Seeing as it is Mental Health Awareness Week, I thought I might tackle the subject head on with some of my own experiences of the internal workings and internecine battles of my brain. Considering the words that are to follow, I must warn those readers who are triggered by discussion of mental health, anxiety, depression and similar content that this post contains a lot of potentially triggering material, including frank discussion of traumatic experiences.
It's November, and I'm six weeks into my third, and what is supposed to be final year of University. I haven't slept properly in over a fortnight. My appetite is fading, weight dropping, motivation almost non-existent and the circles beneath my eyes are darkening beyond recognition. I'm spending much of the day in my room, most of it in bed doing very little. After a week of almost no sleep at all, I crumble under the pressure. I can't cope, and my mental ballast collapses. But this is no ordinary breakdown. There haven't been any life-changing circumstances in the very recent past; no break-ups, no bereavements in the family, no near-death experiences (this time). No really noticeable trauma has occurred. I have a group of wonderful friends and housemates, many of whom are more supportive than they will ever know. My family do their best and we all keep tabs on each other. And, bar the usual final year fears of the real-world and the unlikely prospects of post-graduate employment looming overhead like the hanging Sword of Damocles, I am not under any huge academic stress. So why was it then that this was happening to me? How did I wind up with my belt fixed at one end to a wall bracket in my room, and the other around my neck, unable to cope and ready to end my own life?
Many of my friends and family will be aware that over the years I've not always been the happiest of people. Those who remember me, in whatever light, from schooldays might recall my sporadic posting of various Facebook statuses lamenting my existence, how dreadful the world is and generally how rubbish I felt at points. Others still, whether once close, or still familiar, might recall hours spent up late on MSN Messenger and our phones, playing verbal tennis discussing the woes of our angst-ridden teenage lives and all the terrible ordeals which we were in the throes of and struggling with.
For a long time, many - myself included - thought this might be a 'phase'. Something I would grow out of. Certainly, in my early teenage years it certainly did come with the outward trappings of just that. A phase; studded belts, skinny jeans, a very questionable taste in music and a fringe that I reminisce over with equal fondness and embarrassed horror were all part of my out-of-school uniform. However, when I think back on this stage of my life, although the clothes and awful hairstyle have mostly proven themselves to be part of an aforementioned phase, unfortunately the mindset into which I was slowly spiralling downward, has not proved the same. I have, in fact been fighting a battle with myself and my mind for the best part of what is now almost six years.
Dissatisfied, uninterested and wholly lacking enthusiasm towards my education, and despairing for and anxious of my future, I became apathetic to them both. What seemed stereotypical 'teenage behaviour' was actually the beginnings of depression. I had little motivation and few aspirations bar getting out of my school uniform as soon as I could every day, the activities I had previously enjoyed gave me so little pleasure that I wondered whether I had really ever enjoyed them at all. All the symptoms were there, so why was no-one picking up on them? There is a clue to this in the name given to this very week. Mental Health Awareness. It's something that we all sort of know about, but still find a bit of a taboo topic. Everyone knows someone, or has heard of someone they vaguely know struggling, but it's not talked about. It's all hush-hush and brushed under the carpet. Sometimes it seems that unless you get sectioned, many people tend to think you're just being lazy, or worse, making it up.
One of the problems with depression and related mental health issues is that a lot of the time it does come across as little more than laziness, but the problem isn't that I am simply too lazy to get out of bed, or get dressed or leave the house. The problem is that I cannot bring myself to do so without being attacked by a thousand questions before even thinking about doing any of those things. The problem is that I often physically do not have the energy to do much more than the very little required to simply exist in an idle slump for days, sometimes weeks on end. In fact, some days, a good day is actually managing to get up at all.
This idea of laziness has to be tackled, as must the stigma attached to mental health issues in general. Given, it's not particularly fun to talk about being unwell. No-one likes talking about being sick, it in itself is often quite a depressing topic. This is made especially difficult when so many people actually know so little about it. What this doesn't do, however, is make it any less valid or serious. In fact, quite the opposite is true. According to figures from the Mental Health charity, Mind, 1 in 4 people suffer with mental health problems a year. That's a staggering amount, and yet it's still a no-go zone for many, shrugged off almost as much by those suffering from it, as well as those around them. Those who suffer from it are often the last to admit they have a problem. I myself am formerly of this crowd. I knew there was something wrong, I even had a psychotherapist found through my secondary school aged 15 to 16. Unfortunately, this in itself couldn't help win the fight for me alone, and after I left that school for pastures new in Sixth Form, I drifted away from any help whatsoever.
One of the biggest problems with tackling mental health is continuity. Indeed, having sought help a number of times I ended up persuading myself it was nothing and that I simply needed to tackle things by myself, and get on with it. Some friends suggested a more generally positive outlook, or exercise, or eating better and all number of other things. Some even warned me off medication. I too was sceptical, for fear of it changing who I was. This immediately highlights one of the problems with mental health. The idea that it is simply an outlook issue, rather than a health issue is not so much demeaning as ill-advised, and sometimes dangerous, no matter how good the intentions. This too, prevents people from seeking help. The fear of ostracising ourselves from people for calling attention to our ill health is palpable. No-one wants to admit they're sick if they don't look it; it can come across as attention-seeking, or hyperbolising our apparent situations. On the surface, to all intents and purposes and the outward perspective, I look at least reasonably fit and healthy. I'm not throwing up, I can walk, run (albeit not for long) and enjoy all the benefits of able-bodied healthy life.
A few weeks ago, I was overcome by suicidal thoughts and attempted to overdose. Thankfully, someone twigged something was up and about half an hour later two charming police officers came in, spoke to me for a little under an hour and then escorted me to hospital. It was a surreal experience. There we were, three people just talking calmly about politics and the police force on the way to St. George's where I would effectively be detained, unable to leave until I had had various psychiatric evaluations and was no longer deemed a threat to myself. When I walked into the hospital, I was my usual self trying to make light of the situation but also being as candid as possible. There wasn't any gaping wound, no visible scratches or unexplained symptoms, yet inside my mind there was an all-consuming train-wreck of thought which had overridden general sensibility and decided upon suicide.
Each sufferer's experience is different, and I am by no means painting myself as the spokesperson for all those with mental health difficulties. What I however stress, is that this can happen to anyone. My own depression, or personality disorder - the jury's still out on that one - most probably stems from a traumatic experience I underwent as a young child. My five year old brain was unable to process what had happened to me, and so decided to lock the memory away until it could be dealt with at a later stage. I then began to change into a very violently angry child. My mood could swing from childlike joy to destructive cantankerousness at a moment's notice. No-one ever understood why, because I hadn't told anyone what had happened to me. In addition to this, my family has a history of mental health disorders and problems. These two factors came together and left unfortunately handed me a rather poor lot. Yet there are countless other reasons for anxiety and depression related disorders. I am certain that my own descent into a worsening state of mind could have possibly been staved off, or even prevented had more people - myself included - been aware of the wide range of symptoms and behaviours associated. Education around the subject must be revisited improved greatly, and the stigma associated with psychiatric health must be destroyed as soon as possible.
We must do more. We have a duty not just of care towards those who do suffer with ill mental health, but also a duty to educate and inform everyone. The latest figures show that mental health admissions and issues are steadily increasing year by year, and it is young people in particular who are more and more at risk. We can no longer try to cover up these issues. We can no longer simply put things (or indeed people) away in the hope they will improve, or simply conceal them believing they cannot get better. Treatment and support is available. If we are all more aware, we can all help each other. Spotting the signs and approaching people about any potential changes or deterioration in their mental state, especially those we care about can make all the difference. Brushing things under the carpet helps no-one. Awareness, and a readiness to help will not only change lives, it could save them.