Not long ago, I went to the doctors to complain about this persistent pain I was having. It was like the cast of Stomp were performing a month-long marathon of shows in my pelvic region. To an audience of elephants who had daggers for feet. Who were dancing along with the show. Rapidly.
There were many other symptoms accompanying this pain, such as a severe lack of appetite, constant nausea and irregular bleeding from my nethers. (Sorry men, it happens, okay?)
However, when I went to the doctors, I was met with an interesting response.
"That's anxiety." He gurgled, whilst looking down his spindly nose at my notes in front of him.
I waited, as if he was about to continue his seemingly assured diagnosis of my irregular blood flow and complimenting pelvic agony as a complication of my anxiety disorder, but no. He just stared at me, triumphantly, as if he'd solved the Rubik's Cube in 10 seconds and it was time I go.
When I didn't leave, he asked me about the support I had in place and if I needed any more medication. I took my theatre space of a pelvis with me and left.
Now, I had been diagnosed with a bundle of mental health conditions when I finally presented to the GP and accepted that no, I'm really not okay. Like many people who struggle pre-diagnosis, I was in great denial about my mental health. It was only until I realised I hadn't left my room in 2 weeks for crying and my mum had to speak to me through the medium of a Camel puppet because she was at a loss of what to actually say to me, that I realised I needed help. (And obviously, I needed to get away from Smiley McCamel-Puppet).
I was diagnosed with severe depression and anxiety, and I came home with a handful of anti-depressants, beta-blockers and a death wish for the camel.
Now, my own personal story through anxiety and depression has been challenging, but I'm in a much better place now, thanks to amazing charities like Anxiety UK, therapy and the support of great people. And I was in that much better place when I went to the doctors about my constant pain and nausea.
So to hear that my anxiety was back with a bloody (literally) vengeance, I was upset and confused, but I took his word for it and went on my anxious way.
Two weeks later, I couldn't stand up. I was in agony. I went to a walk-in centre (and it's very cruel to call it that when you can't even stand up for the pain, let alone 'walk-in') and the doctor there determined that I had Pelvic Inflammatory Disease. And it needed to be treated STAT. It turns out, for every 10 women who contract PID, one of those women could become infertile. So really, it's pretty serious.
Sadly, my story isn't unique as we hear stories only too often of people going through similar experiences. In fact, it is so common now there is actually a name for this phenomena - "diagnostic overshadowing" - this is when a patient's mental health diagnosis overshadows any subsequent diagnosis they may receive, as GPs struggle to see beyond the mental health issue; attributing physical illness for mental health difficulties. As soon as you have that giant 'ANXIETY AND DEPRESSION' stamp on your medical record, it appears that some doctors may assume any physical ailments you have must be related to this. And of course it's very true that anxiety and depression can cause very physical reactions which often result in pain which can mimic many serious conditions. However, it still should not be the case that GPs at times automatically attribute any physical symptom to anxiety, as soon as your records bare that 'stamp'. And please do not think I am tarring all doctors with the same brush, here; the doctor at the walk-in clinic ignored my previous mental ailments and took my physical symptoms on board immediately.
Indeed, it has been reported by the BBC that "People in England who have had mental health problems are five times as likely to be admitted to hospital as an emergency as those who have not."
The author of the report, Holly Dorning said:
"This raises serious questions about how well their other health concerns are being managed. It is clear that if we continue to treat mental health in isolation, we will miss essential care needs for these patients."
The Shadow Minister for Mental Health, Luciana Berger MP, added that ministers must take "urgent action" to turn their rhetoric about parity of esteem into reality.
The World Mental Health Organisation have found people with severe mental disorders on average tend to die earlier than the general population. This is referred to as premature mortality. There is a 10-25 year life expectancy reduction in patients with severe mental disorders. The vast majority of these deaths are due to chronic physical medical conditions such as cardiovascular, respiratory and infectious diseases, diabetes and hypertension. Suicide is another important cause of death.
Luciana Berger continues: "Too often mental health is either neglected or treated in isolation from other physical conditions. This causes unnecessary and often preventable suffering for patients and further expense to the NHS."
"Parity of esteem" is one of those phrases I've learnt to shoe-horn into my vocabulary since working for Anxiety UK, but really, when we get down to it, it's about equality. It's always been about equality and it always will be. Mental health is just as important as physical health, but in the same vain, they shouldn't be treated in isolation, as we don't experience them in isolation. Yes, I am living with anxiety, but at the same time, I could also very well contract an inflammatory disease of my pelvis, as proven very successfully by my own body.
What I find interesting about the statistics provided by the World Mental Health Organisation, and in fact my own experiences with GPs over time, is that people that are living with anxiety and other mental health issues tend to actually know their bodies better than anyone else. They are attuned to their bodies, they understand when something isn't quite right and actually are able to recognise the difference between anxiety and other illnesses.
It's a simple equation really. And because I was terrible at maths, I've written it down.
The sooner we all start banishing the stigma around mental health, the sooner we can teach the world about it. The sooner we teach the world about it, the sooner it will be treated in an equal manner to physical health. The sooner mental health is treated in an equal manner to physical health, the sooner misdiagnoses will not occur and the sooner those with mental health issues get the correct physical care they need. In turn, Luciana Berger, the NHS will save money, as we, living with mental health, can have their physical health recognised from the outset before it reaches A&E and Emergency walk-ins.
So what can we do? Keep talking. Please, keep talking. Stay strong and keep fighting. This stigma won't last for long - the more hands we have to pull it down, the quicker we can get to the other side.
Anxiety UK can help you through, and give you the information and support you need. Please do get in touch with us if you need help. www.anxietyuk.org.uk