Mental Health Awareness Week

The statistics on mental health are pretty damning – 1 in 4 of us suffers from a mental health condition. I remember reading something over 10 years ago the 1 in 3 statistic for cancer and equating it to my immediate family – either me, my mum or my dad was going to get cancer. The cancer count is now 2 out of 3 for us. And the mental health count is worse. I don’t present these statistics for sympathy because, whether you’re dealing with cancer or chronic anxiety, sympathy is fairly useless. Much more important is empathy and whilst we all know someone that’s died of cancer, until recently we may not have known someone with a mental illness – and how can we possibly be empathetic if we don’t know about it? It’s illogical.

To continue with the analogy sometimes cancer is logical (smoking = lung cancer, sunbeds = skin cancer) but a lot of the time its not (blood cancer anyone?!). Mental illnesses are very similar in this way – abuse victims almost always suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression often follows grief. But sometimes the logic fails – a new mother of a much wanted baby can be gripped by post-natal depression and a generally confident, successful person can find themselves racked by anxiety so suffocating they’re housebound for months at a time.

There are many other similarities of course, both are illnesses – the term condition is banded about, possibly with good intentions, but depression is a mental illness, borderline personality disorder is a mental illness, obsessive compulsive disorder is an illness. Both cancer and mental illness ruin lives, test relationships, challenge a persons ability to work and ultimately can lead to premature death. But there is one overwhelming difference between cancer and mental illness – SHAME.

Thankfully enough is understood about the causes of a lot of cancers that most people no longer feel ashamed by their diagnosis. Even if a lifestyle choice may have contributed to your cancer we all know that one person that smoked 60 a day for 40 years and didn’t get lung cancer (if you don’t know them already, it was my dad, so now you do) that helps us rationalise that cancer was always going to get us whatever choices we made. But a mental illness diagnosis is weighted with shame and introspection – the questions you ask of yourself are almost immediate: why have I got something wrong with the way my brain works? Why can’t I cope with things better? What did I do to deserve the abuse? Why can’t I just get over it? What do i have to be anxious about? Why are there voices in my head and no one else?

Thanks to increased advocacy around mental illness, those of us living with it now know that we aren’t alone and this is a start. But the weight of shame isn’t alleviated by knowing other people feel as wretched as you. Misery may love company but it’s still just more people that are miserable. The only thing that can ever lift the burden of feeling like you’re failing at the hands of your own mind every day is by removing the mark of disgrace that is associated with mental illness. We talk about removing the stigma but that is the literal definition of stigma – a mark of disgrace, shame or dishonour. It sounds really cruel when it’s broken down like that doesn’t it? Well, it is cruel. It’s a cruel attitude to have towards ourselves and it’s a cruel attitude to have towards others and until everyone takes responsibility for calling bullshit on it, it will continue to punish those that need our empathy. And, it really is empathy that makes the difference, trust me on this one.

So what can you do? Well here’s a starter for 10:

  • Don’t roll your eyes if a co-worker is “off with stress”. Stress is a symptom and is often indicative of a more serious mental illness, think about how you would feel if it was a loved one that needed to take time off work for the same reason.
  • Don’t hide from people’s mental illness if they’ve disclosed it to you personally or publicly – if I broke my leg you’d ask me how my leg was, I’m very open that I suffer from anxiety and depression- so ask me how that is if you want.
  • Think about how your words sound to a person with a mental illness. Don’t say “you’ll be fine” or “you just need to relax” or “just take some medication” – say “I’m going to help you feel better – maybe going to the doctor or taking time out would help.”
  • If you don’t understand someones or your own mental illness – admit it. Saying to someone that has disclosed to you that you don’t get it but you want to understand and help is a really big deal to that person. If you don’t understand your own mental health – ask someone that might. That can be a friend, the Samaritans, specialist charities or your doctor.
  • Don’t belittle mental illness in your everyday language. Don’t call someone ‘mental’, don’t refer to people’s medication as ‘happy pills’, don’t joke about being sectioned or having a breakdown. We have a choice in the words we use to describe ourselves, others and the world around us. Similarly, language shapes how we see the world. The words we choose and the meanings we attach to them influence our feelings, attitudes and beliefs. Your influence stretches further than you think thanks to social media and especially if you’re raising children.
  • If you are worried about someone elses mental health speak to someone about it – in the first instance their family or friends, but there are numerous resources available from The Samaritans, MIND, MQ and other organisations that can offer guidance.
  • And the biggy – just BE KIND. Mental health is as important as physical health. Hopefully you don’t judge someone with cancer, so don’t judge someone with a mental illness.

They’re just a few things that can change how we all think about mental health, if you do these things and share this practice with others, before you know it we won’t remember a time when mental illness was something to be ashamed of.

I can’t think of anything more empathetic than that.

KZS

Standing with an army

Ten years ago my dad was diagnosed with cancer. Three weeks ago my mum was diagnosed with cancer. This blog post isn’t actually about how my dad’s cancer was untreatable or how my mums definitely is. It’s about how, at some point over the last ten years, I’ve started to understand that you really do get what you give, so give your kindest self.

It was February 2006 and after graduating from University the previous July I had happily lived at home in Leicester for six months before moving to London to work for a political think tank. I’d been there a month when my dad was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma and after six weeks of commuting to work from Leicester so I could visit him in hospital every day I gave up my job and came home. But I came home to no one. My childhood friends had moved away, my university friends were far away but, most importantly, I wasn’t close to a lot of my family and I didn’t reach out to the friends I had made playing rugby for a few months at the end of 2015. I started working part-time in a bar and was kept sane by three incredible people that I met there – the late, great Andy T, Wangela and Vix. They were the only three people I opened up to about how lonely it was being an only child when your parent(s) is ill, about how the responsibility of making every medical decision on my dad’s care was crushing me, about how I was almost certain the world would end when my dad died because he was the centre of my world and it would surely implode without him in it.

When he did die I did what I always do in time of crisis: I got drunk and went back to university. Back to London in fact – a promise I’d made to my dad that probably wasn’t my brightest idea (ironically). I came back to Leicester all the time and without actually reaching out to my new friends I was pulled in by them. My friends at the bar and from rugby took in mum and I and gave us a new family – a new safe spot to hide or smile or laugh or get too drunk to stand after work and wake up on a sofa in the bar with cleaners bleaching around you.

Six months after my dad died my grandma (his mother) also passed away. She was my last grandparent and suddenly my immediate family unit had been halved. My dads oldest sister, reacted just like my friends and made it her mission to ensure mum and I were ok, despite the fact she herself had just lost her brother and mother. My cousin moved in with my mum for a few months, as did my best friends mum, so that she wasn’t on her own whilst I was away during the week. This outpouring of kindness seemed completely unprovoked – I knew people thought I was ok but I had no idea how much of a shit they actually gave about me when I really hadn’t done anything to prove  I was worthy of their compassion.

Fast forward ten years and I can honestly say that I am far, far from alone in getting my head round my mum’s cancer diagnosis and treatment. I took the kindness showed to me and I fucking ran with it and somewhere along the line I think I must have become kinder myself (not to be confused with kinder TO myself – that is a work in progress). Because people really do still care and I’ve got the hang much more of getting what you give. I’m probably only good at it about 50% of the time but I REALLY REALLY try to be that person that you can call on to go to your grandparents dogs funeral/wedding/ordination because you don’t want to go and you need a friendly face in the crowd. I try to be the person that will play in the front row when no one else wants to (I secretly love it), or the person who you ask to feed you baby because it’s been screaming for 2,084,796 hours and you are on the verge of trying to drown it in pureed sweet potato. I will always take you to the pub when you’ve been on a shit date/interview/bus journey and the only life choices I really judge are wearing Crocs and supporting Arsenal. I have the same friends I had back then, plus some new, really awesome additions and I made it my mission to get to know my family better – turns out they’re really nice, if a little bonkers (aren’t all the best people?).

It’s been a weird ten years – traumatic and euphoric and complicated. I’ve been an absolute dick to people in that time – most of them I’ve apologised to (although not my ex’s because they started it) – but overall I’m definitely a bit better at being nice. I think I’ve learnt the actual value of the things I was taught as a child – that if people are kind to you then you should be kind back and, even if people aren’t kind to you then you should be kind to them anyway. Because then, when you need them – there they are – with compassion and words and hugs and (very, very importantly) gin. And even if they aren’t there when you expect them to be, it doesn’t matter because being kind to someone is just the right thing to be or do 99% of the time. The 1% is for the time you meet Myra Hindley at the bus stop or something. It makes your world nicer, even when the outside world appears to have pushed the self destruct button.

This might not sound like the biggest revelation but it’s actually pretty massive to me and whilst I’ve only really thought about it because something horrible is happening it actually makes me feel pretty good about the future. So, thank you friends, thank you family and sorry for what I said when I was hungry…. I’m still a work in progress.

“I know that I’ve been messed up
You never let me give up
All the nights and the fights
And the blood and the breakups
You’re always there to call up
I’m a pain, I’m a child, I’m afraid
But yet you understand
Yeah like no one can
Know that we don’t look like much
But no one fucks it up like us

When I’m with you
When I’m with you
I’m standing with an army
Standing with an army.”

~ Ellie Goulding, Army

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15/12/16 02:59