It’s not the first thing I say to people when I meet them, and up until recently, I haven’t exactly made it public knowledge what I’ve been through in the last 18 years. But this has been simultaneously sitting on my conscience and dangling itself in front of me now as an opportunity for a number of years, and now is the time for me to come out with it:
“I live with mental health problems”
Saying it feels like a bit of an anti-climax though. “So what?” I hear my imaginary audience saying to me? And therein lies the rub. If only “so what?” was how people genuinely reacted to learning someone else has a mental health problem – at least when it’s not just another online blog but a face-to-face conversation where you are required to react politely.
But it’s ingrained in our culture. Perhaps not explicitly, perhaps not out in the open, but it’s bloody persistent and pervasive. And I’m not talking about the voices – it’s something much more sinister than that! I’m talking about mental health stigma, of course, And widespread ignorance of what mental illness is really about.
At it’s worst, it’s in the tabloid headlines. “Bonkers Bruno locked up”; “Madman in the cockpit”; “1200 killed by mental patients”. But actually, that’s not the problem for me. It’s the subtle things that people don’t even realise they are saying. The ways people try to ‘solve’ your problems for you. The way people shy away from talking about it. The ways people are reluctant to be curious and ask questions just in case you, I don’t know what, explode or something?! Or the assumptions you hear people making when they talk about each other:
“I’m not sure they’re resilient enough”
“I don’t know if she’ll handle it”
“I’m worried it’ll set him off”
“Have you hung yourself yet?”
Sometimes it’s the misjudged advice they give:
“You don’t want to be filling your brain with that chemical crap”
“You aren’t helping yourself here”
“Don’t be so down on things, you’ve got your health, a decent job and people who love you”
“Just take some time off work”
It’s also the things people aren’t saying. Why is it not:
“It’s great that she’s so sensitive”
“He’s just so keen to learn about himself and improve what he does”
“He really thinks about stuff that guy, we could really use someone like that”
“I don’t care if she’s depressed, she’s just bloody brilliant”
“Tell me more about your mental health”?
And I’m one of the lucky ones – I grew up with wonderful, empathetic and supportive parents. With a GP for a father and a mother with a psychology degree who worked for a counselling charity. I can’t imagine what it must be like for people with families who aren’t even close to acknowledging that mental ill health is a thing. I don’t even know if I’d still be here if that were the case...
Anyway. I’m out with it and now I can talk (or write) freely. Stigma no more. Boo to ignorance. From this day forth, I take it as my duty to spread my own story and experiences from both sides of the coin – of someone who:
Has lived through some pretty serious and gruelling episodes of depression, anxiety and OCD
Will probably live with mental health challenges for the rest of his life
Has learned a LOT of hard lessons on the way
Has privileged access and insight into other peoples’ working and personal lives
Has helped other people with their own internal struggles
Now is my time to share, in the hope that the lessons I’ve learned might be of use to someone else, and in the hope that my honesty about the realities of living with mental health challenges will inspire others to talk about it, too.