We are just coming to the end of mental health awareness week. I listened to a very stirring debate on the radio yesterday concerning the dangers of ‘over diagnosis’ in terms of mental health conditions. A leading psychologist Dr Lucy Johnstone, has claimed that we are too quick to label mental health problems as ‘illnesses’ when in fact they are behavioural issues caused by life’s stresses. It’s an interesting debate and I have to say I generally am in agreement with the doctor on this one.
I am extremely glad that we live in an age where it is an acceptable thing to seek help for a mental health problem. The very last thing I wish to imply from my agreement with Johnstone is that I am questioning the validity of mental health problems. They are very real indeed and weeks such as this and the raising of awareness of mental health problems and the gradual breaking down of the stigma around them is a wonderful thing to happen to society. Can I also say as a man who regularly expresses my disdain towards politicians, I do salute Ed Miliband for his recent speech in support of helping mental health problems.
I make no real secret that I myself have suffered greatly at times from severe and debilatating depression. I first sought any kind of help while I was midway through university so this is six years ago. It’s hard to think now how unaware I was at the help that was available or rather more strikingly, how utterly unaware I was about mental health conditions full stop. While my episodes are never pleasant, I am grateful to think that I won’t ever feel the sheer terror and fear that I felt back then when I had no idea what was happening to my brain and body. I don’t use that word terror lightly – I honestly felt I was overloading, combusting and the rest. And this is what so many people go through because of the lack of awareness of these conditions or the stigma surrounding them.
The latter point is one that was highly relevant to my own case. For the record, my mental stability was extremely rocky throughout much of my teens but this period to which I refer at university was when it all really blew up. I was very much brought up with the school of thought along the lines of ‘pull yourself together and help yourself’. Self indulgence was not encouraged and rightly so. This isn’t an article saying if you’ve got the slightest thing wrong with you ring for the doctor or forever pity yourself because you’ve got problems. I’m grateful that I was brought up the way I was and that I’ve never expected anyone else to sort me out. Nevertheless, the moment I always remember was when I was going through counselling, the first help I’d ever had for my issues. In one session the counsellor said ‘you’ve done very well to keep coming to these sessions but you need to see a psychologist’. I recoiled in horror, I really did. I begged her not to make me see a psychologist. I insisted I didn’t need it. It seems so silly now, but to me seeing a psychologist meant ‘you’re crazy, you’re mad, you’re insane’. It seems more than silly, it seems unbelievably ignorant but that is what I felt. It shows you that even me, brought up with a very open minded family and stable background was so narrow in my view of mental health. You’re not insane if you need to see a psychologist, you’ve got issues that you need help with and do you know what, a hell of a lot of people are in the same boat.
Bringing it back to Johnstone’s point, the other thing I was terrified of was medication and diagnosis. The idea of anti-depressants terrified me but it was becoming pretty obvious that I needed something to help me through because I was physically and mentally utterly incapable and I do believe that they did serve that purpose – they at least allowed me to concentrate for more than twenty seconds on anything, helped to slightly relieve the crushing headaches and slightly reduced the frequency of me being sick. But they would never, on their own, have got me through what I was going through and got me to a stage where I was able to control my life and have the capability of being happy and content. So what did get me through, other than support from friends and family which I will come to shortly? Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and a lot of hard work and pain. Saying to me ‘you’ve got a depressive illness’ didn’t help much. Nor did putting me on medication to ‘make me better’. What helped was deciphering all the mess in my mind – how did I feel in certain situations? Why did I feel it? What is it I think? How can we help to quell those unhelpful thought processes and give me back the control? Those were the questions and let me tell you it was indescribably painful to figure out some of the answers. But it gave me more than I can put into words. I worked incredibly hard to work it all out and help myself and ease myself back into some kind of normality. And that’s what I mean about self indulgence – if I’d have said I’m a headcase and got no chance (which don’t get me wrong I did plenty of times as well) I dread to think where I’d be now. If you want to get yourself through mental health issues, you’ve got to help yourself. But it is worth it beyond measure, it really is.
I have to say another point that seems obvious written down but the hardest thing to do in practice – talk to people. I was so terrified about what was going on. I did not say to a single person at school that I felt I was going mad. But that is what I felt and at university so it went on. I was in a total mess at the beginning of university but this was put down to homesickness and change and don’t get me wrong, that didn’t exactly help. But I knew deep down it was more and it’s interesting to think that people almost certainly thought ‘how can this guy be that upset about leaving home’ but it was a cry for help with what was actually wrong with me but because of my lack of understanding of it and stigma around it, I couldn’t say that. When it did get to the point where I was unable to be anywhere without being sick or passing out in panic attacks etc. I finally realised I had to confide in someone. He knows who he is, and he helped to save me. But then I told people and was stunned at how supportive everyone was. There were some who voiced their support and then left alone but hey that’s ok, I really don’t mind that. I wasn’t laughed at or dismissed, at least not openly, and there were plenty who did far more than that and helped in any way they conceivably could. And as for my family, well what can I say? I am blessed in that department and make no mistake. So do talk to people – they understand more than you think. I thought they won’t know what to make of me and won’t want to be my friends anymore but do you know what the people who matter will appreciate you even more when they know the real you. Much though they might enjoy stage Dan, banjo Dan, ranting blogger Dan (or possibly despair of him…) it doesn’t mean they’ll no longer like him because they discover another side to him. It seems so obvious now but it really didn’t then.
The reality is the issue is not black and white. I believe that a doctor merely saying you’ve got this and here’s the tablets is not terribly effective. Indeed I think it could be positively harmful – merely a categorisation of a person. I believe people who suffer from these issues need more tools than that to help themselves and to remain who they really are but able to maintain control of their lives and cope with what they go through. I have periods of intense depression still and it is not pleasant but I am in a position to understand it, to deal with it and to have the great times as well. I am not a doctor or a medical expert and I am sure that the vast majority of doctors do what they think is best but in most cases, I don’t think that medication and a diagnosis is the answer or at least not the only one. But then neither is counselling or therapy – a magic wand doesn’t exist but help does. And that’s the really important thing – if you think this is just a big ramble then at least listen to one thing: YOU ARE NOT ALONE. So many people go through this pain and there IS help. Talk to people, see a counsellor, see a GP, buy a book but do not do nothing. It is ok to be suffering from a mental health problem and it is important not to suffer alone.
Stay happy everyone,