I wrote the following article for the Journal. Published 08.10.16.
It’s World Mental Health Day on Monday. But why should we care?
I have a mental health disorder. You can often find me on Northumberland Street, shaking like a leaf, muttering to myself and pushing eighteen cats in a pram.
That, of course, is a big fat lie.
If you bumped into me on Northumberland Street tomorrow, you wouldn’t even notice me. Sadly, I’m just not that interesting.
It’s 2016, and we do talk more openly about mental health, but if we’re all really honest, perhaps we’re still a tad frightened of it. Do we still conjure up these stereotypical images of mentally ill people?
So what do you think of when you imagine somebody with a mental illness? Somebody who is weak? Scary? Violent? I might have lived with anxiety pretty much all my life, but even I can look back and remember times when I haven’t been so understanding of other people’s mental health problems. Aged 22, I remember saying to a friend ‘what on earth are you depressed about? We’re sat in front of a fire, drinking wine. Life is good.’ I also remember telling another friend that he scared my housemates when he appeared at my back door in the middle of the night and that’s why I wasn’t going to invite him in. Sadly, I will never have the opportunity to invite him in, or indeed speak to him again. His mental illness got the better of him after many years’ suffering. Suffering something that many of us didn’t understand, never mind know what we should do to help.
In these situations, my friends were not simply whinging about nothing or acting scary to get attention. They were ill. Not understanding mental illness doesn’t make you a bad person, however, the only way people can understand it is if we talk openly about it. Which is precisely why we should care about World Mental Health Day.
Imagine a world where there’s no need to suffer in silence or carry a ‘dirty secret’ because you’re depressed, or anxious, or you have suffered with psychosis. Where you don’t need to assume somebody with a mental illness is scary. Where you don’t miss out on forming great friendships because of an inbuilt fear. Wouldn’t it be a good place?
I work for Home Group, a social enterprise and charity that has a number of mental health services up and down the country. Back in May, it was Mental Health Awareness Week, another national campaign, and I had asked some of our clients to share their stories of recovery to inspire others who might be in the same situation. It made me realise that I had to practice what I preached. Why shouldn’t I tell the world I have a mental health problem? I don’t think twice about telling Facebook if I have a stomach bug – and surely that’s far more embarrassing!
So I started blogging and working with Time to Change, a social movement that aims to challenge stigma around mental health. I write about my experiences of generalised anxiety disorder, and it really helps. And I’ve had lots of lovely feedback from others saying that it has helped them too. It’s a win-win situation. However, I do want people to know that, even though I have been diagnosed with a mental health disorder, I don’t walk around shaking like a leaf, muttering to myself and pushing eighteen cats in a pram (although to be fair, if I thought I could get away with it, I would definitely do the cat thing). In fact, one of the most irritating misconceptions surrounding my disorder is that it makes me a weak or unstable person. It doesn’t.
Before I took the plunge and published my first post, there were some people who really inspired me by their own brave and honest accounts of mental illness. John Baxter, a former client and current volunteer at Home Group in Consett is one of those people. John joined Home Group’s ‘Human Library’ where colleagues, customers and clients share their lived experience with others, to inspire them and break stigma. Living with depression, John hit rock bottom, finding himself suicidal and without any hope for the future. After opening up to people and receiving the right care and support, he feels that he now has his mental health issues under control, and wants to help give others hope. John said: “I am involved in a lot of work around stigma and discrimination relating to mental health. I have given presentations and met with public groups and I want to challenge stigma and make a difference. I want other people to see that there’s nothing to be ashamed of, that there is hope and that they can recover like I have.”
Another inspiration for me was my colleague, Robin Hall. He joined Home Group in the spring and within weeks of joining the team volunteered to share his experiences on our colleague blog. Robin also works with the Human Library and said how important it was to him that he felt accepted for who he was when joining Home Group. Robin said: “I’ve gotten past the part in my life when I was ashamed of my mental health disorder. I have clinical depression and it’s important for me to be open about that. The stigma of being seen as ‘crazy’ or ‘sensitive’ stopped me talking about my depression in the past – but I wouldn’t keep any other kind of illness a secret from my family, friends and colleagues, so why this? If I’m not honest with people there’s no way they can understand how I feel or how they can help me.”
So, as I said earlier, if you bumped into me on Northumberland Street tomorrow you wouldn’t notice me. However, one day I might suffer an anxiety relapse and be struck down with a major panic attack in a bustling Eldon Square. I might stand out a little then. But I hope that you wouldn’t be too nervous to help me. After all, I represent 1 in 4 people in the country with a mental health problem. It can happen to literally anyone – no matter whether you’re rich, poor, successful, physically fit and even famous. I find it hugely inspiring to see mental health advocates like the North East’s very own Denise Welch speak out so publicly about their health problems. It’s on the news, it’s in the soaps, it’s in the best-selling novels. It’s everywhere – because it actually is everywhere. Every single one of us has mental health. Sometimes, it just doesn’t work as well as it should.
Join the conversation on Twitter – #WMHD16 and visit www.time-to-change.org.uk to hear more true stories.