This week, some of our Time to Talk Champions are discussing their experiences of mental health and why they wanted to get involved in the project to help to tackle stigma and discrimination. Here is the second blog post in our series!
“What Experiences of Mental Health Problems Have You Had in the Past?”
I had my first experience of depression when I was 13 years old. Having had practically no education based around mental health, my initial experiences were scary and confusing. It lasted for maybe 3 solid months. I’d find it hard to get up in the morning. I’d struggle to leave the house. I’d cry almost constantly, making going to school an ongoing source of anxiety. Everything felt worthless and I remember feeling a constant sense of dread, as though something terrible was always just about to happen. Not knowing anyone who was going through the same thing and not understanding what was happening made it incredibly difficult to deal with. I’ve only had a few experiences quite as bad since, but I’ve struggled with short periods of depression and anxiety a few times a month ever since.
I’d describe the depression that I feel like a pressure in the pit of my stomach. I heard someone once say that depression is like sadness, but heavier. I quite liked that description as to me, it emphasises the physicality of depression and shows that it is a condition that has an impact both on your mind and on your body. People I know who have never experienced it often find it difficult to understand and usually the most difficult part to grasp is its cause. Although depression can be triggered by upsetting or traumatic events, sometimes it can just come on. And it isn’t easily gotten rid of. Advice like “you just need to try harder to get yourself out there”, “keep busy” and “cheer up” aren’t particularly helpful. The reactions of other people are often based on the notion that this deep, physical sadness is a choice.
Anxiety is viewed in much the same way. I’ve found with people I know that anxiety often seems to come hand in hand with depression. When I’m feeling particularly anxious, one bad thought or upcoming stressful situation will consume me and stop me from sleeping. This lack of sleep causes more stress and starts a potentially endless cycle. “Stop worrying so much”, “calm down” and “just don’t think about it” are quite common pieces of advice you’ll be given and aren’t particularly helpful either: again, they put you, the sufferer, at the centre of the blame.
Although I think it’s essential to stop placing all the blame on sufferers, I don’t think there should be a complete removal of choice and agency when we think about people with mental health problems. They shouldn’t be blamed, but they also shouldn’t be seen as powerless as often it takes a lot of personal strength and willpower to take the first steps in trying to get better.
I recently graduated from university but whilst I was there, my mental health was potentially the worst it’s ever been. At the start of my second year, I developed a chest condition called costochondritis which although isn’t a serious threat to my health, mimics the symptoms of a heart attack and means I’m in constant pain. Later, I also was diagnosed with a problem with my stomach and also a valve near my gallbladder. I still struggle with these conditions today, 2 and a half years later. Added to the stress of university and the difficulty of living away from home (even with very supportive friends and housemates) I started to really struggle with my mental health. Having something concrete to blame my worry and low moods on made it easy to mask the fact that my anxiety levels were far higher than they should have been in my situation. I didn’t confront my anxiety and depression because I thought anyone going through what I was going through would have had the same reaction. In reality, however, my worry was consuming most of my life, making it difficult for me to sleep and fully concentrate on my studies.
Another problem with my anxiety was that doctors would often not take my conditions seriously, blaming it on the stress I was causing myself. Although they did have a point in that the worry was making my pain levels worse and my general health decline, their assumption that it was all psychological was frustrating and delayed tests that should have been done much earlier, meaning a year after I developed the severely painful symptoms in my stomach, I was finally given the appropriate tests, which revealed that there had, in fact, been two distinct things wrong with me.
Reducing the stigma around mental health would have helped my situation in three ways. Firstly, education about mental health for young people would have made my initial experiences a lot less confusing and much easier to deal with. Secondly, changing the assumption that anyone with mental health problems causes their own physical illnesses and making doctors take patients seriously would have got me a diagnosis much sooner. And thirdly, awareness of the appropriate reactions to stressful situations could have helped me to seek help for my anxiety and depression, even just through open conversations with the people I knew.
“What Have Your Experiences of the Project Been Like?
I got involved with Derby Women’s Centre as a volunteer in 2013 and as soon as I heard about the Time to Talk project they would be running as part of the national Time to Change campaign, I knew I had to be involved. I took part in a focus group to discuss what specific issues the project should tackle and I’ve now trained as a Champion to have discussions about mental health with members of the public. I also helped to advertise and promote the project and its events through social media and attended a coffee morning for the Time to Talk day to meet other mental health organisations in the area.
By taking part in this project and confronting the stigma surrounding mental health, I realised just how embarrassed and ashamed I was of what I’d gone through and how difficult it is to be open about such personal experiences. Even in writing this, I feel embarrassed and ashamed, as if these feelings were ever something I could have controlled. Attempting to speak more openly to my friends and family about mental health has also revealed to me just how many people suffer in silence, and that often people close to you are going through the exact same thing you are. I’m hoping that this project, and the national campaign, will allow many more people to openly talk about the conditions they have without fear of judgement or discrimination.