An e-mail pinged into my inbox recently, alerting me to the fact that the week starting the 8th of May will be the Mental Health Foundation’s annual awareness week. This year the theme is Surviving Or Thriving — focusing on the difference between the two, and how a person might get from the former to the latter.
We seem to be drowning in mental health awareness events. Perhaps the best known is World Mental Health Day (10th of October this year), but Psychology Today provides a handy list of all of this year’s health awareness days and weeks. There are a lot.
Why do we need so many? Why so many opportunities to be open about mental health, to reach out about the very things that are sometimes the hardest memories to dredge up?
Because we haven’t got the message across yet. We haven’t shown enough people that it’s OK to ask for help, that it’s OK to admit that you’re not coping. We haven’t shown just how many of us there are.
We haven’t got the message across yet, and that means that we don’t get to be silent yet. I’ll start.
I spent most of my teens in the grip of severe clinical depression. I self-harmed, I suffered from an eating disorder, and my tenuous juggling of too many balls came to a crashing halt at the age of seventeen, when I had a nervous breakdown.
I am one of the lucky ones. Lucky, because my illness was diagnosed while a few parts of my life were still salvageable. Lucky, because the root cause of it is easily treatable. Lucky, because multiple tablets twice a day for the rest of my life is a small price to pay to have that life. Lucky, because I live in a country where I won’t be bankrupted in order to obtain those tablets. Not everybody with mental health issues is as lucky as I am, and I do my best to appreciate that fact every day.
Yet I have been left with one thing I cannot hide, no matter how hard I try — the sudden curtailment of my education, at a time when most young people showing a reasonable amount of potential would be preparing for university. I have no university degree, nor A levels (USA folks, read ‘no high school diploma’), and yet I have spent most of my working life alongside people who have both.
And yes, I have been asked about it at every single job interview I have ever attended. And no, I have never told the truth. I have never told the truth because I know what the reaction is going to be. I would never get a job. Instead, I respond with some soft soap about being hospitalised with a severe illness, and let my interviewers draw their own conclusions. (Nobody pries, I have learned, so long as I leave as many possibilities open as I can.)
This needs to change. We need to end the stigma around mental health, and we do that by speaking out. Survivors need to speak out because we are awesome. We walked through fire and we came out the other side, and that’s incredible. Only by talking about our experiences can we begin to create a safe culture for those who are still walking through the fire. That which is continually swept out of sight can only remain taboo.
Not long after my recovery, I found myself attempting to support a friend through his own bout of depression. Utterly out of my depth, I sought the counsel of another friend — herself a survivor — and asked her what I should do. ‘Be his light,’ she advised. ‘You don’t need to do anything other than that. You show him that there is life on the other side of mental illness. Be his light, and one day he will be the light for somebody else.’
Lighthouses don’t go running all over an island looking for boats to save; they just stand there shining — Anne Lamott.
To those who have walked through the fire and come out of the other side: we need to speak out. I know it’s hard, and maybe it’s not the right time for you just yet, and that’s OK. God knows there are plenty of people I wouldn’t dare mention my own struggles to, but I’m going to try to do better. There are enough of us that we can’t be ignored. Tell your story wherever and whenever you can; I’m going to tell mine. We are awesome.
And if you are still walking through the fire — you are awesome, too. No matter what has happened, you are still here. There is light on the other side, and if you need help finding it, don’t be afraid to reach out. You are not alone. I for one am right here, rooting for you.