Sunday, 22 May 2016

Mental Health Awareness Week

This week has been mental health awareness week, and, having had my own battles against mental ill-health this year, I didn't want to let it pass by unnoticed. This time last year, I couldn't speak about mental illness from personal experience, but now- unfortunately- I can, having been through an episode of depression almost a year ago, struggled with anxiety, and having most recently developed Post-Traumatic Stress.

There is still a stigma associated with mental illness, yet it affects so many people. It scares me that so many people don't get the help and support they desperately need, because they're scared of judgement.

I remember when I first had a major struggle with my mental health, just under a year ago. It was terrifying, but it was also terrifying to let people in. My depressive episode convinced me that people would think less of me if I let them see that I was falling apart.

It's simply not true.

The people who really care about you will do their best to support you through. That doesn't mean they'll always handle things perfectly, and mental health problems can cause some friction in relationships, but don't let the fear of people's reactions prevent you from getting the emotional support you need and deserve. People are more likely to be understanding of your behaviour if they know about your struggle.

I battled depression and anxiety for a few incredibly difficult months. My doctors and the other professionals around me were incredible throughout. They were very supportive and understanding, and I never once felt judged. When it's the first time it has affected you, it's easy to feel like it's some strange experience that's impossible for others to understand. I couldn't understand why I was suddenly crying so much about circumstances that hadn't changed, I couldn't understand why everything felt overwhelming to the extent that I struggled to get out of bed, so I thought no-one else would understand either. The truth is that doctors see these problems all the time. There are constantly so many people going through the same.

1 in 4 experience a mental health problem each year. 1 in 3 experience a mental health difficulty in their lifetime.

The other difficulty I want to mention is Post-Traumatic Stress. It affects 7-8% of people in their lifetime. It's not something that only affects people returning from war. It can happen to anyone.

Medical situations are not the most common cause, but they are certainly not an uncommon cause. It came as a shock to me when my symptoms started to emerge, because I didn't even consider that it was a possibility! In reality, some of my experiences were the perfect recipe, unfortunately (I was out of control of what was happening to me, pain was being inflicted, and I was fearing for my life..). What I was unaware of, was that any very difficult experience can cause it, and the affect can be accumulative. It's not 1 isolated event that caused my post-traumatic stress, it was lots of things that happened.

I'm not struggling to the same extent I was at one point, but it's still a daily battle. My anxiety level is still difficult. I don't get the full-blown 'flashbacks' that many people talk of with PTSD, because I have no way of visualising anything in my head (never have done)- thank goodness!! I do have intrusive memories though, and these strike me out the blue and can be really quite distressing. I'm also still a bit hyper-vigilant/jumpy. I find it difficult to be at ease- I have to constantly occupy my brain/distract myself. I find hospital environments enormously difficult, and there are television programmes I'd love to watch but don't feel mentally able to.

People seem to think people with mental health problems are at risk of being aggressive or out of control. Very few are. I'm at absolutely no risk of lashing out at anyone or being aggressive. My mental health is frightening for me, but there's no reason for anyone else to be frightened by it. PTSD is a normal reaction to an abnormally difficult life experience- everyone is potentially only 1 traumatic experience away from becoming a PTSD sufferer themself.

Mental health problems are hard to admit to, hard to seek help for, and hard to live with. But if you're struggling, please seek help! Please understand that struggling with mental health problems is nothing to be ashamed of. Please understand that if you open up to friends, most friends will stick by you and help you through- they'll think you're worth a bit of time and TLC even if you don't! Please, if you feel yourself slipping and things becoming overwhelming, don't isolate yourself, reach out and get some support in whatever form feels easiest to you- whether that's family, friends, doctors, a counsellor, a psychologist, a Facebook support group, an online forum, Samaritans etc etc. The NHS admittedly does sometimes fail people in terms of mental health, but there are so many ways to get support- if you need it, find one that feels 'safe' to you. If one avenue doesn't work out, try another. Just please don't give up on yourself.

To get over my depressive episode, I needed the input/support of my doctors, my parents, the few friends I let in, a university counsellor, antidepressants and time! But I did come out the other side, although it still lurks (mildly) on the side-lines, and I'm not immune from having down/dark days. I had the support of my neuropsychologist to understand and cope with my Post-Traumatic Stress, but I'll need further help from a professional here to come out the other side of that too. I'm sure I will though- time is a great healer, and psychologists help too! 

Mental health problems can seem so isolating and overwhelming, and it can seem like you're fighting it all alone, but, although you need to want to help yourself to get through it, and it's you who has to battle through and do things to help you cope and recover, overcoming it all can end up a team effort. Please reach out and accept help if you are struggling! I honestly can't emphasise that enough..

If you have a friend who you know is struggling, it can be hard to know what to do.. Encourage them to seek help, cut them some slack, be there for them- even if that's just silently listening (you don't have to solve their problems!), keep in touch (even if you just drop them very brief messages), don't treat them differently (still invite them to things, even if they repeatedly turn invites down), don't tell them to snap out of it/get over it or belittle their struggle, and if you've never struggled yourself- don't judge what you don't understand; you never know when the tables could turn- absolutely no-one is immune.

It's ridiculous how quiet everyone keeps mental health problems, given their prevalence. I can totally understand it though. I wrote a long post about my depression/anxiety in the past but took it down, as I felt too vulnerable. It's hard to put this information out there. But battling mental health difficulties is hard enough, without everyone's silence on the subject making you feel like you're the only one.

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