Are We Judging Mental Illness On Appearance?

16/12/2016 15:42

When you think of someone being mentally ill, what image comes to mind? The shuffling lady in town with a trolley full of empty carrier bags talking to herself? Or the mum who looks put together, has a clean and well-presented child and looks happy? I know which one I would have said before I, myself became mentally ill. I have always had a bit of a fling with mental illness. Spouts of depressions, severe anxiety, eating disorders and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder after the birth of my son. I can say I worked through a lot of my issues but they are still there in my medical files as marked reminders. So why is it they are then ignored?

I have made no secret about the lack of mental health care on offer to myself after my son was born and admitted to NICU. When we were discharged, I was left to my own devices with no offer of aftercare. Why was this? It is something I have pondered it for quite some time. Was it that when I saw the numerous consultants, health visitors, outreach team nurses I looked put together? That I was coping? That I had perfected, 'I am fine'? Would something more have been offered if they came in to find me on the floor in tears, with Elijah left crying in his Moses basket? Would I have triggered a risk factor then?

Something struck me the other day when I was at a routine Doctors appointment. I had to fill a form in, and part of it had a mental health history. I was honest, I listed my previous problems. Then without any questions, or asking me how I was now, I was immediately deemed as no mental health risk. I found this very odd, that yes I am well now but surely since I have suffered these problems in the past there is some small percentage of risk? How many people who have had previous problems, are left to relapse after slipping through the cracks?

I see mental illness care as an ongoing treatment. That yes, I am well for now but that's not to say I will be well now for the rest of my life. Did that Doctor look at me and think that she looks okay; I will tick the box? If I went in with messy hair, dirty clothes would they have taken the time to question me further? To at least deem if I was a risk rather than tick the box and hope for the best? That's the thing about mental illness, it cannot be judged on appearance. People have all sorts of problems without ever letting on. People can trick the world into thinking they are coping, and inside they are at rock bottom. I managed for around 12 months to fool most people into thinking I was alright when in fact I was suffering terribly from PTSD.

For all the world to see I was managing well with the hand that had been dealt to me. Elijah was clean, well dressed and happy. I looked like any new mum, tired and a bit dishevelled but okay. And, there lies the problem, sometimes we must look beyond the appearance we present to the world and dig a bit deeper. One in four people in the UK suffer from, or have suffered from a mental illness. That's one in four people you pass on the street, on the bus or the other parents you see when you drop your child off at nursery. Most of the time, you would never suspect a thing was wrong.

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It leads me to ask what does one need to do to get recognised for being mentally ill by a Doctor or medical professional? Do we need to look a complete mess to reflect our state of mind? You will not always want to go in and declare you think you are mentally ill, but sometimes it may just take patience and recognising signs, checking medical history. Is every medical professional now so overstretched that they are now ignoring previous risks? That having past mental health problems means nothing now that you look well?

There are so many of us that slip through the net, and sometimes it ends with someone losing their lives. This cannot be undone, so we need to do everything we can to prevent this from happening.

Surely, the first step in this is looking at previous markers and checking if everything is still okay? Not basing it on how the person currently looks? I carry the marks of my previous mental health issues, and so does my medical files, they are not there to be ignored. They need to be used to prevent future problems, to save lives, even when we may look like we have it together, chances are we do not.

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