Open conversations made me realise I was far from alone — #MHAW17

This post was written for my 7 day mental health blog takeover, in support of #MHAW17.

I, like many others around the world, believe passionately in raising awareness for all aspects of mental illness. Having already seen the stigma reduced significantly over my lifetime, the battle for greater research, better support and treatment options for millions of sufferers and their loved ones unfortunately still rages on. It's a no-brainer that i'd support Mental Health Awareness Week, and this year I wanted to increase my contribution by publishing a blog post on the subject for 7 consecutive days.

In this first post I'd like to discuss the deep-rooted hesitation many sufferers possess when it comes to disclosing their mental illness to those around them, and the false notion that we are alone in our plight.

When I was 18 years old, I discharged myself from my psychiatrist. She was, i'm afraid there is no other way of putting it, a complete bitch. After spending the entirety of my teenage years hopping out of cars and into hospitals and run-down office blocks, i'd reached my limit. I was a messed up kid, I conceded, and that's just how it was. 

Three years previously, I was full of hope for the future. Each week I saw a kind, gentle clinical psychologist on the NHS who offered me a combination of CBT, EMDR and narrative therapy. My problems were complex however, and we didn't have time to reach a concrete diagnosis before I turned 17 and became ineligible for the same treatment. Off I was carted to the young adult service — a halfway-house for teenagers who were too old for the children's service but not yet ready to become an adult outpatient. What a contrast.

I transitioned from being supported and encouraged to being torn into and discouraged. My new therapist made me feel ashamed to have a mental illness. Her constant topics of conversation, even when I was making progress, were how much I was struggling, and how restricted a life I had compared to my peers. Her constant predictions of how difficult she envisaged life being for me in the future turned therapy into a fearful place that I had become too weary to put up with any longer. Turning 18 was depressing to me at the time due to the years I felt i'd missed out on through illness, but it also had its perks. Being an adult meant I was in charge of myself and my own decisions, and my first move was to get the hell out of that place.

By 19, approaching my first paid job, memories of therapy were distant. I no longer felt the need for professional help, and aimed to live my life for once in the hope that the distraction would cure me. Essentially, I aimed to pretend that everything was fine. It worked for a while, until I became completely overwhelmed with the task of keeping up with those I considered to be 'normal'. 

I felt more detached from society than ever, and unable to communicate with anyone who truly understood. There I was, alongside colleagues who functioned like regular adults whilst I was scared even of answering the phone to customers, and I could barely eat a bite of my food at lunchtime. I felt like a pathetic failure, moments away from the sack, when I heard an important conversation take place in the office.

A lady who I considered to be confident and care-free — a skilled employee and competent multi-tasker — began telling those sitting at our cluster of desks that she was having a difficult time coping with the stress of her job. She admitted that she had been feeling as though she wasn't capable of carrying out her role anymore, and juggling her personal and professional lives had become overwhelming. She felt as though she was seen as weak by her manager since she had informed her that she had been feeling depressed. She began to cry, and another colleague comforted her, revealing that she often felt under similar pressure. They did not judge, look down upon or dismiss her. The behaviour of management was unfortunate, but through sharing her story she was able to work more closely with the team of colleagues around her, knowing that they had each other's backs in a human sense separate to workplace politics.

I wished I had been as brave to be open and truthful with my colleagues as she was. I learnt subsequently that being shameless about your mental illness is the best way to be.

Shortly after that experience, though I didn't yet feel ready to open up to those same colleagues, I began sharing songs and blog posts about my ever-evolving mental illness online. Over the next three years I received countless messages from other sufferers and their loved ones, and received contact from friends who admitted to me for the first time that they were also suffering. People I previously viewed as invincible became human, and as a result I realised that however jumbled up my head is, I certainly have company. It helped me to adopt a different attitude to mental health — it's an important factor in everyone's life, and that's exactly why you should never shy away from discussing it. You gain absolutely nothing from suffering in silence, but through open discussions there is a possibility that you could help each other. 

All it takes is one brave person to share their story, and the result may just be that another no longer feels alone. The more we talk to each other, the less of a taboo mental illness becomes and the less reluctant sufferers are to seek help. Don't be afraid to open up to those you trust, those closest to you. Those you share a significant amount of your time with. Remember, you are 1 in 4. Let's not stay quiet any longer.