Category Archives: mental health

Mental Health Awareness – we can’t pick and choose

I’m always thinking about mental health. Mental illness has been a significant undercurrent throughout the second half of my life story so far and my experiences have left me deeply fascinated by our noggins, how they work and why often they don’t work in the ways we think they should.

Much of the reason behind this fascination, I think, may be self-preservation. I want to understand my mental health and that of others because I hope that leaves me in the strongest possible position to face whatever may be coming my way. For me the scariest prospect about my mental health has always been that I don’t understand it.

“Why?” is a very popular question for those figuring out how to deal with a mental illness. Whether it be their own or that of someone close to them. To coin the very popular phrase, if only I had a pound for every time I’ve asked myself WHY I’m feeling a certain way or can’t stop thinking certain things.

But of course we ask WHY. To understand WHY is to figure out HOW to make it feel better.

So I also talk openly about my experiences out of a sense of duty. I feel a distinct camaraderie with anyone and everyone when they are discussing their mental health, and I feel proud of them for doing so. Even when I don’t really know them. And I feel it’s my duty to do the same.

Because I’ve come to see that I’m very lucky to have teetered on the edge of breaking down and pulled through. That I had at my disposal, just when I was good and ready to engage in it, a fantastic, free, accessible counsellor who helped me to understand that there’s nothing wrong with me and more importantly, how to cope when I’m thoroughly convinced that there is. How to ride it out. How to learn from it. How to make sure it’s my approach to mental illness, and not the fact that I’ve suffered it, that defines me.

So anyway, I’m always thinking about mental health and about the personal and societal minefield that surrounds it.

Mental Health Awareness Week 2015 is wrapping up today and I’ve been so encouraged by a lot of what I’ve seen over this past week. It’s clear to me that we’ve come so far in our approach and attitude to mental health and I truly think that we can continue a significant way down that long road during my lifetime.

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One thing that has struck me lately though, is the gulf between levels of acceptance across different mental health conditions.

This particular bee found it’s way into my bonnet when I was watching that programme, you know the one, where people who’ve self-identified their cleaning regime in their home as obsessive compulsive, are merrily sent off to take to task the homes of hoarders. Great. But the problem I have is that while the ‘cleaners’ are identified as having obsessive compulsive behaviours, the hoarders largely aren’t. Yes, the events in their lives leading up to them living the way that they are, are touched upon. But there is most often very little understanding or empathy employed. The obsessive compulsive cleaner rocks up and quickly proceeds to tell the obsessive compulsive hoarder that they’re lazy/disgusting/insert generic insult here, and as the dramatic music plays over close-up shots of piles of unnecessary junk taking up the place where the bed should be, we agree. Because that environment is disgusting, and we can’t imagine how anyone could want to live that way..

But let’s stop for a minute and take a look at the hoarder’s situation from a different perspective. Through the open-minded, empathetic eyes with which we observe the ‘cleaner’ explaining the cleaning regime which, in a lot of cases, impacts considerably on their quality of life. The motivations behind their cleaning behaviours are undoubtedly complex beyond measure, as are the hoarding behaviours of their co-star. But if we strip it all back just for a moment and look at both on a very basic level. These are the behaviours of somebody seeking control. If my personal experiences are anything to go by, they’re both scared.

So why are our levels of sensitivity and empathy so different? Why do we nod in stern agreement while the hoarder is forced, with no psychological or emotional support, to throw away things that – no matter how hard it is for us to believe – mean everything to them; whilst we’d (rightly so) be absolutely horrified if the roles were reversed and the hoarder was let loose on the cleaner’s home in muddy wellies then encouraged to tut and tell them they’re too uptight, forcing them to ignore the mess and go about their day, no cleaning allowed!

Breaking the cycle of debilitating obsessions and compulsions is about learning what thoughts and emotions are causing them and how those can be better dealt with. And this applies no matter what those behaviours are. There can be a place for being forced to learn that not carrying out your obsessive compulsive behaviours will not result in the negative repercussions that you’re so terrified of. And sometimes the only way to do that is to have someone not allow you to do them. But that has to go along with the proper emotional and psychological support.

The first behaviours through which my anxieties presented themselves to me were very much based on cleanliness. It involved all sorts of things but centered, as for so many others, on washing my hands excessively. This is what I got used to and thought I understood. So when I managed to curb these behaviours, get my hands to look ‘normal’ again and stopped spending excessive amounts of time in any bathroom I walked into, I thought I had ‘cured’ myself.

The anxieties at the root of those behaviours though, have gone on to present themselves in many different ways in the last decade and when I finally sought the dreaded ‘professional help’ last year and commenced cognitive behavioural therapy, we focussed on the root anxieties and I realised how closely linked all of my supposedly different experiences were.

I’ve been the obsessive compulsive cleaner but I’ve also struggled with compulsive eating and believe me, that one’s a much harder sell to others when you’re trying to make them understand; and to yourself when you’re trying not to feel ashamed. After all, being clean – socially accepted. Being greedy – not so much.

So that’s what’s been bugging me lately on the subject of mental health awareness, but I’m so encouraged by what I’ve seen over the last 7 days that I’m confident we can close the gap between our understanding and acceptance of various mental health conditions through stopping and asking WHY.

Does that person that you’re watching on TV want to live that way, in a pile of their own filth; dangerously overweight; dangerously underweight; with no time to do anything but try to satisfy heir need to clean; drinking a bottle of vodka every day. Of course they don’t. So instead of judging the behaviours, let’s stop and wonder WHY the individual feels like they have to carry on doing them.

An afterthought…

I don’t imagine that I’m coming from some place of divine transcendence here and am exempt from having preconceptions, I just try to recognise and confront them as much as I can. After all, while writing this I repeatedly had to go back and change ‘his’ or ‘her’ to ‘their’ because I kept unwittingly assuming the genders of the imaginary ‘cleaner’ and ‘hoarder’. The obsessive compulsive cleaner I saw in my head was a woman, and the obsessive compulsive hoarder – a man.

I don’t know why?

Anxiety and Focus – mortal enemies?

First of all I feel like the title of this post might be a little misleading so maybe I should warn you – if you’re looking for any enlightenment here then I should probably ‘manage expectations’ a bit. I don’t think I necessarily have any answers to the questions that I want to talk about. But then I suppose that’s probably why I want to talk about them.

So here goes. Concentration doesn’t come easily to me. And this means that writing doesn’t come easily. Nor does reading, at least in as much as I struggle to get ‘lost’ in a book the way I used to be able to. If my 10-year-old self could see how slowly I get through a novel these days she’d be horrified. This is no revelation though, we’re probably all familiar with this change as part of being an adult (I’m getting there) and having adult responsibilities (I like to call them distractions).

But for me concentration is often made all the more difficult by my anxiety. Again I’m sure everyone reading this will identify with that at some level. We’re all human, we’re complex, and we worry about things. We all have various every day distractions and longer-term worries from which it’s hard to detach. So the way I see it, anxiety is really a continuum along which we all fluctuate as we pass through days, weeks, months and years. Like the bubble in a spirit level, we’re so rarely on a completely even keel.

After all modern life is so fast-paced. You only have to realise that there’s so much going on that tips and tricks about how to balance all of the elements of your life and still be productive, without being bogged down in the infinite details and opportunities for becoming burnt out, have become currency.

For me the speed with which thoughts run through my head at any given time sits up there at 10,000 miles per hour, plus. I worry about everything. Then I worry about the fact that I worry about everything. Then I worry about the fact that I’m capable of being worried about worrying about everything and whether I should be concerned about that. On rare occasions when I’m momentarily not worrying about anything, I start to worry that I’m forgetting something important that needs worrying about. I run over things in my head until, usually within a few seconds, I find a suitable candidate to commence worrying about.

I often hear people talking about those nights when they can’t sleep because they’re over-thinking. They’re really taking stock of their lives and I can always empathise because I know all too well that can be a scary thing to do, especially if you’re overly critical of yourself. At these times people take a step back from the everday, look inwards and face difficult truths about what they might need to change. They make tough decisions and they do so while over-analysing minute details and beating themselves up for this, that and the other.

I hear people talk about these episodes of over-thinking and I empathise. I also wonder what it’s like to not be thinking like that all of the time. Because reflection isn’t a once-in-a-while, sleepless-night, take-stock-and-see-if-I-need-to-change-direction thing for me. It’s a continual and almost entirely relentless daily, hourly process.

So although on the whole I’m a very motivated person, I want to get things done and I do, and when I do something I do it absolutely to the best of my ability (and then worry that I could have done better); behind all of this is the fact that I often have to work very, very hard on focusing my head on a task. On concentration.

And it’s not the constant nature of this mindset that makes things difficult. It’s the level of minute detail that my head insists on drilling down into.

Now I don’t mean to sound self-absorbed here, I know that by probably the longest shot possible, I’m not the only person that lives this way. That’s at least 80% of the reason that I talk about these things, because I know there are legions of people who will identify with them, the other 20% of my reasoning being wholly selfish –  it helps me figure these things out. So I’m just trying to describe how it is for me because that’s all that I know intimately.

What I’m trying to say is that although I’m thankful for the way I am because it is all of me, as a package, that’s gotten me what I’ve achieved so far and that makes up my potential for the future; nevertheless sometimes I just can’t help thinking, surely it doesn’t have to be quite this difficult.

So I’ve been thinking a lot lately about focus. About working out how to, at will, get into that positive feedback loop of motivation, concentration and productivity that we all experience on our most fruitful days. That focus that overrides the powerful impulse to become distracted by whether I’ve remembered everything I need to factor in before going to pick up my first car next week; whether the conversation I had this morning came across as I meant it to or if I made a bad impression; what meals I’m going to cook next week and what I need to buy for them from Asda; or whether writing this post is what I should be doing with this particular Sunday morning or if there’s something more important that I’m neglecting.

We all know there are few better feelings than when you’re having a really productive day, when you’re really engaged in what you’re doing and you’re getting loads done. Ticking things off the to-do list. We all know that once you’re in that zone the motivation and therefore the focus and concentration, feeds itself.

From a personal point of view, I don’t think that my anxiety prevents me from achieving anything. I can’t let it because the anxiety about not achieving anything is the kind that I feel most acutely. However, the day to day ‘busy-ness’ in my head can make concentration and focus difficult to maintain. Sometimes trying to concentrate on something can feel like a major conflict of interests involving trying my damnedest to stop thinking (something I spent a long time trying very hard to do while I hauled ass through my teenage years with OCD), in order to make room so that I can engage and guess what, think.

Now I’m always going to have to live with my anxiety. I’ve had two and a half decades to get used to that fact and as scary as it sometimes is to admit it, I’ve accepted that I’ll never ‘master’ it. I also know though, that I wouldn’t have achieved what I have in recent years without it. It pushes me forwards, albeit along a very bumpy track. I know that I can handle it and I plan to never stop learning more about how to live productively and more importantly, happily, alongside it.

So if we can’t remove the distraction that anxiety brings a-knocking, I guess the question is how do we learn to tap in, whenever we need to, to whatever it is that’s spurring us on those days when we’re measuring about 10 feet tall and feeling like we can achieve absolutely anything that we want to, right in that moment. That motivation that can allow us to override the distractions.

Or is that the wrong way to look at it? Is it less about working out what magical factor gets us over that subconscious brick wall on our most productive, focused days; and more about working out what the wall is constructed of and therefore how to empower ourselves to start chipping away at it on the harder days?

In other words what is it that isn’t there on those days when nothing can stop you, rather than what is?

Looking at my struggles with my subconscious through that lense, I think that my own brick wall is strongly founded in the fear of going head-long into things and giving them my all – and failing – and the way I’ll then feel about myself if I do. For me, that’s what’s conspicuously absent on my most productive, most effective, most powerful days. The absence of it is what gets me excited and in turn helps me zone in and focus, enough to distract from the distractions.

So can dismantling the wall be as simple (read terrifying) as just having to keep putting myself out there and learning the hard way that I can do it, whatever the ‘it‘ happens to be at the time?

Will that message continue to stick for longer and longer each time? And is that momentum the tool that I need, to dismantle the wall?

Thank you for listening to my somewhat inconclusive ramblings, if you like this post I’d really appreciate if you would share any comments you have, or any personal perspectives, below.

What’s your brick wall? How can you/do you chip away at it?

The Little Jar

I’ve been neglecting my little page a bit lately but a stressful few days have gotten me in the mood to sit and write something. There’s something about getting motivated and creating a thing that didn’t exist before I sat down and started typing, that always manages to make me feel a bit better. A bit less useless. It let’s me tell this wonderfully persistent, naggy brain of mine that in fact, I am kinda good at shit.

So I was thinking today, as I do most days along with 7 zillion other things, about how very fast this year is zipping past and the fact that it’s almost 1/4 of the way through already. Oh screw it I’m going to say it, we’re nearly 1/4 of the way back round to Christmas guys! It’s almost Easter. My 25th birthday is in just over 10 weeks. It’s almost a year since I bound and submitted my dissertation. It’s Spring already.

Just to state the obvious for a second – humour me here and pretend you hadn’t already noticed – one of the various obsessions that my clinically anxious mind likes to have repeated dalliances with is the notion of just how fast the time around which we choose to structure our lives likes to flit by, leaving us staring after it like a hungry dog who’s just watched a butcher run past (inexplicably but it’s a metaphor, go with it) with a string of sausages dangling  over his shoulder; but realises pretty sharpish that he’s tied to a lamppost and has to sit and watch as the juicy sausages fade into memory.

The point is, the year is flying by in the same whirlwind fashion that all of it’s brothers before have done before and all it’s successors will continue to do.

So I think it’s time to stop for a minute and take stock of the year so far. It’s been a big 3 months, and an exciting 3 months. Actually taking a look back at it serves to make it feel a lot less short; it feels good to realise how much has happened in that time. To name a few, one of my best friends and my older-little brother both passed their driving tests. Another bestie started her lessons and another one conquered her nerves and re-started them after a long break. My Mam, another of my best friends and my older sister have all made drastic changes to their lifestyles that they’ve wanted to make for a long time, and are already healthier, slimmer and happier. My big sister started her Nursing degree (yesterday, actually) and is a big step closer to achieving the career she’s always wanted. Another very good friend of mine had an easel built for her by her boyfriend and started to paint again (which is great news for everyone). I’ve had various blog posts shared by prominent mental health organisations and started blogging for the website of a fantastic local (for now) organisation. I’ve also signed up and been in training for my first ever running event.

So it’s safe to say I’m one very proud lady, with a lot of great people in my life. I’m also more than a little bit sentimental in character, just in case I didn’t state the obvious enough earlier.

So as previously pointed out I’m a major over-thinker and a lot of the time this can make it hard to be positive and upbeat about things because I’m always finding something to worry about. Sometimes it feels like there’s a sunny, positive, probably pretty annoying person inside me trying to burst out, but she’s held back by frustratingly obsessive worries and anxiety. Last year this finally drove me to undergo Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and it was very helpful. CBT is not about delving into your childhood to figure out the hows and whys of the way you feel. It’s much more about learning how to regain control of your thoughts in order to be happier and, for me, more productive. One of the things I learned a lot about is just how closely our thoughts, feelings and actions are linked and how to employ actions to take back some control of what you’re thinking and in turn, how you feel.

So in order to work on feeling more positive, I decided early in the year after seeing the idea somewhere on the infinitely wise inter-web, to start keeping a little jar in which I stick a little bit of paper each night, after writing on it something positive from my day. Sometimes it’s something I’m thankful for, sometimes it’s something fun I did or something that I achieved. Sometimes it’s just something really funny that happened.

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I know, horribly cheesy!

But you know what, it works! I have a hell of a lot to be positive about and although I recognise deeply all those reasons to be positive and I think about them all the time, sometimes my brain doesn’t like to let me really feel as positive about them as I want to. So the idea is that by making a point of doing this every night, I’m reinforcing my sense of how positive my life is, by acting on it.

I guess I’m sharing this because as simple as it is, I have felt a positive affect from it. It can’t fail to make you look at things a bit more positively when you realise how easy it actually is to think of something good from every day; and I’d recommend it for anyone who sometimes finds it hard to feel as positive about life, as their probably-pretty-great life should allow.

And if you’re anything like me, feeling more positive about what you do have will motivate you to work harder on achieving the things that aren’t in the jar yet!

I’ve been having a look back through my jar tonight and it turns out I’ve got a fair amount to feel good about! Here’s a few of my examples picked at random, just in case you’re interested…

“Booked up for Primrose Valley with the fam in the Summer. First time in 4 years, can’t wait!”

“Celebrating Tamara’s 25th in Hertford, catching up with uni mates”

“Saw Andrew Maxwell… at Newsham Side Club!”

“Chilling with Ethan (my nephew) in bed, doing some writing”

“Amazing dinner at Laura and Gary’s with the gang!”

“Had a great day fundraising with Nicole (my niece) and made loads of money! Nicole and I wrote her first ever blog post, too!”

“Spent the afternoon hanging out with Danni (best friend) and Sav (soon-to-be-Goddaughter)”

“Spent a couple of hours at Aunty Marion’s looking at pics of Grandma and Grandad at my age! Great to talk about how they were as Grandparents and learn about them as a young couple”

On Why I’ll Never Stop being a Chatterbox

One night this week while having a few cocktails with some work friends, to say farewell to someone who is moving on to pastures new, I got possibly the best compliment I could ever ask for. One of the girls told me that since meeting and getting to know me, she feels a lot more comfortable with talking about mental health.

It was said in such an unassuming, casual way and I think that’s partly why it meant so much. I’m not one to easily accept compliments at face value (I doubt myself way too much to do the easily) and after all we had enjoyed considerably more 2-4-1 cocktails than had originally been intended. But I knew that this was said genuinely, mainly because it was clear after she saw my reaction that she hadn’t a clue it was going to mean as much to me as it does.

Now I want to stress that this was a work friend I haven’t known for all that long and whose knowledge of my life and experiences is comprised only of what I have posted on this blog since I started it before Christmas, and a few mental health-related conversations here and there at work. Natural, unobtrusive, day-to-day conversations about mental health and mental illness. This is not someone who I have dramatically opened up my heart and soul to and sat sharing experiences with for hours on end.

This is not someone who has come to me with problems that they wanted to talk about, or who is having a hard time with their own mental health, as far as I know. Any discussion that we have had about these issues has been just that, basically just every day chat.

So being a chatterbox can be a good thing – take that teachers of Blyth!

As you’ll know if you follow this blog or have basically ever met me in the last 5 years or so, I think that being open about my own experiences with mental illness is the best gift that I can give back to all of the people who have supported me through them – whether by telling me about their’s, talking to me about mine, or just not running a mile when they’ve realised I am about as far as it gets from this mythical ‘normal’ person people are always banging on about. I am what could be described as ‘aggressively’ open about my experiences and I’m fully aware that I’ve made people feel uncomfortable on occasion with my openness. After all unfortunately, the stiff upper lip is not yet dead .

I know as well as anyone that having the courage to ask that friend who doesn’t quite seem themselves lately if there is anything they want to talk about, then listening while they tell you about the ‘weird’ things happening in their head lately and not running a mile, is important. Spending some time reading up on OCD or anorexia or post-natal depression or schizophrenia or bipolar disorder or bulimia or anxiety disorders because you’re worried about someone close to you, so that you can understand what they may be going through and how you can offer them the best support, is crucial.

But what is at the very root of fighting the stigma around mental illness, in my eyes, and what has the power to allow all of these types of support to become more widely available for everyone and even become ingrained in the way that we think about each other and about our health; really is just being willing to chat about it. It’s about not going awkwardly silent if it is inadvertently brought up in a conversation with your workmates. It’s about not ignoring that it may be a factor in whatever it is that you happen to be chatting about, because you don’t want to ‘bring the mood down.’

It would seem that we don’t need to have personal experiences of mental illness and/or to share those experiences with the world, in order to make a contribution to the opening up of discourse around mental health, we just need to allow it to be a topic of everyday, ‘normal’ conversation.

This way we can help to show everyone that it is an everyday, ‘normal’ issue and help to banish the “I’m a freak” belief system that can make mental illnesses even more difficult to deal with.

Time to Talk – my 5 minutes

I had a rubbish morning at work today.

Over the last week or so my head has been pretty busy. I described it to my driving instructor the other day as feeling like my brain is a washing machine with two drums, one in front of the other. One is furiously spinning clockwise on the highest setting and the other’s doing the same, except it’s going round the other way. The thoughts/worries/concerns/whatever you want to call them, are at times inseparable from each other and just sort of buzz around in there, while I try to ignore them. Until one particularly persistent one escapes from the tumbling masses and sticks temporarily to the back of the glass door, demanding that I stress about it.

When my head is like this, trying to relax is pretty much futile. Watching TV or listening to music usually involves hitting pause every now and then because my internal monologue has been disrupted and I become worried that I’ve lost track of what I was worrying about. So I track back through the path of worries that lead up to the forgotten worry until I remember what it was and manage to convince myself it doesn’t need worrying about. As for reading? Let’s just say it’s a lot more difficult than it used to be. But then I suppose it is for most people. Growing up means you have things to think about and demands on your time. I doubt many adults can sit and read for 2 or 3 hours without getting distracted, like I used to as a kid. I definitely miss switching off and getting lost in a book. That’s a lot more rare these days.

Anyway when my head’s behaving in this fashion, the noticeable result is that it’s pretty hard to focus and concentrate, or to remember things. It came up in conversation when my instructor was asking me how I can be so intelligent (his words, and only shared here because it helps make the point, not because I’m an insufferably arrogant tool – I promise I’m not) and yet so ditzy and forgetful.

Well the answer’s pretty simple. Sometimes my head feels so busy with all of the completely pointless day-to-day crap that I worry about, that it actually feels like there physically isn’t room for anything new. When my head is at its worst, concentration isn’t an easy thing to achieve.

So yeah, concentration was doing its very best to allude me at work today. I was working on something that required a certain degree of brain engagement and for the first hour or so of the morning it just was not happening. Things quickly deteriorated as I allowed my mind to wander in the direction of a couple of things I needed to do when I got home.

Now I’ve had years of experience in trying to figure out how this head of mine ticks, and I’ve learned a lot of lessons along the way. Some days my brain allows me to go merrily about my business, content to work away in the background doing all the amazing things it does, reminding me to breath and blink and how to put one foot in front of the other. Other days, or sometimes even just for an hour or 2 out of a day, it becomes a wee bit more attention seeking. It fires a constant barrage of worries at me that make it a lot more difficult than I feel like it should be, to concentrate or to relax, to achieve things which require me to think about them – such as writing posts for this blog – or to switch off and enjoy hanging out with friends or family, or watching a movie.

As I said I have learned a lot of lessons about myself over the last 10+ years. One of the major silver linings that I have taken from having experienced OCD, anxiety disorders and depression, is that I know myself and what makes me happy, so much better than I would imagine most people do in their early- (OK then mid-) 20s. That doesn’t mean that
I think I understand myself completely, of course I don’t and I don’t think anyone ever really does. But I’ve pulled through from some pretty dark places and I’ve learned lessons I’ll never forget about what I need in my life – and what I don’t. For me it’s about being around my family; not ignoring the little things because I’m too busy hating the fact that I’m not perfect; and reminding myself that it’s OK to be an individual. And talking, all of the time.

Today, to address how I was feeling I took 10 minutes out and wrote down a to-do list. I hated doing it because it meant having to face up to the racing thoughts that I had been doing my best to ignore for an hour before hand. But I knew that it would help, so eventually I faced up and did it. And it did help, although I didn’t stop stressing all together and I’m still convinced now that I missed something really important.

Today has been a busy-brain day and I knew early this morning that it was going to be. I don’t have complete control over the times when my brain decides to act like this and I probably never will. But I did what I could and it allowed me to get on with the work that I needed to do. It allowed me to get on with my day and to leave work in the end in a pretty good mood, after having an afternoon that was a lot better than my morning.

Why am I telling you all of this? Well today is Time to Talk Day, and Time to Change along with other organizations are encouraging everyone to take 5 minutes out of their day to talk about mental health. It’s part of a much bigger campaign to end mental health stigma through open and honest conversation.

So this was my five minutes.

I think the Time to Talk initiative is fantastic and it’s amazingly positive for the campaign to end stigma around mental health issues, so I will be logging my 5 minutes on the Time to Change website.

Actually I’m Worrying a lot about Washing my Hands Lately, I Wonder what that’s about?

I’m of the very strong opinion that mental health needs to be talked about openly if we are to continue progressing beyond our current position on how we understand, cope with and support people through mental illness.

First things first, there are two thoughts that I anticipate those words may have inspired in you:

1) who would have thought that Lauren would have a strong opinion? (this one only applies if you’re as partial to a nice bit of sarcasm, as I am)
2) Well, there’s a heavy first sentence

To the first one – don’t worry about it, I haven’t gotten to 24 without realising that I’m a bit of a gobshite! The second one is more or less the reason I wanted to write this post, in an attempt to articulate and share my view on why that first sentence is in fact not heavy, intense or brooding at all. Why the fact that mental health is still not an everyday topic of discussion – but still a very niche one which can bring with it hushed tones, apprehension and awkwardness – shows that we still have a long way to go towards really understanding it.

Firstly, let’s start with a few things that I’m not saying.

I’m not saying that I think everyone should have deep, soul-searching conversations about their childhood and the continuing effects it has had on their adjustment to adult life, on a weekly basis (can of worms, right)? I’m not saying that every person should finish reading this article, immediately call up and refer themselves for their chosen type of therapy or counselling, as this is the only way to avoid an inevitable nervous breakdown at some point in the future. Nor am I saying that you should start describing to strangers on the bus how you’re feeling and seeking their advice on what it all means.

What I do want is to live in a world where people can feel comfortable to sit at work and say things along the lines of, “I’m feeling really anxious today” to their close colleagues (with whom they are comfortable sharing family, relationship and probably sexual events, experiences of so called ‘physical’ illness and who knows what else) – and no-one will think they’re weird; for feeling that way nor for sharing the information.

I think it should be socially acceptable for anyone, when asked by a friend or close aquaintance “how are you?” to answer not just with either “I’m fine thanks” or “well I’ve got a bit of a cold/the kids have got me worn out/I’ve got loads on at work”; but also with “I’m feeling quite down” or maybe even “actually I’m worrying a lot about washing my hands lately, I wonder what that’s about.”

OK, that last one sounds like a bit of a weird thing to come out with, right?

But why?

It seems obvious to me that this kind of natural, everyday conversation is the only thing that can help us to truly tackle the stigma that still haunts this part of us. If we are truly listening to organisations like the Mental Health Foundation, Mind, Rethink and Time to Change, who all do fantastic work and are undoubtedly instigating progress, then we know that every single person will be affected by either their own or a loved one’s mental illness in their lifetime. Of course they will. The mind is such a complex element of us. How can we expect it to function perfectly all of the time? Isn’t that like expecting to get through your whole life never suffering from any ‘physical’ ailment – not a single cold, sickness bug or broken bone?  So why are teenagers who show signs of suffering from OCD, eating disorders, depression or anxiety, still the ‘weird kids’? Why are anxiety and depression still made so much harder to deal with for so many people, by the fear of judgement?

Of course I know that there are physical illnesses and conditions which also still carry a lot of stigma and I believe that the same applies to them.

If truly open conversation about these issues could become the norm; it would allow the next generation to grow up hearing all the time that they aren’t the only ones ever to feel this way or that. Just as importantly, they’d also be learning from day one that if they recognise signs of mental health problems in their friends or classmates (a situation with which they will undoubtedly be faced at some point), that child or teenager (or colleague at work) does not have to immediately become somebody to stay away from.

Such an incredibly large amount of my own experiences with mental illness – with obsessive compulsive disorder, anxiety, depression and eating disorders – has been about loneliness, about hating the way that I felt because I was convinced I was the only one who had ever felt that way. For me it has been a vicious cycle of feeling rejected and the resulting low self-esteem in my early teenage years; through searching for ways to control the world around me by subjecting myself to regimes of cleanliness (then later dieting which bordered on starvation all the way through to compulsive over-eating); then the resulting ‘realisation’ that I was in fact a freak and that the rejection I felt from others was justified – re-enter the ever-decreasing self-esteem. Growing up immersed in the flourishing popularity of social media and heightening reverence for celebrity culture, two things that so often revolve around cutting and pasting your life and experiences to showcase only the very best of you for others to compare themselves to, can only be making things more difficult for those with low or impressionable, susceptible self-esteem (so the vast majority of teenagers).

So to add to the list of things that I’m not trying to do with this entry – I’m not trivialising mental illness and the dark, terrible places to which it can take people. I am not trying to pretend that talking will ‘make it all go away’ because the likes of depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder, anorexia and schizophrenia are all in people’s heads and if they would only talk they would be all better. That couldn’t be further from the truth. I have some experience with some types of mental illness and I know intimately my own story of mental health. But I’m well aware that there is 1000% more that I know nothing about and that every type of mental illness and every person who lives with it is completely different.

I’m also not saying that opening up and talking is easy. But I believe that it should be easier, and that it could become a lot easier, if it was more of a ‘done thing’. What I am saying is that in my own experience – which is all that I am able to pass comment on – opening up and talking about the way I’m feeling and the things I’m thinking has been the only thing that has ever made any real difference. That’s partly because it’s freeing to say things out loud and it can be helpful to hear another person’s perspective, and because yes, things often do sound a lot different when you get them out of your head and say them out loud. A lot of what helped me to conquer my 50-a-day hand-washing habit was that when I did finally begin to talk – often just telling a family member why I was feeling the need to wash my hands at that particular time – 9 times out of 10 it made a lot less sense to me when I heard it spoken out loud; so slowly I managed to differentiate again between when it was necessary and when it wasn’t.

But mostly talking has helped because at every turn, every time I have finally opened up about something that I thought made me an irreparable freak, whether it be to a family member, a friend or a cognitive behavioural therapist  – I have learned almost instantly that I am not the only person to have ever felt that way.

I’ve learned (well I’m learning) that there’s nothing to be ashamed of in the fact that I will never be a totally level-headed, emotionally well-rounded person (pssst, that’s mostly because these mythical creatures don’t actually exist) and if I’d known that 12 years ago, like actually believed it, I honestly believe that things could have been a lot different.

One time sticks in my mind when I had a conversation with a colleague at work about obsessive compulsive disorder and anxiety. I don’t remember how we got onto the subject but it was just an everyday natural conversation – no hushed voices, no feeling that we were confiding in each other to the exclusion of all others because they just wouldn’t understand. Just a conversation about some shared experiences. It felt good, as it always does, to talk openly about my experiences without any shame, without feeling like I had to keep anything back because it would make my colleagues want to avoid me. And once again I found out that someone I respect has had similar experiences to me. But because (as I alluded to earlier) I still bear absolutely no resemblance to a level-headed person, I worried later on that I had shared too much.

It reminded me of another time a few months ago when I gave a presentation to a teaching development conference at Uni. I was presenting the work I’d done for a module about self reflection and development and I had planned to skip over the part that I had written about my experiences with OCD. When it was written it was only intended to be seen by my tutor and one or two other examiners. Although I didn’t have a problem with sharing it as such (I wasn’t embarrassed about the experiences any more) I was for some reason, embarrassed about the fact that I had written about it in my work. I think I was worried that it would seem like I was attention-seeking, or just that people would think I was weird for ‘over-sharing’. But for whatever reason, when I was up there, I decided to talk about it after all. So I spoke very briefly about why that was included and how it had benefitted my work. As I had predicted, I felt like I had definitely over-shared. This was a room mainly full of strangers after all, and what was the actual likelihood that my supposedly heroic honesty would have any sort of positive consequence for anyone in that room? Basically I felt a bit silly.

But a few days after the conversation at work that I mentioned earlier, another colleague mentioned that they were going through a rough time with anxiety and panic attacks. They weren’t sure about sharing this and I’m pretty sure they only did so because they had to explain why they had been having days off. However when they did, the original colleague mentioned that we had been talking about our experiences with similar things a couple of days before and the three of us disussed our experiences again. I realised then that by talking about our experiences a few days before, we had opened up the chance for someone who was going through something that could be very lonely, to see that they were actually going through something totally natural, and very common. 

Mental illness affects 1 in 4 people in the UK in any given year, and 1 in 10 children have a mental health problem at any one time according to the Mental Health Foundation; so mental health needs to be considered by everyone. What we need to understand is that everybody has mental health, in just the same way as everyone has physical health; and if we really realise that, we can continue to reduce the stigma that still surrounds mental illness. It’s undeniable that we’ve come a long way and that this stigma results in far less harsh treatment now (at least in this country) than it has done historically.

But I think the next step is realising that actually, mental health is a part of our physical health, there shouldn’t really be a distinction. After all, is the brain not a part of our body?

So yes, I am what you could call “aggressively open” about my experiences with mental illness. Maybe people sometimes feel uncomfortable with how open I can be. Like I said I’m still learning to trust myself. My (very) fragile self-esteem and anxiety means that I question pretty much everything I do and say. So sometimes I wonder if I’ve done the right thing when I open my huge mouth. But its so important to me that my Niece and Nephews, Goddaughter and anyone else whether its a loved one or a complete stranger – should they ever experience any of the things I’ve talked about here – know that they are not a freak, that thousands of people before them have been in their shoes, and that they won’t be rejected for being unwell.