How Mental Health Stigma Has Hurt Me

TRIGGER WARNING: REFERENCES TO SELF-HARM.

When I was 15, I was told by a family member that I was ‘over-sensitive’ because I had completely shut down whilst suffering with depression. My memory of that depressive period are incredibly hazy. When I try to think back to that point in my life all that really springs to mind is a cold, heavy feeling in my chest which takes me back to the days on end I spent sitting on my bed in a grey, miserable bubble. I remember glimpses of conversations I had with people at the time, such as when I was labelled ‘over-sensitive’, other than that it is a chunk of my life which remains shrouded in a cloud of fear I’m not really ready to make my way through just yet. However, the phrase ‘over-sensitive’ still hurts me to this day. It is an obvious example of someone buying into the stigma around mental health and trying to tell me that it was a character weakness of mine which was causing me to suffer, erasing the fact that depression is a serious illness.

I remember the first time I went to see a counsellor. I was scared stiff and my anxiety was the only thing my mind and body had space to feel. She asked me what I was worried about and I told her that I was scared she would think I was ‘pathetic’. I was 16 at the time and my self-esteem had been completely decimated by the narrative that suffering with your mental health makes you less of a person. I carried that weight around with me everyday as I avoided people’s eye contact at school and went to elaborate lengths to hide the fact that I was having to leave lessons early to go to counselling sessions. Stigma had taught me that my mental health was something to be ashamed about and a part of me to be hidden at all costs.

How many other people in the world have felt that way too?

Stigma around anxiety led me to skip school rather than tell my teacher that trying to make me do a presentation in front of the class was unacceptable when he knew that I was suffering at the time and could barely vocalise my thoughts in front of one person let alone a whole class. I thought that he would laugh it off or tell me that I would have to grow-up one day and make me do the presentation anyway. So, I missed a whole day of school because I knew how widespread the stigma around anxiety was (and still is).

I waited for years to tell anyone about my OCD because I thought that they would call me ‘crazy’ once I explained my rituals and intrusive thoughts. Stigma around OCD means that it is not talked about much in society other than in regards to people who clean obsessively when, in reality, the disorder is a lot more complex than that. So, I purposely did not mention these symptoms throughout all of the counselling, therapy and assessment sessions I had. If I had not been so worried about the labels which I thought people who attach to me due to my experiences, I could have gotten my OCD diagnosis so much earlier.

The stigma around mental health led me to suffer with self-harm alone. I was petrified about what people would think of me if they found out and I imagined scenarios in which people would call me an ‘attention seeker’ for what I was doing. So, quickly my habitual self-harming thrived in my silence as keeping it a secret meant that there was no way for anybody to intervene or convince me to stop. Reaching out for help seemed like an insurmountable task because of the judgements I knew people held about self-harm, such as that it is ‘a trend’ or ‘a cry for help’. When I finally did tell a family member, I got shouted out and had angry, accusatory words thrown at me which felt like a slap in the face when it had taken me so long to open-up.

The stigma around mental health is dangerous. These experiences I have documented above affect millions of people in varying ways across the world. The stigma ingrains in us a shame around talking about our mental health and makes us feel weak for struggling. People die every year because they cannot face telling people about what they are feeling – these are the real effects of stigma. It’s time that we all break down these barriers, no matter who you are or where you come from. Normalise conversations about mental health, make it a topic that you talk about often so that others will hear and begin to think that, if they needed to, they could talk about it too. Don’t let people suffer in silence, reach out and offer an understanding shoulder to cry on. Start the conversation and others will follow.

 

Resources for help with mental health:

Information & Support – Mind, the mental health charity

Samaritans

Contact – Childline (for under 18s)

Advertisements

RECOVERY

QUESTION: is the idea of ‘recovery’ helpful?

I have mixed feelings about recovery. Whether it is a help or a hindrance when so many people present it as an ideal which feels distant and unattainable to people who are in the midst of any type of illness. Sometimes when people reference recovery or being recovered, it just makes me feel more lost and hopeless than I was before. However, other times it can inspire me and give me the courage to keep moving forward with the comfort that others have weathered similar storms.

What is probably most frustrating to me about the idea of recovery is that it is so vague by virtue that it is subjective and hard to pin down in what it means to each of us individually. There is no specific route or journey that will lead you straight to recovery, the same steps and challenges do not work for anyone. Recovery does not look the same for everyone either, leaving me in the strange position of never being entirely certain of what I am aiming or working towards, meaning that my motivation begins to dwindle behind my uncertain mind.

Whenever counsellors or therapists have mentioned recovery to me I have felt myself recoil into my seat. Even the word seems so intimidating and far off in the distance. Also, I find the use of the term frustrating because who has the right or the knowledge to determine exactly what recovery is, what it looks like and what the time period for recovery should be? However much I want there to be a finish line I also do not know who I am without mental illness because I have let my mental health define me for so long. How do I separate myself from the characteristics of my illnesses and how will I know when this process is complete and I have recovered?

This post is a mess of rhetorical questions and abstract thoughts but what I have learnt from it is that I need to narrow down the specifics of what I am striving towards and what progress I will be satisfied with so that I could call myself recovered. Abstract and vague goals only lead to more frustration and motivation leaving me like a deflated balloon.

“I wanted to tell her that I was getting better, because that was supposed to be the narrative of illness: It was a hurdle you jumped over, or a battle you won. Illness is a story told in the past tense.” – ‘Turtles All The Way Down’ by John Green

AM I BROKEN?

My meeting with my student support worker went as per usual today.

It started off as usual with me updating her on my progress and what I was doing currently but then inevitably the conversation turned to my lack of socialising. She began questioning me on all of the clubs that are on offer at the University and the surrounding area and was enthusiastic about me going out and meeting people and forging a group of friends.

This is the point that I can never seem to convey to counsellors, therapists or support workers; having a group of friends does not appeal to me. I don’t enjoy organising trips out and meeting up with people to chat, I find it draining and daunting. I always feel that there is an invisible block between me and other people which stops me being able to fully immerse myself in conversation with them. Instead, I am constantly counting down the clock until a reasonable time that I can leave without being impolite. Also, I have nothing to talk about, no funny anecdotes to share unless they want to hear about the successive nights when I have stayed in my University room and chuckled to myself about inane youtube videos! I have a narrow set of interests that I find hard to talk about when someone asks me about them on the spot because I feel like I have to prove to them that I like whatever it is and then I just panic and fail to get any of my points across.

Does this all make me broken? My student support advisor has told me before that humans are sociable creatures, they are not meant to spend prolonged lengths of time on their own. So, does the fact that I have no desire for any relationships (whether romantic or otherwise) mean that I am a non-functioning human? Has a wire come loose somewhere in me and need re-connecting so that I spark back into animated life?

THIS MORNING

This morning I lay in bed feeling that my body was too weighed down to heave out of bed. The rational part of me was telling myself that I needed to get out of bed and get on with my day, I am already behind on Uni work. But the rest of me just wanted to stay cocooned inside my duvet for the rest of the day. I didn’t want the responsibility of sustaining myself, having to feed myself, having to hydrate myself. I wanted to pretend that the night could last all day – no new dramas, no challenges, just being suspended in that feeling of comfort all day.

I had an initial appointment for on-campus counselling yesterday. I have counselling and therapy before and each time I have to spill my guts to a new stranger so that I can get referred to another stranger to talk things through, I feel more drained and hopeless. I move from person to person and begin to think ‘what is the point?’. I fall into this black hole of thinking that I cannot be helped and that I can never verbalise my feelings properly anyway, so how can I ever get a counsellor or therapist to understand me?

I know that I am in a privileged position to even be close to get counselling, there are so many people across the world who are denied the treatment they need for a multitude of reasons. So, I’m sorry for moaning about it.

LOOKING AT THE POSITIVES…

I am aware that every blog post I have published on here has been overwhelmingly negative (I specialise in catastrophic thinking and ruminating on all the bad things in life). So today I am going to make a special effort to look at the positive things that have come my way over the last few days which have really brightened my days and given me hope for going forwards (I don’t want people reading this blog to think I am a Moaning Minnie basically:

1. I am so thankful for my Specialist Mentor at University

Meeting my Specialist Mentor this week has really renewed my vision of University life. Since I have come here I have fallen into the lonely and dark cycle of cynicism which meant that I thought this whole experience was doomed and no positive changes would happen in my life whilst I am here. However, the understanding and sympathy which my Specialist Mentor gave me when I met her has really spurred me on to try my best for a change whilst also not expecting too much of myself. She encouraged me that by setting small goals for myself I can over time both re-invent myself and my life, which for years now have both stagnated because of my ongoing struggles with mental health.

2. The idea of exercise

I used to be quite a sporty child; I liked cricket, swimming, running, rounders, hockey and running. However, at the age of 14 I essentially just shut down all my interests and retreated into myself. This was around the time that I was first encountering depression and I convinced myself that I was no good at these things and that I shouldn’t try and gradually I lost any interest or enthusiasm I had for these things. However, my Specialist Mentor really conveyed to me how much of a positive impact exercising could have on my mental health. It may give me more energy and also help me sleep as hopefully I will be physically tired by the end of the day. So, I am going to take-up running again. I am not going to set myself ridiculous goals and aim to run miles and miles when I am only just starting out again. I will be gentle with myself and hopefully I regain the enjoyment I once had for exercising in general.

3. The Wizarding World Loot Crate Box

For the first time ever, I received a Wizarding World Loot Crate Box this week. For those who do not know this is a subscription box which filled with all things Harry Potter and Fantastic Beasts related. The things which I received in this box has really helped to make my University room feel more homely as now I can look around and glance at little Harry Potter mementos which make me feel comforted and happy just like the Harry Potter books and films do.

4. The University Housekeeper

This may sound like an odd one but bear with me! Starting University has been quite a lonely experience for me as most people give-up or don’t bother talking to me once they realise that I am anxious. I give off these signs, such as not looking people in the eye and fidgeting, which make people think that I am not interested when really I am just REALLY nervous. However, the Housekeeper for my block (who cleans the communal kitchen once a week, our toilets once a month and is around for general maintenance) is such a nice man and persisted with taking an interest in my life when he really did not have to. He noticed my Harry Potter key ring and started talking to me about it (which instantly made me warm to him) and then he took a genuine interest in my studies and just generally made me feel happy rather than like a failure which is how I usually feel when I am around people.