypes still exist  

OCD is the widespread and worrying example of this. It's the cutesy character quirk in sitcoms and a default synonym for neat-freaks. Katy Perry has “OCD on tour. If there is broken makeup in my purse I freak out,” while Naomi Cambell is “too OCD to trash a hotel room.” Last November, on ITV’s Good Morning Britain, Ultimo creator Michelle Mone claimed: ‘It [OCD] can prove really useful in business. It makes you really organised. So I love having OCD.’ She was criticised for her comments, but they typify the misguided beliefs of society. 
Does Katy Perry create a bulletproof case for her makeup, because she fears one spillage will cause her to fall on stage? Has Michelle Mone ever blamed low sales on the messiness of a single cupboard? The celebration of OCD is epitomised by Channel 4’s Obsessive Compulsive Cleaners. Now on its seventh series, the show effectively endorses a compulsion for cleanliness, with little regard for the devastating reality. Unlike "Baby Kangaroo" Tribbiani, OCD is not a synonym for a Monica Gellar love of cleaning. 

In the days before I started inpatient treatment, I remember genuinely panicking that it would be real-life Girl Interrupted/One Flew Over the Cuckoo Nest. As it happens, a group of us actually had a Girl Interrupted movie night; the irony seemed too good to miss! Between ourselves, we often used humour as a way of normalising our situation. On a more sobering note, wider society still views "psychiatric hospital" with a prison-like stigma; patients are 'unstable' and 'dangerous'. This is why, at some point, I will find the courage to talk about my time in treatment. The stereotypes will only stop with a new narrative; the voices of experience. 
     Nobody's life has no space for stigma     

Quite simply, I'm done with the facade. I've spent most of my life trying to please people; to do the 'right' thing, forgetting myself along the way. No one else is to blame for this; I piled the expectation on myself. Nevertheless, the pressure weighed down until, inevitably, it submerged me. I am terrified of judgement; it is possibly the thing that frightens me most. So you can imagine how I felt when, last December, I wrote about my decision to leave University and receive inpatient treatment. 

It felt like the biggest gamble of my life, risking all my friendships, future career. Anything and everything. Yet I talked. I talked and.... people listened. People responded with compassion, not criticism. Longer term? I admit that I feel isolated; my 22nd birthday definitely exposed this. Subsequently, I considered that maybe the stigma was there, but simply less overt? Nevertheless, perhaps we need these moments to see the silver lining; realise what we do have. 

I just need to look at my incredible family and tea-riffic Tea Twin (see 10!), whose birthday bouquets and handwritten letters have been like little lifeboats. Furthermore, through the blogging community I've found some truly wonderful people who have shared their experience: Lauren, Nicole, other Nicole, Hannah and Laura to name just a few. I finally feel less alone. Fingers crossed that our paths will soon cross in the non-virtual world! 

In sickness and in health - you don't need to put a ring on this to make it true. This applies to all relationships, professional and personal. We all deserve better than an employer who would discriminate. We all deserve better than a friend who would judge. YOU DESERVE MORE.

 I'm not okay

... but I will be. I have to trust that I will be. My greatest enemy in recovery has always been silence; a reality that has confronted me as recently as this month. Time and time again, my voice becomes stifled by the fear of letting people down and being the broken record. By admitting that it's okay not to always be okay, I go against everything my perfectionist mind tells me... but that is exactly why I need to.

After years of putting on a positive front, I won't erase the people pleaser overnight. However, only with honesty can I eventually heal. Simply put, I'm exhausted of the facade. Moreover, I know I am not the only one. So this one is for the people who keep smiling; who respond "I'm fine" when in reality they're falling.

Dear stranger, your experience is not a stranger. To millions of others, it is an all-too-familiar story. Like you, they have suffered in silence and fear of stigma. You can't choose to 'be okay', but you can choose to speak out. Please speak out. Being honest was one of the hardest things I have ever done, but it was possibly the most important. 
     Why are you talking about mental health?     

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