Mental health is everywhere these days, it’s in our newspapers, in our classrooms, on our TVs, in our communities, in our hospitals, even in our working lives. It’s fast becoming a major issue especially with our younger generation, with regards to young people with increasing pressure to take exams, ‘fit in’ amonsgt other anxieties, but what can we really do about addressing this issue in our lives?
Many who live with a mental illness- 1 in 4 of us- we often say how we feel ‘negatively impacted my mental illness, fears we are judged by others, that so many misunderstand our conditions and that we feel stigmatised.
Stigma, can be understood as looking upon something in a negative way- to judge or deem something as wrong or bad. In recent news this has been highlighted rather fittingly by celebrities such as Lady Gaga and even royalty- Prince Harry speaking out about mental health and the grief of losing his mother, Diana Princess of Wales.
Whilst this caused lots of conversation perhaps even controversy, it was fantastically positive that these people, close to the limelight and perhaps role models for young people, began an open dialogue about mental health. It is absolutely 100% called for in a time when children as young as 5 are reportedly being diagnosed with mental health conditions including anxiety and depression, in the face of increasing pressures on young people at school.
As you may have read, the figures for CAMHs or Child and Adolescent Mental Health services are shocking and yet many services are harshly underfunded and simply cannot reach the many young people experiencing mental health crisis. More action needs be taken if we are to make real changes both in education and the workplace to address the stigma attached to mental health. But, I empathese with the reader that “that’s great, but what can be done about it?”
This is a conundrum I asked myself quite often when I come across news story after news story about the crisis with our mental health services, almost 3/10 articles a week on social media!
Stigma needs to be addressed, there is no doubt about that and already there is many good works being put in place that seeks to stop stigma and new movements such as Time To Change and online efforts. There are real funding needs for people to be able to receive efficient mental health support across the board.
To give you some background, I myself have ten years or more of mental health experience. I have had very mixed experiences when it comes to support from mental health services. One thing is for sure, with mental health no one is the same, everyone’s story will be different but what matters most is that we can all do our small bit in remedying this ongoing problem.
To bolster the young person that we know is dealing with depression, who needs our help and the access of a more fully funded mental health service- after all isn’t it our right to have access to these services if something does go wrong and we become unwell? It can happen to anyone and it could be our friend, our sister, our colleague or our neighbour and often we can act (without perhaps knowing it) as that first port of call for that all important conversation…
We all need help at some point in our lives and we certainly deserve it when we are going through a mental health crisis, we should not feel like we are alone or have to hide this. The associated stigma surrounding mental health can be absolutely crushing and makes it all the more difficult in seeking help when we need it most.
The prospect of becoming ill with psychosis or depression, for instance, carries a lot of weight, both the taboo of having suicidal thoughts and talking to someone about our fears are areas we all may find difficult. This is for many reasons, and I won’t be going in to them all here. I mean when I say I am not judging people so please bear with me.
While it is not true that people who become mentally ill are more likely to act violently (this is an absolute myth), it is a point that when people are in psychotic states or suicidal their behaviour can be unpredictable and it may cause people to be worried or scared for that person which is difficult to know how to deal with, whether you are going through this yourself or watching from the sidelines.
I truly believe, however, that is in our greatest interest for us to actively try to understand, and do our best to listen without judgement. How often do we actually just sit down with someone, and listen when someone is experiencing depression, for instance? I am not blaming people for being afraid, it is in some ways a natural response to make judgements for instance so we can protect ourselves, but how helpful is this kind of behaviour?
I myself, have at points struggled with suicidal thoughts and have experienced friends becoming suicidal and losing them and to break down the taboo- there is a lot more to it than just this horror story as is often falsely portrayed by our media, that person ending their lives jumping off a cliff. Beyond that silence is absolutely vulnerability. Human vulnerability and we are all human and it is that vulnerability that renders us naked and afraid.
When I became psychotic back in 2014, and there are often many different phrases used to describe this illness, I had in my words- ‘lost my sense of reality’, and my whole world had changed rapidly over a period of days. I was no longer who I was, I was ‘no longer Jess’. This was echoed in the chaotic ways I was interacting with the world and the people in it- others had picked this up and deemed me as ‘dangerous’ and ‘unpredictable’ which may seem like the wrong adjectives to use, but quite honestly, this is how I was. At one point I was taken home after police had found me confused and speaking to people I did not know.
Paranoia and false beliefs are quite common in Psychosis, but I don’t want to focus on this- these are just symptoms of a complex illness and no one person will experience the same things as someone else, in fact a list of symptoms can actually be quite limiting in helping someone to get to grips with their condition. I want to make it completely clear- that everyone who experiences psychosis will have different things happen. Nobody is the same.
What can we actually do when someone appears to be ‘in a crisis’ or their behaviour seems strange- how we can help- and, is there anything we can do to prevent people reaching an acute stage of mental illness? This is not a straightforward answer, what might be a better question is, what are the useless unhelpful things that we do that actually make it harder for people? Perhaps if we got to know these more, we could both directly and indirectly benefit someone going through a crisis.
As mentioned, behaviour can be unpredictable with lots of suspicion and paranoia and it bears mentioning that if you are going through a psychotic episode it can be the case you have not slept for hours, even days! So the person is literally losing their mind. I am not an expert, but I can honestly say this happened to me and I had extreme sleep deprivation.
Perhaps, we may feel it is not our place to ask or interfere if someone is unwell, perhaps we are scared of the consequences, that we will seem rude to be ‘assuming things’ so we stay silent and don’t say a word. Or, may be we are ourselves recovering for mental illness and don’t know what the best thing is to do because we don’t want to jeopardise our own mental health again….
Well, talking about mental health is not rocket science- it could start with a simple ‘Hello, how are you doing these days?” It is ironic that often the global precipitating factor with mental illness such as depression is severe loneliness, that we live in towns or cities filled with places to go and people to see, yet we are supposedly the loneliest people in the world this way? Insanity used to be depicted through stories of sailors, the archetypal ‘loner’ away at sea for months or even years and this became to be associated with them being alone and mental illness. Well, how about breaking the negative cycle and talking to a lonely neighbour up the street? How about we take that first step to get that person to open/connect again, even if briefly… you may underestimating quite what a difference that conversation might mean to the other person.
We may have a long way to go with recognising mental health and enacting change, but if we can adopt an open and positive attitude as individuals when it comes to conversations about mental health and recognising this is as vital as physical health, perhaps this makes a great stepping stone to real progress.