You’ve probably heard; we’re in the midst of a mental health crisis. Post-lockdown depression, loneliness, anxiety, OCD and agoraphobia are high and our health services are nowhere near equipped to cope. Ask anyone who works in A&E and they will tell you that there has been an influx of patients suffering from frightening illnesses of the mind, from terrifying panic attacks to desperate suicide attempts. The situation is dire; it is very much a matter of life and death. And the mental health conversation that we have for years been told to view as the key to it all - on social media, in advertising, in books and television – is severely lacking. Is it okay to not be okay? Or is that sentiment a mere plaster on the gaping wound of some mental illnesses - for those for whom it is very much not okay to not be okay.
It’s World Mental Health Day on Sunday and once again I’m seeing messaging I can agree with and get behind while simultaneously finding it lacking. Social media has become a massive part of campaigning for obvious reasons – it is a place where we can freely and easily share our experiences. My concern, though, is that while we (and by ‘we’ I am referring to charity campaigners, mental health ambassadors, politicians, celebrities and every day social media users) concentrate on hashtags and inspirational quotes, we could be inadvertently minimising and white-washing the experience of mental illness for so many.
My hair started falling out when my mum was first diagnosed with cancer at the start of 2019. As if in sync with her own follicles, mine fell out in clumps in the shower. Sympathy hair loss perhaps. Probably just stress. But something shifted and I then became obsessed with touching my hair, the top of my head, feeling for thinning areas and tugging where it felt sore. I pulled one hair out, then another and another and another. Enjoying the feeling and reaching for my head unthinkingly or when nervous – a strangely calming tick that focused my mind and body. I have OCD and my normal compulsions are centred around cleanliness; I obsessively wash my hands and sanitise surfaces and am terrified of raw chicken. Now though, a new compulsion had taken hold.
I’ve been through worse when it comes to my mental health. When I was 16, I didn’t leave the house for months because my OCD made me fear the very air around me. I called my GP, who said that, while she could put me on the waiting list for therapy, it would take at least two years to get an appointment. There was nothing she could do – I’m already on the highest dose of medication I can be. I’m on my own with it, to see where it leads.
People who have the most serious mental health problems (and I don’t currently put myself in this category), such as schizophrenia, bipolar, psychosis, borderline personality disorder, or severe strands of panic, OCD, depression or anxiety are those who are suffering the most right now. The lack of qualified staff, the long wait times and the inability to tailor therapy to the person can be fatal. I would also venture that these people still suffer under the stigma we’ve been led to believe we are so successfully abolishing, who will struggle to hold down a job due to the erratic nature of their illness and feel isolated from their social circle because their behaviour can be unreliable and unsettling. We still don't have nearly enough understanding of, let alone the language to talk about, so many severe mental health conditions. The casualties of this lack of comprehension are of course those who experience them, leaving them more isolated, lonely and mistreated.
We are told to talk, to not to be ashamed, that we are not alone. Yes, let’s talk about it, but let’s not assume that everyone feels anxiety in the same way. We all experience mental illness differently to different degrees and with different consequences. I cannot hope to understand the unimaginable terror of a psychotic episode or a month of disassociation regularly endured by someone with Borderline Personality Disorder.
I don’t want to suggest that the aforementioned ‘conversation’ is all bad - it is not. The existing dialogue offers people the opportunity to share their experiences and has reduced a degree of stigma. It has been helpful to so many. But if we don't evolve the discussion, if we don't address where it fails and lacks depth and nuance, if we fail to hold politicians to account who say the right lines on their campaign trails and then fail to fund the NHS adequately, if we don't fight for an education system that teaches children about the broad spectrum of mental health conditions, we perpetuate the issue rather than making real change.
I can probably cope with my two-year wait for therapy, but so many others cannot. There are people who will fall through the cracks while we shout about ending stigma and talking about our problems. Talk, yes, but not just about our personal experience – let’s also talk about how to create change in a more practical and fundamental way. Lives and minds depend on it.
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