The words 'mental health' and 'stigma' have been bouncing around in the press an awful lot at the moment, which could be an indication that prejudices towards mental health issues are beginning to break down. Whilst this may improve the experiences of many sufferers, could involving lots of people in discussion be just as harmful? And is stigma the main reason sufferers aren't always inclined to inform their friends, colleagues and employers of what they're going through? Some argue that professional help is the only way to overcome these issues, but in my case talking about what I was going through to someone I didn't know was by no means on my agenda.
Pressure from schools to perform well, bullying on and offline and personal stress have all been identified as potential triggers for the development of mental health issues among adolescents. With supportive parents, high academic achievement and no history of bullying, I still wonder how and why I developed an eating disorder at the age of 14.
I told as few people as possible - to this day I have never even mentioned it to my grandparents. School had to be informed and one of my biggest fears was the idea of being gossiped about in the staff room. The prospect of discussing how I was feeling and what I was going through was far too overwhelming. Even the mention of anorexia at school would provoke a rush of emotion and bring tears to my eyes - I simply could not be involved in a discussion regarding mental health. Any discussion that did take place was all too often negative; my friends would manage to make jokes and find some degree of entertainment in the prospect of someone living with a mental health disorder; little did they know that it was at my expense and made stigma very prevalent.
I will hasten to add, however, that I don't necessarily feel that stigma was the main cause of my decision to remain quiet. I struggled to talk to my CAMHS counsellor and even declined the opportunity of talking to people in similar situations on the BEAT support website. I was the first person that I knew of to experience a mental health issue, a situation that feels astoundingly lonely and creates anxieties about the reactions you will receive, regardless of stigma. Being the first to do something is always daunting, especially when it's your reputation on the line.
With hindsight I feel that not revealing my struggles to everyone I knew allowed me to focus on dealing with recovery myself with little alteration to the rest of my life. Although I feel that people shouldn't shy away due to stigma, I personally wouldn't urge anyone to rush into talking about mental health issues with everyone they know, and to deal with the first stages of recovery in a way that's comfortable for them. Just because someone is reluctant to open up doesn't mean that stigma is always the cause as, with mental health being so complex, stigma might be the least of their worries. In my experience, recovery felt most possible with fewer people involved and so broadcasting my problems would have perhaps created more stress. It's all about finding the balance and what works best for each individual.
Whilst I'm not thankful for the stigma that was prevalent when I was diagnosed, it was another reason for keeping my issues quiet which I believe ultimately helped me to recover. By no means do I believe that stigma is a positive thing, but opening up about anorexia and making friends and family aware of my issues (which is what is often suggested to beat the stigma) would in my case have been detrimental to my recovery. Talking brought up too many painful memories and I could only bear to share them with my mum in the security of my own home.
My attitude towards my experience has definitely changed - if it hadn't I wouldn't be writing this. I feel so much more comfortable discussing mental health and the prospect of my friends knowing about my experience with anorexia is no longer earth-shattering. Maybe it's because I've matured and have become distanced and desensitised to the emotional toll that discussion and openness took on me 5 years ago. Maybe it's because several people I know have since revealed their struggles with mental health and I feel less alone. Just maybe, it's because the stigma surrounding mental health is deteriorating a little bit more with every person who has opened up and started talking about the reality of these issues. So here I am, joining the ranks and sharing my experience, now that I am able to, to hopefully make one more small step in the right direction. But that's just it: a small step. We need to end the stigma, but for people in recovery, stigma might just be the tip of the iceberg.