As a mother of two young sons of course I often wonder if they carry the gene that has blighted my family. My condition, known as schizoaffective disorder, is partly genetic and also the result of environmental/social factors beyond my control. From a young age a shadow of melancholy followed me and in the end it got right into the heart of my mind where it continues to reside. When I look at my carefree happy boys I wonder how I can protect their nascent minds and educate them about mental health. I have already begun this mental health education with my eldest starting from the age of two. Is that too young? Maybe - but when you find yourself alone with two small children and no mental health support, the truth is the only thing that you can hold onto.
A postcard from my 1000 postcard series that I am creating with my two sons, they do the squiggles, choose the Lego figures and the pen does the rest. Making art with them helps cement the maternal/filial bond and cut through the mental mud that clogs up my brain. (pen and ink on postcard, 2016)
This is why I want mental health to be taught to young people around the world, not just in the UK, because I see this as a global crisis. In 2015 I was in Asia: Burma, Bangladesh and Malaysia (in part organised by the British Council), speaking about mental health, reading from my book Schizophrenics Can Be Good Mothers Too and trying to raise awareness. I recall being met by silence during the Q&A, but afterwards people privately came up to me and began to open up with their own mental health stories. It still remains a massive taboo. This has not deterred me in my campaign, but I see that I face huge obstacles.
I believe that basic mental health needs to be taught to everyone. For example a new mother in a village in Bangladesh might be suffering from psychosis, rather than be vilified and ostracised as a 'witch' or someone possessed by devils, instead the local community can be taught how important it is for the mother to sleep, be monitored and support her in taking care of her new-born so that she can recover. Perhaps it is even worse in middle class communities who are economically solvent and apparently have all the opportunities, what do they have to be depressed about, right? Some people can be very dismissive of mental health problems, I have faced my fair share of sceptics, but irrespective of what people say when someone is suffering they can be in hell.
Recently I noticed a tweet from a girl that I follow. She's a student and I saw that she had tweeted over 8000 times. Let's call her Sophie (not her real name). Her flurry of tweets and the desperation of the some of them resonated profoundly. She was tweeting her daily torment in minute detail. Most of her tweets went unanswered and/or unnoticed. I then thought of my own first year at the LSE, I was 19 and recovering from two sexual assaults. I was lost, I didn't want to be there, I latched onto the first person I saw and he ended up being my husband. I count myself lucky that I met him, because he certainly has remained a steadfast rock, while I am the sea crashing around him, unpredictable most days - although there are moments of calm. Counselling services were available and yet I was ashamed of the way I was feeling, the suicidal ideation came in waves, but I thought I must endure it stoically and remain resolutely silent. Help was there at my finger tips, potentially I could have received it for four years and instead I let my mental health deteriorate for at least a decade before I finally sought some help.
Detail from postcard, squiggles were created by my 2-year-old son, the dots the result of what my brain does post psychosis (pen and ink on postcard 2016)
And what of this girl? Well I wrote to her, sent her a poem inspired by her tweets, she said it was just what she needed. I told her to speak to someone, to see a counsellor at her university, to call a helpline. I don't know if she has heeded any of my advice, but I do not like to see another young person suffer.
Why is she not getting the help she needs? Are there others like her, in their prime, their whole future ahead of them struggling in the pit. Years can be lost stumbling about in the fog in your head. It's a waste of life. Reading her tweets made me fast-forward and think of my own boys as teenagers, what if the black dog started to stalk them? Would they listen to me? Would they read my book, which I wrote to give them the tools to navigate the complexities of the maze that is the mind?
All these questions, all this hope, all this needless suffering at the hands of a strange global affliction that is infecting the minds of so many.
I sometimes think that mental illness must exist for a reason. Life is a struggle for millions with their mental strength tested to the brink. Perhaps if we can survive these mental battles we can share what we have learnt to help others. At least this is how I have come to accept and perceive my own hot brain. Yes, perhaps I was meant to suffer to ameliorate the suffering of others, but at the same time I don't think it is right or acceptable that our young are being failed by the mental health services - and they are.
I can only hope that if we all do our bit to try to help that their mental pain will be alleviated a little. Of course we can hope that the government reverses its policy of cuts in mental health, but if that doesn't happen we can't allow people to drop into the pit, we all have a duty of care to our young to protect them in whatever way possible.
As for this girl, I am keeping an eye on her tweets, responding when I can, just so that she knows she's not alone in her struggle - and she's not alone there are many like her the world over.
Sanchita Islam is the author of Schizophrenics Can Be Good Mothers Too written under the pseudonym Q.S.Lam (Muswell Hill Press, 2015)