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Fear and Loathing in a Small Northern Town

25/04/2016 16:40

Fear and Loathing. Why are these two words relevant to mental illness? Well, I'll put forward the argument that the two co-exist in the world of mental health. And sadly, each feeds the other.

I come from a small town in northern England. A small town that over the last thirty years has tried to pick itself up and dust itself down after the government closed its main industry. The people who live in my town are salt-of-the-earth working class do-anything-for-anyone people. We are warm and friendly and cautious. We are not dissimilar from hundreds of towns around the United Kingdom. What the people around here are not very good at is understanding mental illness. Not dissimilar to hundreds of towns around the United Kingdom.

Around here, we know that if we break our leg, we have a cast put on and six weeks later it's healed. We know that if we develop a chest infection, we get some antibiotics and it clears up. We don't know what to do if someone we know stops washing and refuses to leave their beds. If someone we know gets so anxious and panicked that they literally feel like they are dying and can no longer socialise. If someone close to us decides that they want to take their own life.

And the reason we don't understand it is simple. We haven't been educated about it. We simply are not equipped to deal with it. And the reason for this is two-fold.

The first reason is because nobody talks about it, nobody dare admit the dark and difficult thoughts that are affecting them. A vicious cycle. We don't speak out around here because people will immediately feel awkward and quickly find a reason, any reason, to exit the conversation. A close friend of mine is suffering from a generalised anxiety disorder. They are also possibly suffering from depression. Only recently, I heard them speaking to close family about their feelings. It took great courage to do so. The response they got was, in some ways, expected. It went: "you've got a good job, nice house, lovely partner. What is there to be depressed about? Just get on with it."

The second reason, which is driven by the lack of education, is fear. As simple as that. Fear. And the response my friend was given was purely driven by fear. People are scared of the unknown. If you watch a horror film, the feelings of tension are driven by not knowing what happens next. If you knew (and therefore understood) what was about to happen you wouldn't be scared. This is the same with people's understanding about mental health. They don't understand it. They don't get it. They are scared about it. Therefore, they don't want to talk about it.

In my novel, A Tiny Feeling of Fear - which deals with anxiety and depression and most importantly, hope - the main character wakes one morning to find that he simply cannot go into work. The anxiety overpowers him and the feelings of depression are too much. He rings his boss to tell him that he won't be in. But he doesn't tell the truthful reason why he can't come in, he adopts a croaky voice and pretends he has a cold. And why? Well, for the reasons outlined above. Because he already knows that people won't understand.

So, where does the loathing part come in? Well, that comes from those of us who suffer from a mental illness. Studies have shown in the UK, that's 1 in 4 of us. In the USA and New Zealand it's closer to 1 in 2. And the loathing is not aimed at everyone else it's aimed at ourselves. Because we can't talk about it, and we have no outlet we turn on ourselves. We can't control the thoughts that spin around our minds like an endless carousel. We want to be that awful word, 'normal'. We want to be like what we perceive everyone else to be. And so, we begin to hate the skin we are in. Our self-worth sinks further. Our self-hatred grows. We loathe ourselves and loathe being this way.

I want to make it clear that this piece is not aimed at the people in the small town I live in. We are no different to anywhere else on this island. No, it's aimed at everyone. It's written so everyone can gain a little more understanding. To help those who are suffering to understand they are not alone. And to help those who don't understand to realise that this problem is real.

We have to raise awareness. What other illness is there that affects people to the extent that they actually decide that their life with this illness is not worth living? That tells them that their own existence is pointless? We are born to survive. Everything we do and learn is geared toward prolonging life. Yet, where mental health is concerned, we have been woefully slow to talk to one another and to confront the issue head-on. Thankfully times are slowly changing but we all have a part to play. We have to start early with our children and allow them to express their feelings, free of stigma or fear. I have chosen to be totally honest about my experiences because I truly believe that by being open we can save lives.

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