So I guess I’ve never written about mental illness.
It’s a topic that, for me and many others, comes with a burden of embarrassment, potentially some shame and a lot of discomfort. It also seems to be the case that I’m only prepared to talk about it when [I feel I’m] not knee-deep in it, like now for instance. I’ve had a really great, positive and productive week, so I’ve chosen now to capitalise on the fact that we need to talk about mental illness.
Rather than talk specifically about the nature of the mental illness I have experienced, I am going to focus on how it impacts on my life, and the lives of the people around me.
When I’m in a bad place I retreat to my bedroom. I refuse to go out, I don’t see my friends, I avoid all social situations that require me to “improve” on my appearance, (wash my hair, put on make up, change out of sweats/PJ’s) I cry – a lot-, I feel frustrated, angry, uncomfortable, I feel “disgusting”, and “vile”, I spent hours on the internet searching for a “cure”, I am extremely irritable, and most of all, I feel like it’s too much to endure.
As a consequence, those that are closest to me suffer through the experience with me, and those that are less close are shut out of my life for the duration. Without wanting to speak for the people who have been closest, I know one person described the situation as “exhausting” and “heartbreaking to watch”.
For those who have suffered with mental illness, that list of symptoms (for want of a better word) will probably contain nothing new. But the difficult thing is also that, to go public about that experience, to say ‘I am depressed/anxious/self-harming/suicidal/psychotic’ or in any other state of mental illness, is not made easy by a public environment that is, on the whole, pretty hostile and ignorant towards mental illness.
Don’t get me wrong, things have definitely improved since the dominance of the “stiff upper lip” mantra, but many people, be it our parents/siblings/friends/teachers/bosses/colleagues etc. still don’t recognise the extent to which mental illness is not the result of an individual’s weakness, does not make them less of a human being, and does not imply the mentally ill individual is a danger to society! This is what we call stigma, and stigma is dangerous.
Stigma is dangerous because it can cause individuals who are suffering with mental illness to remain silent, to feel as if it is their fault somehow or that it makes them a lesser person, to not seek help, to feel (more) desperate and frustrated, and potentially encourage them further towards self-harm and suicide.
And alongside stigma, are the myths that uphold it, a central one being that a person with mental illness can just “man up”, (which is also an example of unhelpful gendered language!) “pull themselves together”, and “get over it”. Oh, and don’t forget the claim that people who speak out about mental illness are just “attention seekers”, or “drama queens”. For the person on the receiving end of these comments, these assumptions can lead to greater desperation and frustration, especially if they fail to acknowledge the speaker’s ignorance and believe that they should be able to just “get over it”.
In order to eradicate this though we need to start calling-out media sources such as TV programmes, Soaps, Films, Newspapers and Magazines, and the general public about their portrayal of mental illness each and every time it re-enforces stigma, myths and stereotypes. That includes derogatory language such as “crack-head”, “nut-job”, “basket case” and “crazy bitch”.
If you want to read more about myths and stigma, check out this incredible source.
The other issue is that support for mental illness is difficult to get. I speak from my own experience and the experience of those closest to me only, but, even from my limited sample I can say that waiting lists for High intensity CBT (a type of therapy used to “re-train” the brain out of negative behaviour) and Sexual Assault and Rape Crisis (SARC) counselling for victims suffering with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder can be 6-8 months or more. And that’s not just a 6-8 month wait supported by other counselling methods – that’s 6-8 months a sufferer has to spend without any other professional counselling because, as they are already “on the system” for one service, they cannot be entered on to the system for another service in the mean-time. If a sufferer has the ability to go private in the search of support then the wait may be less, but the cost definitely won’t be. Additionally, if a sufferer is at a University with a free counselling service, that is also an option, however the wait for an assessment is often 2/3 weeks or more and regular sessions are few and far between.
My reason in outlining this difficulty is not to exaggerate the desperation of the situation, because I think the facts surrounding mental illness and the available support systems do that for themselves. I also, in saying all this, don’t want to discredit the charities such as Mind, 42nd Street (Manchester) and many other organisations that are doing their best with the resources they’ve been allocated. But instead, I hope to show the gap.The Government are not allocating enough resources to mental health services; in fact funding to SARC provisions has recently been cut. For many victims, this could feel like a death sentence. If we are committed to taking mental health seriously in the UK then we need to provide more support for sufferers.
Confronting mental illness also means accepting that addiction is a mental illness. Having lived extremely close to addiction for most of my life I can promise all those skeptics that addiction is not a choice. Regardless however, the affects of addiction in all its forms impacts further on an addict’s state of mental illness, be that plummeting low self-esteem – feeling unworthy of life, suicidal thoughts and tendencies, physical self-destruction, hopelessness, shame, isolation and loneliness, anxiety, depression, and/or anger.
This is such a difficult topic to round off because I have so much more to say, and so much more I will say when I have more time to write. I want to leave this post however, on a hopefully more positive note. A friend who is both aware of my struggles with mental illness and has experienced mental illness themsef told me about a mindfulness practise they do every day in an attempt to re-gain control over their mental state.
Now before I explain, I want to recognise that, if you’re rolling your eyes thinking “oh great, another self-help tool pretending mental illness is all about mind[over]matter”, I totally understand. I too, am fed up with people pretending it’s that simple, but I want to also recognise that nobody endorsing mindfulness said it was simple. Mindfulness is a meditation-like practise that aims to help one be in the moment, with awareness and acceptance, and ward off negative and destructive mind-wandering..eventually. And I say eventually because in order to actually achieve the benefits of mindfulness, it has to be practised every day.
A counsellor once told me it can take years for mindfulness techniques to come naturally to the person practising them, and that’s what initially put me off. My desperation and impatience meant I completely dismissed mindfulness as a method of coping with my mental illness. If I’m honest, I still haven’t got into a routine of practising every day, but I will do. In fact, the practise I’m about to re-tell to you which was advised by my friend, I haven’t even got round to doing yet, but I’m going to start today, so without further adieu, I invite you to start today too.
‘Make the day, then rate the day’
At the beginning of your day, write down three things you’re looking forward to – your lunch, seeing a friend, attending a certain class/lecture, leaving work, going to the gym, walking your dog, watching TV?
Then at the end of your day, rate the day based on the things you enjoyed. Make a list of the best bits, even if they’re tiny bits.
The trick is to reflect on past days, and look back at the moments you’ve enjoyed in order to help you look forward to future days, as well as focusing on what went well today. The whole process should make you more aware and improve your ability to recognise positive experiences as and when they happen.
I can’t promise it’ll change your life, although my friend claims it might, but I’d definitely advise heading to google and finding out what mindfulness practise might work for you.
Either way, I hope you have a great day.
For more information on how to portray mental illness appropriately, click here.
For ideas of how to support people experiencing mental illness and the campaign to end silence over mental illness in general, visit Time-To-Change, Mind.org, and Rethink.org.
To find out how to get support for your own mental illness, visit the above websites and/or your GP. If you’re in the UK, the following helplines are also available.