Stigma. This word alone is something I think about when I think about mental health.
Until recently, I was guilty of thinking that mental health issues were taboo (and - to some extent - this is still true today). Then I listened to the Burdens podcast and saw the Heads Together interview with Prince Harry and Prince William.
This was when things started changing for me. Or rather; I slowly started changing things for myself. I needed a lot of help along the way, but I feel I have made some massive changes to my life. It’s changed from thinking along the lines of: “I can’t deal with my life... and I never will” every single day to: “Today is bad, tomorrow might be bad, but I can deal with it, even if it will be hard and painful”.
Today I can say out loud: I suffer from anxiety and depression.
I’ve struggled with mental health most of my life, from childhood, through my school years until now and I will probably never be able to fully recover.
My most severe mistake was thinking that everyone had it difficult and somehow everyone managed to live their life without shouting out about their problems. No one really breaks publicly (I couldn’t be more wrong!... listen to the interview with Mandy Stevens, a mental health director and the whole series of podcasts), hence I was not allowed to break down. I pushed myself beyond what was humanly bearable until I had a proper mental breakdown.
Apart from some personal life problems, I also experienced symptoms of social phobia, severe depression and very severe anxiety. I wish I never had to go through it but I have gained a lot from the experience and have grown as a person; becoming a lot stronger than I would have ever been had it not have happened to me. I have learned to live with my demons and I accept it as part of who I am. Well...most of the time.
Please bear in mind that some of the things I share here could be triggering.
Everyone is different and of those of us who have ever suffered from any kind of mental health issues, there will never be two people with the same experience. I would like to briefly introduce you to my experience with it and then follow up with some of my personal survival tips.
Happy looking life = happy life?
Often you just can’t tell. I couldn’t believe when people were a little shocked to find out that I wasn’t well. They told me that it seemed like I was doing very well! A happy looking person is not the same as a happy person. A lot of people will bury even the most troubling problems deep inside and not let anything out.
Sharing is good
By far, this is the best thing I have done. I have started by sharing with just a friend and slowly worked my courage up to talk to more people, until I was able to talk about my mental health publicly. I joined the Elefriends community, which is run by Mind, the mental health charity. I also wrote a private diary and then a personal blog, going on to draw comics as part of a work arts competition. I also shared my fear of public speaking at work and wrote a blog post about it.
Sharing is difficult, but ultimately it was what I needed in order to feel connected and supported. I received a lot of moral support from my friends and new friends I met through either therapy or online communities.
I’m not alone
I have read a lot of other people’s stories. Medium has a lot of amazing articles, so does The Mighty and many other places. I also read an amazing book by Matt Haig, called “Reasons to Stay Alive”. Simply finding out that I wasn’t alone in what I was going through meant a lot and has helped me accept my illness for what it is. I still come back to a blog post about living with anxiety, as it was the most influential thing I have read about it.
People are happy to help
Whether it’s an anonymous online community, an NHS therapy group session, friends and family or your employer, people are nice. They will want to help. And I didn’t realise how many people have been going through a similar experience to me!
I didn’t lose my job
Telling my manager that I suffered didn’t mean that my job was in any danger. If anything, sharing helped my team understand why my performance wasn’t as good as I wanted it to be. I feel very lucky to work where I work, surrounded by a bunch of lovely people.
Keeping busy can be a good distraction
It’s a little contradictory that, having experienced elements of social phobia, I wanted to spend as much time as possible connecting with other people. I went to the cinema, the pub, visited my friends, went on some walks including Itchen Navigation Heritage Trail and joined my local Parkrun. But not everyone has the luxury of having people around all the time. There were months where my friends were too busy to go out so writing, origami making, drawing, running and long walks helped me stay busy.
I went on free NHS therapy
I was terrified of the idea of going to my GP to talk about my mental health. So, I self-referred myself to Steps2Wellbeing (also known as IAPT services). Through group and one-to-one therapy, I learned to deal with my panic attacks as well as beaten my social fears.
There are a lot of online resources that can be useful including the Mind, Psychology Tools, Get Self Help website, Calm Clinic and many more. Some are more professional than others, but through a mixture of those I was able to find the things that worked for me.
You’re probably tired of hearing about this one everywhere. It does work, though I found certain types of mindfulness better than others. I found both taking long walks, walking down to the nearby beach, origami making and drawing were the most helpful. I think mindfulness is about keeping your mind busy, while doing something that doesn’t require a lot of thinking. Meditation could be about mindful breathing or yoga, but it was also be achieved by drawing detailed comic strips or creating origami shapes, whilst some people might find watching TV or playing video games helpful.
Taking things easy is OK
I needed a period of time when I would just forgive myself for all of the mistakes I have made. It was extremely hard to do, but in the end helped me get back into doing things again. I needed to let go of the guilt, which helped me to stop doing the things that made me feel guilty. It was kind of like a self-fulfilling prophecy - I got so hung up on the idea of failing that I couldn’t stop myself from actually failing (because I assumed that I would fail, I subconsciously followed the path to failure - for example thinking I was stupid, I stopped learning, because I didn’t see the point, which led me to not improving my situation). In the end, letting go worked!
No matter how big or small, my commitment to the local community has made me feel proud. I have volunteered at a local cafe, by helping to serve food to those in need - just being in a place full of people felt like a supportive experience, not to mention the sense of achievement I got from helping others and having a reason to get out of bed on a Sunday morning. Seeing people who perhaps lived in worse conditions to mine, helped me appreciate what I had - even if I didn’t see it back then.
After having completed my 3-month group therapy for “social phobia” (which literally changed my life) I was able to give a short talk to the new group - and, to my surprise, I wasn’t worried about what people would think of me.
Etch has also signed the Time to Change Pledge and I am one of the Champions whose job is to help break the stigma around mental health. It is a very positive change - we are talking about mental health even more than before!
Parkrun is a great idea - for either getting a community feel or for volunteering. It’s free and it’s a great way to get out and get moving.
Getting involved doesn’t have to require a lot of energy though - I found chatting to people online quite helpful, especially on the Elefriends community and it was helpful to “meet” others in a similar situation.
Small steps to improve
It’s good to avoid jokes that seem harmless but can potentially be viewed as derogatory, like joking that someone is not capable of something. They’re not meant to harm and they’re not serious, but they can potentially hurt and affect the person who is having unhelpful thoughts about themselves already.
This is not to say that we shouldn’t joke about mental health, all I’m saying is that we could do better if we were selective about how we joke (I am guilty of this one but would like to improve!).
A positive outlook
All those things took me a while to work out and I didn’t feel any improvement for a very long time, but I believe that all we can do is keep trying, keep taking the small steps and one day things will start improving.
I think that, because we’re all so different, everyone needs to work out their own way of finding those little things, but I believe it’s worth trying as many things as possible to find them.
I hope some people find this useful and if you every find yourself struggling with mental health then please share it with people around you and let them help.