So I’ve finally got around to starting this blog that I’ve been meaning to write for about 3 years. It’s World Mental Health Day today and it’s all about ending the stigma that exists around mental health. I already wrote this post once and reading it back I realised it was mostly a rant that didn’t really say anything useful, and then an ode to my wonderful friends; which might be nice for them but isn’t much good to anyone else. Anyway, I rewrote the whole thing and hopefully this is slightly more helpful. (I really wanted to post this today but I’m really sleepy so if it rambles I apologise!) Also, I can’t claim to speak on behalf of all people with mental health problems, so this is based on my own personal experiences.
What’s the stigma all about?
There are so many preconceived, stereotypical ideas about mental health and the people affected by it. These are usually misconceptions and need to be challenged. If you don’t understand something or have no first-hand experience of it, then it’s understandable to be afraid or at least wary, but if you’re making judgements based on stereotypes or preconceptions then that’s where the stigma kicks in. People with mental health issues believe that they will be treated a certain way, and that people will think certain things about them. With 1 in 4 people in the UK experiencing a mental health issue within a year (FACT) it’s ridiculous that this stigma still exists.
Here are some of the things that I believed people would think of me when I told them I had a mental health issue –
- They’ll think I’m mad / I’ve lost it / I’m crazy / I’ve got a screw loose, etc.
- They’ll think I’m pathetic
- They’ll think I’m weak
- They’ll think I’m ‘just a bit stressed’ and should pull myself together
- They’ll think it’s all in my head
- They’ll think I’m lazy (I get tired a LOT)
- They’ll think I’ll never get better and I’m a lost cause
- They’ll think I’m boring (when I can’t do things e.g. go out / don’t drink alcohol)
- They’ll think I’m unreliable (when I bail on plans)
- They’ll think I’m a liability (to hire for a job)
- They won’t understand
- They’ll think I’m making it up
- They’ll think I’m saying it for the attention
- They’ll think I’m being stupid
- They’ll think it’s all in my head and I’m being ridiculous
- I’ll lose all my friends because they’ll get fed up of me
- Maybe I AM just stressed and if I take it easy it will go away
- (and when that didn’t work) I actually AM crazy
- There were more but these are off the top of my head
Obviously these are mostly a load of rubbish. These preconceptions are embedded in society and they lead to some equally destructive presumptions being made by people suffering with mental illnesses (in this case, me). When I first got anxiety I didn’t know what the bloody hell was going on, I was in a right state and was so scared and confused. Once I got a diagnosis I began researching everything I could and quickly found out how common anxiety is. All the information made me much less afraid, and I was slightly comforted by the fact that it seemed to be a ‘real thing’ and not something I was making up! Dealing with the actual anxiety was proving to be troublesome enough; I shook like a leaf constantly, I was terrified of everything, I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t be left alone, I couldn’t go anywhere… but once I’d got a bit of a handle on the symptoms, then came all the worries about what people would think of me (see above!). Fortunately, or unfortunately depending how you view it, I was in such a state that I had no problem with going to see a Doctor because I was so desperate for some answers. Some people however will avoid seeing the Dr because they worry that they won’t be taken seriously and I know from experience that that’s true in a disturbingly large number of cases. Some Drs are dismissive, seemingly bored of the subject or downright rude. This isn’t acceptable but I also don’t think this is a problem isolated to mental health; you can go to a Dr with any number of symptoms and they could not take you seriously (totally unacceptable but it happens). What is most worrying is the attitude to mental health problems; the stigma that people know exists that discourages or stops them from seeking any help or treatment in the first place. If people felt more able to approach a Dr about their mental health, and felt like they would be treated with respect and taken seriously… well that could change lives and even save lives.
So my journey through Drs, therapists, treatment etc. is one for another time, but I eventually got to a point where I felt I was in control enough to tell people what was going on. I was scared that people would think all the things I was convinced they would (again, see list, fun times). I thought long and hard about it and privately messaged all of my closest friends (who didn’t already know) and then put a post up on my Facebook. The response was immediate and incredible – people were so kind, encouraging and supportive. What surprised me the most was the number of my friends / acquaintances who messaged me saying that they had the same or similar issues. I couldn’t believe so many people I knew were going through the same thing and I had no idea – then I realised that works two ways, and I had become an expert at hiding my anxiety. People would, and still do, say “I had no idea anything was wrong”, which I almost take as a compliment on my ability to appear ‘normal’! It felt like a weight off my shoulders to be honest, and it felt good to be facing up to my anxiety by taking control over my attitude towards it. It was horrible to live with, but talking about it and getting peoples lovely reactions really really reeeeally helped me.
There are some people that struggle to understand my anxiety, but the majority make the effort to try and understand, or at least be sympathetic. I have been very fortunate to have wonderful family, friends, boyfriend, colleagues, employers and general community who have been very supportive and accepting. (If anyone has said anything derogatory then they’ve said it behind my back and it hasn’t got back to me!) However, before I started telling people about my anxiety, something would come up in conversation about someone who was depressed, or who couldn’t leave their boyfriends side, or who was “fucking crazy”, or was self harming etc. and there would be jokes made, or people scoffing at how ridiculous it was and I would sit quietly and not say anything. I didn’t know what to do except be silent, even when my friends were making jokes about mental health; something that was attempting to ruin my life (unknowingly to them, but that shouldn’t matter). They were comments that went sometimes unnoticed, and weren’t meant to be malicious. Now I know that the issue of stigma surrounding mental health is so much bigger than just me, and staying silent isn’t an option.
So what can we do?
The most important thing people can do to break down the stigma surrounding mental health is to talk about it. Talk about it until everyone is bored of hearing about it (soz in advance). Talk about it until people wouldn’t bat an eyelid if you said “my depression isn’t very good at the moment, thanks for asking” rather than “I’m fine” – hence the name of this blog. “I’m fine thanks” is my ‘go to’ answer but it’s usually a lie. I’ve got to the point now where when someone asks how I am, I will usually tell them honestly. Hearing “I’m okay thanks, well I had a panic attack today because I had to go to the shop and then I cried over my beans on toast because dinner time all got a bit much” isn’t exactly jolly, but the friends worth having will understand.
So talking is huge, and I think learning is too. Getting educated about my illness was, and still is, a massive part of my recovery. Fear of the unknown is understandable and once I felt informed about what my brain was doing, and why, it took the sting out of it. I’m a bit of an expert on anxiety and panic attacks now but I have very little knowledge of schizophrenia, for example, so recently the charity Rethink Mental Illness did a brilliant video on the subject and I’ve been learning more about it. Have a look here. We are googling things CONSTANTLY so (as it’s World Mental Health Day and all) why not take 2 minutes and have a look at some of the vast resources out there on mental health. Remember that lovely fact that a quarter of people in the UK will experience a mental health issue in a year? Well it’s very likely that someone you know is dealing with a mental health issue right now, so learning a bit about it might be really useful. Try Mind, which has a brilliant website full of information that’s easy to digest and skim read; Time to Change run a super campaign to help end the stigma in particular, as does Rethink Mental Illness; the NHS website is good for the basics such as symptoms and treatments, and Vice have some excellent and very interesting articles in its Guide to Mental Health.
Another thing that I think is going to be hugely influential in breaking down the stigma is celebrities (you know, famous people) speaking out about their experiences with mental health. Stephen Fry has spoken out very honestly about his experience with depression and attempted suicide, the blogger Zoella has helped millions of teenagers across the world by talking about her anxiety and panic attacks, and very recently the DJ Benga has spoken about his retirement from the music scene due to schizophrenia and bipolar; he was amazed by the positive reaction after he spoke about his illnesses. One of my favourite songs by The Wombats is called Anti-D (anti-depressant) and is about lead singer Matthew Murphy’s struggle with anxiety and depression. Social media is so instrumental in spreading messages these days, even if you aren’t that interested in mental health, you can share a story like one of the above and help show a positive attitude towards it. Every little helps!
I know that the stigma is still going strong because I’ve unfortunately experienced it, and even though the majority of the responses to my mental health have been positive and supportive, the fact that I struggle with all the beliefs listed above – convinced that people will decide I’ve lost the plot etc – shows how much of a stigma still exists. To use the usual comparison, if I had a physical illness would I have been so scared to tell people? Would I have doubted whether people would believe me? Would I still be making up more ‘legitimate’ excuses for bailing on my friends rather than telling them my anxiety is bad? Dealing with a mental health issue is tough enough, nobody needs the extra worry and fear of the stigma attached to it. The aim is to ultimately break down the stigma surrounding mental health so that people can focus on dealing with the illness itself, and feel able to ask for help and confident enough to talk about their experiences. And until that happens, I’ll keep going on about it. #endthestigma