If I told you I had a mental illness, how would that make you feel? Would you feel sympathy and look at me kindly? Or would you feel embarrassed and look for the nearest exit? What if I said that last year I suffered a breakdown and I found myself standing on the edge of a bridge, contemplating my life and ready to check-out early? Would you ask if I'm feeling better now or would you be unsure what to say and find it easier to ignore me? Not knowing how someone will react is one of the main reasons people who suffer from mental illness feel unable to speak out. This unease is costing lives, it nearly cost my life and it needs to change.
Until that night on the bridge, last November, my illness wasn't something I spoke about easily. I was first diagnosed with depression when I was fourteen, so I had twenty years of experience hiding my condition from those around me. I didn't want my friends to think of me differently and I didn't want my family to worry, so I often kept my thoughts to myself. That night, things changed forever. It was as though a fuse blew in my brain. I was taken to hospital and things were too big to hide anymore. Since that night, my life has been about finding the corners of the jigsaw, piecing things back together and taking things one day at a time.
After years of being fairly in control of my condition, 2015 saw a marked deterioration. Coming out of a seven year relationship and having to find a new home eroded two of the main pillars that had been holding me together. My depression deepened and suicide became an increasingly intrusive thought. I felt helpless and when all hope was lost, I took a walk to a nearby bridge.
High above the capital, the light fading, I climbed onto the ledge. Below was the grey, ambivalent concrete road; opposite was the city: vast, beautiful and anonymous. If life was a film, this scene would have cut to black. I didn't jump, but I can't say I chose life either. The truth is, I remember little about the next few hours. Something in my brain must have decided to shutdown, to protect itself, as the next clear memory I have is of being in a hospital room with a thick, cell-like door. I remember seeing doctors, I remember feeling scared, I remember not being able to stop my legs from shaking, but the rest is out-of-focus. Medication and my parents got me through the days that followed and somehow a year later I am strong enough to write this.
Sharing the details of the most traumatic period of my life isn't easy. This isn't just because it's an acutely personal story and telling it means reliving it; but also because I'm talking about mental illness, something that continues to be shrouded by social stigma. Physical illnesses don't come with this baggage. If I was sharing a story about a battle with cancer, I would expect sympathy, not shame. If I was discussing how a car accident broke my body to pieces, but how I recovered, I would expect it to be something that inspired people.
The distinction that society has placed between mental and physical health needs to be erased. Suicide is the biggest single killer of men under 45: killing more than road accidents, heart disease or cancer. It is also the leading cause of death amongst women aged 20 to 34. To make matters worse, sixty per cent of people with a mental illness say that the discrimination they faced was as damaging as the symptoms of the illness itself. This stigma also acts as a barrier, preventing people who are suffering from seeking the help they need. Without support, many people do not make it through. Luckily, I survived and now I want to do what I can to help others find the support they deserve.
You can help too. If there's a colleague at work who hasn't seemed quite right recently, be the one to make the first move. Depression can be a lonely illness. Asking for help can feel impossible when your self-esteem is in tatters and your energy levels are in the red. Be the one to make the effort. Be the reason someone doesn't give up. And if it is you that is suffering, remember, a conversation is a two-way process. If we are to smash this taboo, those of us with mental health problems need to do our bit too. When we sweep our illnesses under the carpet, we simply perpetuate this standard. So tell the truth. Tell people your story. Unabashed openness is what we now need and I'm not hiding anymore.
Surviving that night in November was in many ways the start of my journey. I now want to do everything I can to help those who are too stuck in the mire to seek help themselves. Suicide is not the result of an incurable disease: it is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. We need to make it easier for people to find help without judgment, stigma, or shame. We can save so many lives, at so little cost, just by talking more openly. For the 6,233 people who killed themselves in the UK last year and cannot push for change, for those silenced by the stigma, I will speak out, I will give them a voice and I won't stop the conversation until we've ended this deadly taboo.
HuffPost UK is running a month-long focus around men to highlight the pressures they face around identity and to raise awareness of the epidemic of suicide. To address some of the issues at hand, Building Modern Men presents a snapshot of life for men, the difficulty in expressing emotion, the challenges of speaking out, as well as kick starting conversations around male body image, LGBT identity, male friendship and mental health.
To blog for Building Modern Men, email firstname.lastname@example.org. If you would like to read our features focused around men, click here
Useful websites and helplines:
- Samaritans offers a listening service which is open 24 hours a day, on 116 123 (UK and ROI - this number is FREE to call and will not appear on your phone bill.)