The ‘Time to Change’ campaign has been instrumental in tackling stigma around mental health and on 4 February, their ‘Time to Talk’ day encourages people to talk openly about mental illness.
I’ve suffered with depression and anxiety for most of my life and I can vouch for the fact that talking about it has helped and probably saved my life.
However, I feel I must issue a warning to people who may be thinking of taking the plunge and doing some talking. You may talk to lots of people before you find anyone that wants to understand. You may talk to people and get a bad reaction, or no reaction at all. You might be starting therapy and you could well get someone great to talk to. Or your therapist may respond with crass, shocking or downright stupid comments.
When you have mental health issues, you already feel low, useless and unworthy so if you talk about your illness and get an unfavourable response, it can make you feel a whole lot worse.
Having said that, you will also find that there are a ton of amazing people out there who do want to understand and try their very best to help. It might take a while and you will have to test the water with friends, family and sources of professional help to weed out the good, bad and useless.
I’m used to discussing mental health now, but it has been a long process of trial and error and a steep learning curve. To anyone thinking of opening up, I have a few tips on what to realistically expect:
1) Stigma around mental health is usually borne out of fear, ignorance and denial. It is everywhere. You could find a complete stranger at the bus stop chatting to you about ‘dangerous schizophrenics’ and also hear a comment like ‘what have you got to be depressed about?’ from your partner. Prepare to be surprised, but don’t let it stop you talking or challenging any negativity which comes along.
2) Lots of people don’t really know what to say when you open up and that’s to be expected as the norm. Be patient, ask if they have any questions or worries. When talking about mental illness let people know why you are telling them. Mention that you do not need advice, suggestions or ‘fixing’, you are just being honest and trying to raise awareness. Ask for specific help if you need it. Sometimes people will want to support you but don’t know how. This could be things like doing shopping, cooking or cleaning if you are struggling or phoning more regularly.
3) Stigma comes in all kinds of interesting packages from unexpected sources. Along with misconceptions and judgements about mental illness you could find yourself ignored, ridiculed and disbelieved by people who are meant to be helping you. For years I was told by doctors and therapists that I wasn’t depressed or anxious. One GP remarked that I was ‘too pretty’ to be depressed. My first CBT appointment was spent desperately trying to convince the therapist of my feelings. He remarked that he had ‘worked with people in hospitals who were too depressed to wipe their own arses’ and as I could wipe my own arse, I was apparently fine. A psychiatrist also told me I would be ‘fine’ because I could articulate my problems very well. I’m not suggesting you become a gibbering unwashed wreck, but watch out for being judged for your presentation and be prepared to challenge it.
4) Some people will really struggle with you opening up, like family, friends and anyone close to you. It may come as a shock that you have disclosed or discussed a mental health issue and they might react badly. Don’t let this make you feel worse. Don’t apologise for how you are but also don’t expect people to understand straight away. Changing attitudes and removing barriers to discussion takes time and effort and not just from you. I think it’s worth pointing out that some people may never understand or be open to trying no matter how much information or time you give them. I think it’s best to just accept this and move on without letting it crush your confidence. For everyone who struggles or reacts badly there will be just as many positive or neutral reactions that you can work with.
5) Timing is everything. A campaign like Time to Talk is a great opportunity to take a leap of faith, as you can use it to bolster your confidence and know that thousands of other people are talking too. They also have a range of information you can give people if the act of physically talking is difficult. But if it’s not your time to talk yet, that’s OK. You have to be ready and if you never want to talk, that is absolutely fine.
Despite the negative pitfalls I’ve mentioned, I feel that talking about mental health is not only worth it, but hugely necessary. Through persevering with opening up, I’ve found the confidence to deal with and challenge any shocking, surprising or negative reactions which may come along. Be prepared, but don’t let it stop you if it’s something you’ve been thinking about doing.
For information, support and resources about the Time to Talk campaign you can visit http://www.time-to-change.org.uk/
This article has also been published in The Huffington Post UK –
- When your partner arrives home from A+E with two broken arms you will experience many different emotions such as shock, horror, fear, sadness and a cold sinking sensation as the words ‘toilet’ ‘wipe’ and ‘arse’ come into your head.
- The first question other people will ask is, ‘how did he do it?’ and the second is, ‘how will he go to the toilet and wipe his arse?’
- A children’s extending plastic toy hand with moveable fingers can help when you are the one who has to solve the problem of how he will go to the toilet and wipe his arse.
- The stronger the painkillers, the more unpredictable the effects will be. Suddenly, Bargain Hunt will become hilariously funny. Sometimes nothing will become hilariously funny. Don’t be selfish with the tablets however, it’s your partner that’s in agonising pain after all. If you’re very lucky, they will bung things up nicely for them and you won’t need the toy hand.
- If you accompany your partner to any hospital visits, be sure to knock on ward toilet doors before you try the handle. You could find yourself face to face with other people’s bowel dilemmas, although it is refreshing to learn that in an emergency you can poo standing up.
- If you don’t have a speaker phone facility, you can avoid arm fatigue from holding the phone to your partner’s ear by wedging it into a strategically positioned headband.
- Brushing someone else’s teeth is both surprisingly difficult yet strangely satisfying. It can also foster a new level of intimacy as you discover more fillings than you’d seen whilst snogging and find out they don’t usually do behind their own front gnashers.
- Your strengths and weaknesses will emerge in one fell swoop. I discovered I’m good at high level creative thinking, multi-tasking and presenting a stoic consistent level of care without moaning. On the down side, I’m inexplicably shit at putting the bins out. Every time I did it, calamities occurred including not being able to unlock the alley, cutting my thumb, and getting trapped in said alley.
- Don’t go on a brave massive shopping trip alone and then believe the taxi company when they say the cab will be at Tesco car park in ten minutes. Despite several more furious and desperate phone calls you could still be there one and a half hours later while your incapacitated partner is starving at home. Don’t then assume the best plan is to wheel the trolley to the road to get a black cab. No matter what the Tesco assistant says, you cannot get the trolley up the corrugated ramp and you will invariably get stuck. Make sure a neighbour is available for immediate rescue purposes. You should then start shopping on-line because a few bruised bananas, stingy sell-by dates and substitutions are well worth it to avoid this perilous debacle until your partner can drive again.
- When taxis do arrive in a timely fashion, you may be surprised to learn that 90% of drivers make very good crisis counsellors. They will display excellent empathy, although it may be delivered with swearing. The other 10% don’t talk at all which can be just as good sometimes.
- The day your partner can go to the toilet alone and wipe their own arse is cause for jubilant phone calls to friends and family, delighted Facebook status updates and general unbridled celebration in the street. By now you will be amazed at how normal it is to discuss these matters in public.
- Life and the human body are fragile but also amazing. You can break both of your arms, be rescued by ambulance, have your arms reconstructed with metal bits and in a few months, they will work again!
I think it’s so important to be honest with yourself when dealing with depression. Even if it’s difficult. In fact, especially if it’s difficult because this is often a great starting point for change.
“Being entirely honest with oneself is a good exercise.”
~ Sigmund Freud
I haven’t written this for a while as there has been too much going on. Ironically, I was off work for 6 weeks over the summer and thought I would have plenty of time for blogging. I even planned to step up the frequency of the blogs and was hoping to get at least 2 out per week. That didn’t happen for several reasons:
1) When I’m working I don’t have the energy to deal with much else. So I leave things like visits to friends/family/ hairdresser/doctor/dentist etc for the holidays and then find that this takes all my time instead.
2) Sometimes I just don’t feel like re-visiting my mentally ill past. I think that’s a good thing. The longer I can go without thinking about it the better really. I think if you constantly ruminate over things it stops you from moving forwards. I’ve been through it once already and that was enough. I do want to bring my story up to date though and continue to talk about various mental health issues. I think I might have made my blogging life harder by starting with events that happened back in 2009. I wanted to describe a certain period of my life but I’m very different to that now. It might be better to talk about how things are now with reference to the past. I will experiment and see. It’s been bugging me that people might read my blog and think that’s how I am now, because I’m not. This is also good, I just wasn’t expecting the process of improvement to be so swift this year.
3) I wildly overestimate the goals I can achieve in any given time. I am completely unrealistic about my energy levels and how my health problems interfere with my life. Then if I haven’t done something for a while, like my blog, I get out of the habit and feel like I can’t get back into it again.
4) My partner’s Dad died in April this year after a long battle with cancer. It’ s been a terrible, difficult time and of course it brought back everything I went through myself when my Dad passed away. I don’t want to go into a lot of detail about it, but that’s what’s been happening.
5) I’ve been struggling, REALLY struggling that I’ve put myself ‘out there’ in such an open way. I’ve spent a long time wondering if I should delete this blog. I don’t know how comfortable I am with sharing this side of myself so publicly.
Now I’ve decided to drop the goal setting and pressure I’m putting on myself. I will blog when the time feels right and when I am able to. It seemed so urgent when I first started it, but things are improving so rapidly that I’d rather people heard about that instead.
I just left a comment on the blog of a young woman from the United Kingdom named Laura who wrote about two different approaches she used to seek help from a mental health professional They struck me because I’ve heard of this from people I know. One school of thought is that we must go into an appointment smelling of b.o. and being quite thrown together. Pity anyone who rides the transit such a person, eh?
The other approach is to have cleaned up one’s act, looking well and talking like a sensible human being about one’s problems. I refer to the the first approach as sawing off one’s limb to see the doctor. In the new modern age of help and helping let’s strive to make people feel comfortable talking with us while they’ve got some of their wits about them. One of the massive failings of our current…
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December 10th, 2009.
I sat in front of my GP who was wearing a comedy Santa tie. I was new to the practice and had only seen him once before when I needed my ears syringing.
A couple of minutes into the consultation I realised that ear syringing was pretty much all he was good for. He asked only the most basic questions and didn’t look up from his computer while I sat mentally dissolving next to him. In true full scale depression style, I had lost the ability to form a coherent sentence. I tried my best to explain the hideous meltdown of the night before as he typed away, expressionless.
In ten minutes I was out, clutching a prescription for anti-depressants and diazepam in my sweaty, unwashed hand. He had referred me for counselling, which would take 6-8 weeks.
I was shocked at how different it was to access support as an adult. As a young person, I’d got used to being able to find counselling and support very quickly. At college, I’d managed to get an appointment within the same week from the on-site service and before that, I’d received help from the Young Person’s Advisory Service. No waiting, no fuss and no hanging around watching your problems get worse.
I’m aware that waiting lists are long and I know we have probably all had some experience of this. I also take full responsibilty for the fact I didn’t ask for help sooner. If I’m honest, I knew I was very down about 8 months before I crashed to the bottom. I’ll never make this mistake again and I could hit myself over the head with a wet fish for leaving myself to fester in my own depressed juices.
My boyfriend took me home and then had to leave for work. I started my tablets and told my boss I would be off for a couple of days.
What I didn’t realise was the door leading towards being able to cope was shut. It wouldn’t be opening again for some considerable time. I thought the worst part was over, but sadly the night before was only the bread basket, while the starter was still being prepared in the kitchen.
I put Jeremy Kyle on and got about halfway through before another nuclear storm of anxiety built up in my head. This one built up to a terrifying crescendo quite quickly because I was on my own. I couldn’t understand what was happening to me, or why I couldn’t control it. I ended up on the phone almost constantly to my boyfriend and a close friend who had seen me through a depressive episode once before.
Over the next couple of days, things got progressively worse. It became clear that I wouldn’t be able to go back to work anytime soon. This thought petrified me, as I didn’t want to be on my own feeling that bad. I wanted the routine, distraction and feeling of purpose, even though I knew I was exhausted and overwhelmed. But I also felt deeply embarrassed at how emotional and unstable I was and didn’t want anyone to see me like that. By the end of that week, I was unable to function on even the most basic level. I could hardly eat, was too anxious to sleep and didn’t want to wash or get changed. This caused my anxiety to get a lot worse, as I need to look after myself to keep my blood disorder in check. I felt like everything was spiralling out of my control and I was losing everything that I had worked so hard to create.
Then came the questions about how often I should take the diazepam tablets. I knew my anti-depressants were not going to kick in for a few weeks and so the best I could do would be to keep my anxiety levels down. The instructions on the box of diazepam were to take one tablet twice a day. It was a very low dose and it didn’t have much effect. I decided to try and ride some of the anxiety and then try taking both tablets when it started to escalate. This worked for a short time but then I seemed to become resistant to it. So I took a double and triple dose and the same thing happened. The anxiety was just too bad. I became anxious about being depressed. I became anxious about being anxious. I became anxious that the diazepam weren’t helping.
I could see how people ended up getting addicted to tranquillisers and I could totally understand why. If you are in that level of distress and are given a way of alleviating it, then of course you will take it. I tried taking more and more in the hope that some sort of emotional numbness would result, but I knew if I carried on I would end up with more problems than I started with. I felt angry that the GP had sent me away so quickly without realising how bad things were. That prescription was handed out way too easily. I decided to reserve the diazepam for an ’emergency’, although most of the day was feeling like an emergency at that point.
I don’t drink and gave it up completely about 13 years ago. I’d also stopped using other unhelpful coping mechanisms and was very proud that. It did cross my mind that they served a purpose during other difficult times, but I didn’t want to go down that road again. Those ships had sailed, although this would mean I was facing this crisis with no buffer or safety net.
My boyfriend didn’t think I should go back to the GP. In the middle of another spectacular meltdown, he took me to the local NHS walk-in centre. Although in my case it was more like the drag-in centre.
Although I was humiliated to the extreme, I found the doctor there to be much more understanding. He took me very seriously and didn’t try to minimise my feelings. He told me about immediate sources of help, such as the mental health crisis team and said he would write to my GP and ask for a psychiatric referral.
It made a difference to know there were options available if I really couldn’t cope. But the biggest difference came from being listened to and heard.