Although conversations on mental health have been opening up and society has come along in its treatment of those with mental illness, there is still a long way to go in making meaningful change and breaking down the stigma attached to the topic.
Now, for this post, I am not going to give you a generic overview of stigma and how it’s damaging; instead, I’ve decided to make it personal. This was a really difficult post to write, as I talk about some dark and difficult areas of my illness that I don’t ever really talk about, and it ended up being quite triggering for me, especially as I have struggled quite badly with my mental health this week. But nonetheless, it is personal stories and opening up about the more difficult periods that help in the fight for mental health to be taken more seriously and for the stigma to end.
So what will now follow are specific times in my life, spanning from my childhood up until now, where I can now recognise I showed signs of mental ill health or was struggling. Each of these times, stigma ended up clouding my judgement of what was happening, so that it either stopped me from sharing my thoughts/feelings completely, or became the barrier to me seeking help.
Growing up, my daddy worked as a chauffeur, driving company clients around, often to and from airports at pretty unsociable hours. And this made me anxious. Really anxious. I kept picturing him ending up in a car crash, the police arriving at our doorstep informing us that he didn’t survive. Any new stories of crashes I heard on the radio would fill me with this overwhelming sense of dread, as I convinced myself over and over that he was definitely involved and again. I would even have really vivid and distressing nightmares. The worst one I remember was of my daddy being decapitated, as he ended up driving under a lorry, scraping the top of his car clean off. I would wake up in a panic every time, hyperventilating and in tears. I worked myself up into panics every time my mum was late home from picking my siblings up from school too. I automatically assumed the worst and would pace through the living room and dining room, heart hammering, breath quickening, just waiting for the phone call or knock at the door. I would only settle when I finally saw the car pulling into the drive. I obsessively worried about these things, so much and so often, I became consumed by the thought that I was going to lose my family in horrible accidents. But I kept all this to myself, because I was even more worried about the reaction this would get. I felt like I would be ridiculed for even thinking such exaggeration and nonsense, that it would be brushed off as silliness and over imagination, that people would think I was a complete whack job. I was so afraid of having my feelings dismissed, being laughed at and labelled a drama queen that I decided to just keep quiet about it all.
After the 9/11 and July 7 terrorist attacks, my mind was again running at a million miles a minute. I kept over-worrying about me and my loved ones being caught up in an attack. I kept picturing planes exploding above our heads, the debris picking us off one by one. Anytime I was on public transport, I panicked, thinking at any moment now, a bomb was going to go off. I would imagine scenarios where planes flew into my school, our village was bombed and terrorists stormed our house and took my family hostage. I still to this day, have panic attacks about terrorism. I was caught one evening, after a particularly overwhelming episode, crying in the bathroom (it was the only place for privacy in the house; I’m one of four and shared a room with my two sisters). When I opened up about what I was so worked up about, I was told I was being ridiculous and silly. Yes, they were probably right; Lower Beeding, a small village in the middle of nowhere, isn’t exactly a hot target for terrorist attacks, but you try reasoning with an over-anxious mind! I was just left feeling really embarrassed and like a bit of an idiot. I never dared express my worries after that.
My Grandad passed away when I was 10 years old and it was all pretty sudden. We’d always been close to my grandparents, so it hit me pretty hard and if I’m honest, even now, I don’t think I’ve fully dealt with it. A couple of months later, I had been thinking about him and was on my bed, sobbing pretty uncontrollably. When asked what the matter was, I was then confronted with ‘Really? You’re still getting upset about that?’. When I became upset in school on the first anniversary, I was told that I needed to get over it, it happened ages ago and anytime I felt myself welling up, it was met with ‘oh god, not again’. I was basically being told to man up and shut up; I was being too emotional, too sensitive. So I just bottled my feelings up. And when it came to 2015 and my Grandma was diagnosed with and subsequently passed away from cancer completely out of the blue, I never let on to anyone just how much I struggled to cope. I desperately needed help both throughout this period and the years after, but I said nothing. I feared people would think I was being weak yet again and I knew I couldn’t handle being shut down this time around.
During my adolescence, I experienced terrible lows and spells of anger and irritability. I would explode over the littlest things and end up dissolving into a flood of tears. It was all just written off though. I was a sensitive person. I was just a typical teenager going through puberty. Or it was joked about: ‘it’s clearly someone’s time of the month!’ So I always thought my mood swings were normal- clearly just part and parcel of being an overly sensitive woman!
This last part is the most difficult for me to talk about, as I still don’t feel completely ready to fully open up about it in detail. It’s important that I mention it briefly here though, so that I can properly explain my point.
I was bullied quite a bit during my school years, which affected my mood, my self-esteem, my self-confidence, my self-worth and I started thinking the same, and much worse, about myself. There just didn’t seem to be any escape from noise, not in school or in my own head, and I couldn’t take it anymore. These self-derogatory thoughts became so overwhelming that I decided I’d had enough and made an attempt on my own life. This happened on more than one occasion. I didn’t tell anyone.
After my Grandma passed away in 2015, I really, really struggled. We were really close and her death hit me really hard. I didn’t know how to cope or work through losing her, especially in the way we did and with how quickly it all happened. One of the ways I tried to deal with it, was to drink myself into a stupor. I went and got absolutely smashed every weekend, in an attempt to numb the pain and forget about it all for a while. The problem with this though, was that I never wanted to go home, because I never wanted the night to end, because then the day would come around and I would be hit with the reality all over again. When we eventually got home, I would always get very emotional and into an argument with my ex-partner. As I was already feeling extremely depressed on a daily basis, these arguments tipped me over the edge every time, as they left me feeling so isolated and alone. I felt so low about myself and so low about life, I couldn’t take feeling this way all the time anymore, so I took an overdose. I did this after five separate nights out. I didn’t tell anyone; my ex-partner was the only one who knew.
I never opened up about any of these attempts to anyone when they happened and I didn’t even try to seek any help. I brushed them off and justified them every time: I was just having a bad day, I was really emotional, I’m just going through a tough time right now, I was really drunk. I knew it wasn’t normal behaviour, but yet I still didn’t reach out. Why? ‘Suicide is the coward’s way out’, ‘Suicide is selfish’, ‘Suicide is just a way of attention-seeking’. I didn’t say anything because I was scared. I was scared of the reaction from my friends and family. Scared that they would be angry with me. Scared I would be judged as weak, selfish and attention-seeking. So I never reached out or sought help once, even though I had actually taken steps to end my own life.
Because of stigma, I felt like admitting I needed help, was admitting I was weak and a failure. This is why it took me years to just acknowledge that I was struggling with my mental health. Even after accepting this, it still took me months to pluck up the courage to seek professional help. I was worried the doctor wouldn’t take me seriously and would simply dismiss my thoughts and feelings, as had happened so often in the past. I was then worried about having to tell people. Those who are mentally ill are so often portrayed as mad, crazy, dangerous, psycho, I was so worried that was how my friends and family would think of me. I was worried they would end up treating me differently, seeing me as weak, fragile and unstable.
Although I have been really lucky and had really positive, supportive reactions from friends, family and medical professionals since being and open about my mental health, I know that this might not always be the case with everyone I meet. For example, I am currently not able to work due to my mental illness and have been out of work since being diagnosed last August. So when it finally comes round to applying for jobs, there will be a pretty massive gap in my employment history. If I’d gone away on a gap year, there wouldn’t be a problem, but taking a mental health break seems to be a red flag for employers. If I am honest with them about my mental illness, will the stigma attached to it affect my chances of a successful interview?
Stigma stopped me from seeking the help I clearly desperately needed and played a part in almost ending my life on several occasions. The worst part though, is that I am not alone in feeling like this. Many, if not all, of those who have experienced a mental illness, have gone through a similar thing. And there are probably still people out there, who are yet to be diagnosed, because the fear of stigmatisation is preventing them from reaching out for support.
Stigma is not only risking people’s mental wellbeing, it’s putting their lives at risk too. And this needs to stop. Now.