It’s that time of year again. The one week in the year when people turn their spotlight of attention to mental health, wellness and recovery. Unfortunately, for some people, that one week in the year is the only time they’ll have their voices heard. It’s a stigma within a stigma. For some, they may be aware that their friends have mental health issues, and rather than feel they can support each other, a fear sets in that their individual ‘burden’ will inconvenience someone else. That person may hide behind ‘I’m fine’ or ‘I’m doing okay’ out of fear of being perceived as negative.
Someone once told me I was negative. Mocked me on the internet, dubbed me ‘The Negative Girl’ before proceeding to spin a tale of his own battle he’d had with mental illness, then returning to mock me again. Now I don’t know about you, but anyone I know who has truly, really battled with mental illness would never do that to someone. A person fearing the judgement of others when detailing their battle with any sort of illness would not be so quick to turn around to pass judgement on someone else’s battle.
That stuck with me. I have no respect for this person – as they do not deserve it – but the old saying, ‘sticks and stones may break my bones’, really applies in cases of battles with mental illness. For a person with depression, their neuropathways literally are wired to see this in a different, dimmer light to everyone else. Everything has a shadow cast on it. And those shadows are laced with the fear of judgement. Fear that your friends may be dealing with too much themselves to be able to bear the burden of what you’re going through. Fear that someone will ask you ‘why?’ and when you cannot tell them why things are the way they are, that they will lose interest in you and your struggle.
Because that’s what it boils down to really – it’s a struggle. Every single day of it is a struggle. For those who find treatment for whatever they’re going through, it becomes even more of a struggle. For those who don’t find treatment – I can only imagine it’s more of a struggle again. I found myself in a position quite recently where I had exhausted all avenues, and I was told that, if I was ‘really that bad’ I should ‘go to A&E’. I cannot begin to fathom what would happen if I’d gone there. Waited around for 6 hours, perhaps, at the absolute end of my tether, only to be told to go home? The problem with healthcare in this country is that they expect you to wait. If you were bleeding profusely from some part of your body it’s seen as an emergency – it is seen for the life or death situation it truly is. Mental illness in this country is not seen in the same light.
The really scary part in all this is that, while I myself have access to private healthcare (or I will, until my 22nd birthday), hundreds upon hundreds of thousands of people do not have that. Some healthcare providers do not even cover stays in mental health hospitals. Some healthcare providers charge an excess for programmes people accessing private healthcare might attend, claiming that ‘it’s just not covered’. I imagine treatment for most physical illnesses are covered. It baffles me that mental illness is often forgotten in this. I am not lying when I say the week I spent in limbo with no help at all was terrifying. Getting an appointment before that, originally, with the public mental health sector took a month. A month of sitting and trying not to harm myself until I got help. Waiting for help is something no one with any sort of illness should have to face – and definitely not with something as debilitating as mental illness. It made me genuinely wonder how many people had faced the limbo of no help at all and had died by suicide – not from the illness itself, but from feeling let down and unsupported by the very people that are supposed to help. I will stress that it is not the individual people in the roles, but rather the system that is failing – something that to someone in the depths of whatever battle they’re facing can’t often see. It can feel cold and callous and as though no one really cares.
I think people who have only ever experienced mental wellness tend to overlook the fact that the brain is part of the body. Although a lot of mental illnesses can be treated through talking therapy and a carefully taught change in mindset, it still stands that the carved neuropathways are a biological factor in illness. That ‘anxiety’ does not mean a person does not want to do something or feels a little uncomfortable – it often means every single neuron in their body is screaming at the person to not do something because their body genuinely believes they are in danger. ‘Depression’ does not mean feeling a bit sad – it often means that their body feels empty, dead, like a great big void has opened up inside them that they can’t close. It often means that something as simple to everyone else as getting out of bed or having a shower or leaving the house feels the equivalent to climbing Everest. ‘Bipolar’ does not mean natural hormonal moodswings in a woman during her monthly cycle, or someone’s mood change when something angers them. It means that person experiences depression… and then for a time experiences extreme elation, if they’re lucky, or intense irritability and anger that fills their entire body. Their brain can feel extremely alive with electricity almost, and they may not be aware of it themselves. It can be so detrimental to their wellbeing.
‘Anorexia’, ‘bulimia’, ‘binge eating’, ‘OCD’, ‘ADHD’, ‘mood disorders’… anything else you can think of – it’s not all in a person’s head. Anything that affects the brain, affects the body too. It’s why it’s beyond frustrating to live in a country where mental illness sufferers, who themselves can see and feel the urgency of needing to be in a safe place, are lost in a shroud of invisibility. They alone feel the urgency of needing to be listened to. Of needing to receive genuine, proper help. It’s never too late – but on World Mental Health Day, it is good to get the word out on the types of services available to those who can’t afford private healthcare.
On World Mental Health Day, instead of offering a listening ear to people who in three weeks time you will not feel able to support or help – educate yourselves first. Visit Walk in My Shoes, Bodywhys. Keep the number for Samaritans and Aware in your phones. Find out what it really means to suffer with a mental illness, equip yourself with the means to start someone on the path to getting better, and offer support or support their decision to seek external support. For those ready to talk, it’s often a good sign. It often means it is not at crisis point, and they may benefit from help from services such as the ones Pieta House offer. Above anything else, I implore you to take it upon yourself to find out as much as you can today about things you may know nothing about, so that if a friend or relative comes to you ready to open up about their struggle, you are as equipped as you can be to actually help them. Do not mock anyone else’s struggle. Their struggle could be yours someday.
And as always – be kind to yourselves. Sometimes the hardest thing in the world to do is to say something nice to yourself. You would never say the awful things you say to yourself to someone else.