It's "time to talk" about mental health
In support of Time to Talk Day 2019, we asked four very special women to share their mental health experiences to help make mental health a less taboo subject. Here’s what they had to say…
We hear a lot about ‘mental health’ these days. We’re bombarded with news headlines about how statistics show our mental health as a nation is worsening. But, what is it really like to be diagnosed with a mental health condition and do you ever get better?
We’ve listened to a group of four women aged between 30 and 40 years old, who are battling the two most common mental health conditions in the UK – anxiety and depression – as well as a lesser known personality disorder, to give them time to talk about their mental health.
Our contributors volunteered to share their experiences with us, which they saw as an essential outlet for helping others to understand the nature of mental health conditions, and helping themselves to open up to the situations they find most difficult.
“I feel it's very important to discuss any form of mental health issues, and to not be afraid to talk to people or even be embarrassed. Maybe speaking out about it will help others to do so too. I want to show people I'm not ashamed of what I'm struggling with in my day to day life.” - Suzie
“I want others to understand it's ok to not be ok.” - Hayley
“Unless we all open up and make this an illness that is recognised and treated seriously, people will continue to suffer in silence.” - Sarah
“I do think it is important to talk about mental health. We can start to break down the stigma and allow it to become an everyday conversation. If people are educated more, they may seek help for themselves or be in a position to recognise symptoms and help someone else who might need it.” – Rebecca*
Our contributors have all experienced issues with anxiety and depression and have lived with their mental health issues on and off for many years. Some had no idea what had caused their condition, whereas others were able to identify what some of the influencing factors may have been.
“I was diagnosed with anxiety nearly two years ago, although I have been suffering with it much longer – probably around four years. Really not sure why I have it to be honest, or why it started.” - Suzie
“In 2007, I went from fine one day to very, very ill with depression the next - I was put on suicide watch. I was running three jobs, attending university and it all got on top of me and I crashed.” - Hayley
“I have suffered from depression on and off since age 14 – I’m now 37. I function quite highly in public but behind closed doors I face a real war with my emotions. I have developed anxiety recently which I’m now having help with. As a teenager, I experienced my parents divorcing and my dad’s alcoholism. I got into smoking cannabis when I moved out at 17 and lived with a violent partner…” - Sarah
“I have been suffering with anxiety and depression for most of my life. I first began to really feel like there was something wrong with me around the age of 12-13. I never felt comfortable in my own skin, and didn’t feel as though I belonged or fitted in anywhere. When I left for University, I struggled with severe depression and anxiety. In 2016, I had a mental breakdown and eventually was diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder, with traits of Avoidant Personality Disorder.” – Rebecca
The dark reality of poor mental health
As teenagers struggling with emotional distress, Sarah and Rebecca were driven to self-harm as a way of dealing with overwhelming feelings and thoughts. Sarah told us that self-harm gave her a feeling of immediate release, but these actions soon escalated to a violent cry for help with suicidal thoughts.
“I began self-harming... It started off as just scratches to my arms and restricting my food. Eventually, each time I got upset I reached for something to cut my arms or legs with. The next major incident was when I pushed a glass into my throat - I didn’t want to be here. I didn’t see a way to be happy and felt a burden to everyone around me. My life was spiralling.”
It’s thought as many as 13% of teenagers aged 11-16 may purposely hurt themselves in similar ways to Sarah, and the number of youngsters attending hospital due to self-harm increases year-on-year in the UK. Worryingly, the UK has the highest rate of self-harm in Europe.(1)
When telling us their mental health stories, our contributors explained how they came to be formally diagnosed with their mental health condition, and how their family and doctors reacted to the symptoms and feelings they conveyed. The initial response that Sarah received when opening up about her mental health was shocking.
“We went to the GP who organised an appointment with a psychiatrist who said my behaviour was a cry for attention - ‘just hormones’, and that if I was serious I would have probably attempted suicide. Several years later, when I shoved a glass into my throat, my mum took me back to a GP, who suggested a holiday would help! So, off we went, my arms, legs and neck covered in cuts - not ideal for sunbathing! However, I did open up to my mum and when we returned from our break, I started counselling sessions and medication (Citalopram).”
Sarah’s diagnosis and initial treatment was twenty years ago and we hope that GPs and mental health practitioners are more understanding of young people in difficulty nowadays, but in reality this may not be the case. A recent report (2) has slated the NHS provision of services to young people with mental health problems, claiming that just 3 in 10 youngsters received the right treatment last year.
Doctors need more training in mental health
It seems even as an adult, Sarah has been unable to get the right help at the right time and has never really felt as though she was being adequately supported or understood by the health professionals in charge of her care and treatment.
“Some professionals are really good and know exactly how to speak to you and signpost you correctly. I have found therapists extremely hard to relate to, but I did find that a Living Without Abuse counsellor really ‘got’ me. I have a good GP now - other GPs have been dismissive at times and suggested I go home and try to manage without drugs.”
Research from Mind, the mental health charity, revealed that less than half of trainee GPs trained in mental health settings, despite 1 in 3 GP appointments involving a mental health component. (3)
Rebecca had similar issues with doctors for some time, and emphasised that she had to take charge of her own mental health treatment plan in order to get what she needed. It took a long time for her to receive a proper diagnosis, but since doing so, she has had long-term therapy tailored to her diagnosed mental health condition.
“I found a lot of my previous GP’s to be quite dismissive, prescribing medication without any further advice on how I should try to help myself. I have had to push for counselling, and finally received one-to-one counselling and therapy for the last 12 years on and off. After my breakdown a few years ago, I went back to a new doctor who was extremely thoughtful and compassionate. I really felt as though he listened to what I was saying. I was referred to Francis Dixon Lodge, a specialist Personality Disorder Clinic set up in Leicestershire. I have undergone weekly therapy for 18 months and am due to end my course in February which has been the most beneficial for me.” – Rebecca
Suzie had much more positive experiences when she sought help rather than trying non-medical or self-help interventions.
“I struggled to admit there was anything wrong so I tried every remedy I could before going to the doctors. I tried every herbal tablet I could research on the internet, and also went for therapy and followed the THRIVE programme. I found going to the GP helped the most. He identified the issue and put me on medication straight away. Tablets started working quickly. I just wish I had gone sooner.” - Suzie
Medication is the key to relief
All four women we spoke to found anti-depressant medication to be effective and necessary. Sarah and Hayley had used medication on and off for many years, finding it crucial in times of high stress and emotional turmoil.
“I’ve been on many different prescribed drugs over the years on and off, and currently take sertraline. Sometimes things happen like relationship breakdowns which have pushed me back to needing help but I try to stay as even as I can.” – Sarah
“Luckily with lots of support I was on the mend and my son arrived in 2008. I was taken off medication. My situation changed and life became hard again – I became a single parent, juggling work and dealing with a relationship breakdown, so I went back on antidepressants. With more help, support and lots of counselling over 3 years I came off medication for good.” - Hayley
Our four ladies were in the midst of managing their mental health conditions, which was a constant challenge and interestingly, none of them claimed to feel that they were fully ‘recovered’ from their problems. They are aware of the need to keep on top of their mental health issues, and live daily life as best they can with self-help techniques and taking care of themselves.
“I’ve done a lot of reading about mental health. I try to exercise regularly and eat well. I try to keep myself busy and distracted by helping others. Since having children I have tried my hardest to manage my mental health as I want them to grow up with a healthy attitude towards it. I regret the days where I’m snappy and sad and only just meeting their basic needs but I mostly keep the black cloud to myself.” - Sarah
“I've had lots of low parts and life continues to have ups and downs but I'm in a much better place now! I have a loving home with 3 beautiful boys, a great partner and family who all support me. I have bad days still, in fact I have bad weeks and months, but I know the signs and I deal with it better. I believe in self-help. I know when I'm getting low, so I try to think positive, use gratitude daily, use apps…I started running 3 years ago, being outside, with friends and talking about life helps lots.” - Hayley
Like Hayley, Suzie emphasised the importance of sharing her anxiety with those closest to her.
“Too many people suffer in silence and are afraid of what friends and family will say. Family will always support you, and if your friends don't, they are not your real friends. I'm very open to anyone about my anxiety, even people I don't know too well. Mainly because I don't want them to think I'm being weird when I'm having a panic attack.”
Others, like Rebecca for example, are more cautious about sharing their condition with other people.
“My immediate family are aware of my condition, as are my closest friends, but I don’t discuss it with anyone outside of this. I am more open about my depression and anxiety, but there are a lot of negative connotations associated with Borderline Personality Disorder and I worry about the detrimental effect of telling someone who doesn’t know me very well.”
Similarly, Sarah mostly keeps her mental health condition to herself.
“There are a few select friends that I talk to but most of my circle including my family are probably unaware of how I struggle at times. I’m the smiler, the coper and I especially don’t like to burden my family.”
Taking the time to talk is essential
Despite some of our contributors being quite private about their own feelings, when asked what advice they would give to others who may have a mental health condition, they all said speaking out and sharing problems was essential. We collated all their comments into this list of tips:
Don't be afraid to go to the doctors
“Go to your doctor and talk openly about all your symptoms and feelings; regardless of how unimportant you feel they are.” – Rebecca
Don't be afraid to take medication
“Someone told me, what do you do when you have a headache? You take a tablet. It's the same thing.” – Suzie
“If you are offered any form of counselling – try it. There is nothing to lose by trying a new coping technique and potentially so much to gain.” – Rebecca
Be honest about your feelings
“I think it's important to say when you’re not feeling great, it helps you acknowledge something isn't going right and look for better ways or different ways.” – Hayley
Connect with others
“There are so many online tools to help nowadays; support networks, information and charities that specialise in mental health. Reach out. Sometimes it helps just to speak to someone who has gone through some of the same things you are.” – Rebecca
Take time to talk
“Talking has been the best thing for me to do, and feel it's helped me no end. People shouldn't be ashamed.” – Hayley.
Our conversations made it glaringly obvious that as a society, we need to do more to encourage open discussion about mental health conditions. It is extremely hard for people experiencing anxiety, depression, borderline personality disorder, or any other mental health condition, to ask for help from those closest to them and medical professionals. Getting help also does not appear to be easy, despite the growing awareness of mental health conditions, and herein lies a trap that many people may fall into – a cycle of wanting help, asking for help, not getting the right help and then continuing to soldier on. Perhaps if we take more time to talk about mental health, those who have problems themselves will feel more comfortable and confident in sharing what it’s like to live with a mental health condition.
We would like to sincerely thank the contributors to our blog for their honesty and valuable insights.
If you feel you are struggling with mental health issues, or know someone who is, contact the mental health charities Mind or Time to Change. The Samaritans also provides a 24/7 helpline for anybody who is going through a difficult time – call 116 123 from any phone, at any time.
(1.) Horrocks, J., House, A. & Owens, D. (2002). Attendances in the accident and emergency department following self-harm; a descriptive study.
(2.) Public Accounts Committee (2019). ‘Mental health services for children and young people’
(3.) 5 London Strategic Clinical Network for Mental Health (2014). A commissioner’s guide to primary care mental health www.slcsn.nhs.uk in Mind, ‘Better equipped, better care: Improving mental health training for GPs and practice nurses’.
* Individual’s name has been changed to protect identity
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