I was surprised to find myself largely neutral to the widespread mental health campaigns being run to raise awareness.
I’ve seen many of these, encouraging people to talk about mental health and problems like depression and anxiety. Awareness is good, don’t get me wrong. I’ve seen media coverage featuring stories of people diagnosed with conditions like depression, bipolar disorder and eating disorders for instance, sharing the impact of these problems and how they have overcome. And there is great value in this.
But I feel a lot of this coverage and campaigns don’t cover the messy side of mental health problems, which is a real concern for people like me.
If you read my blog, you’ll know that I live with a number of mental health diagnoses – depression, anxiety, complex post traumatic stress disorder and borderline personality disorder. The latter I rarely talk about, because in my experience, the stigma is still great. In the past people knowing this have thrown it back in my face or used it against me in disagreements.
The messy side of mental health problems
I get bad night terrors. I mean the kind that leave me screaming piercing screams that my housemates say are hard to forget. I sleep walk. And then I wake up with no recollection unless someone tells me what I was doing at night or my own screams have managed to wake me up. If the latter happens I wake up terrified, wrapped up in fear, but without any knowledge of what it is I’m afraid of. This is disabling, and humiliating at the least. But I have no control over it.
Every day, and I mean every day I am plagued by thoughts of suicide. I often have to take extra measures to make sure I am safe, especially if I am feeling vulnerable or low in mood. I rely on medication to help with the daily rounds of anxiety that grip me.
This, is the messy side of mental health problems, that we don’t see featuring in the media or mental health campaigns, but it matters.
Raising awareness isn’t enough. Someone on my twitter feed last week said they wanted to replace ‘raising awareness’ with ‘promoting understanding.’ And I am all for this. Because my experience and that of friends, tell me that while on surface level many people we meet will show sympathy and awareness, few want this in their lives. What I mean is, I have, and friends have seen the end of close relationships because stigma runs deep, and it will take more than some neatly packaged mental health stories to get people truly understanding.
These are problems that will affect us or someone in our lives, so we should all care. But the reality is some people associate mental health diagnoses with instability and unreliability – things that none of us want when we’re choosing a life partner for instance.
I was talking to a friend today, and she couldn’t be sure that her new, promising relationship didn’t end because she was forthcoming about her mental health problems. I too have written about seeing dating profiles that actually said things like ‘no one with mental health problems please.’
Once, when an employer found out about my diagnoses in the middle of a bullying investigation, I was placed on authorised leave pending an occupational health assessment. I was vindicated and the examiner told my employer ‘it is important not to medicalise this issue,’ asking them to put the focus back on the real issue, which was the victimisation of an employee. I went back to work, but without any apology. And this is the reality of living with a mental health condition, even in a country like Great Britain where there is ‘awareness’ and laws against discrimination. I have been bullied at home too, with previous flatmates responding to my night terrors with harassing acts and taunts like ‘you’re mentally ill.’
What can we do?
Mental health campaigns and media coverage need to put out stories that remind everyone that people with mental health problems are people too. We are just people in the throes of difficulties we did not choose, or want. But here we are, trying to make a life with what we have, to the best of our abilities. We have dreams, ambitions, fears, hobbies, things that make us cry and laugh, pet peeves… just as any other person. We want to love and be loved, without fear that the problems we battle would automatically get us thrown into restricted categories, with the people in our lives.
We get upset, we cry, we bleed, we laugh, we love, we hurt, and fear…we disagree and agree, make decisions in the heat of the moment, we regret…but this is all because we’re human. Not because we have mental health problems (which cause episodes- usually affected by things like stress or triggers). But this shouldn’t qualify us as inherently illogical, unstable or unfit to work, love, commit and do the things we say we will do.
If we want to do something that will make a real difference to the lives of people with mental health problems, this is what our mental health campaigns and stories should focus on.
Is it too much to ask? We are people after all.
Gentle hugs 🙂