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?
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.