Mental health stigma is rife- I should know, I’ve spent a year working on a mental health campaign, but never spoke out myself.
A year ago today, YMCA and the NHS launched the #IAMWHOLE campaign, to tackle mental health stigma by challenging harmful language and encourage young people to speak out and seek help.
You’d think that as someone who has been working on the campaign, talking about mental health should be second nature to me but for the last year, and longer, I I’ve hidden behind a vale.
I nearly wrote this blog in 2016 when we kicked off the campaign, but held back, for fear of showing weakness, to my friends, family or professionally. It’s always been important to me that I’m there for them, whenever they need me, and I don’t want that to ever stop. And like so many other people, I have feared that speaking out could hold back my career prospects.
But while World Mental Health Day was approaching and I was getting ready for #IAMWHOLE 2017, I’ve struggled to stand idly by as I feel like a hypocrite. So in an attempt to live up to the campaign I so wholeheartedly support and work on, I realised that now is the time for me to be more open and lay out my personal experience of mental health difficulties.
Just over two years ago my best friend passed away, something I’ve spoken quite openly about. Tom, or Moosey as we knew him, was a colleague of mine at Southend YMCA and for a couple of years my housemate. We became incredibly close and I looked up to him. For those that knew Tom, when he left us, we had a whole ripped out of our hearts.
Bereavement is a strange beast. I never felt so close to those around me while simultaneously feeling so very alone. Going back into work every day became more of a struggle, almost painful, as it became a constant reminder of memories Tom and I had shared together. I decided something had to change, so I found a new job with YMCA’s National Council, and as hard as it was to let go, I left my job at Southend YMCA.
In the months after he passed away I preoccupied my time with work, hobbies, socialising, and even ran the London Marathon in Tom’s memory, ploughing hours into physically pushing myself to the limits and fundraising huge amounts of cash with friends. But there was always one reoccurring theme – presenting myself as a busy, happy-go-lucky person to those around me. The reality is, and has been for a long time, a very different story.
To this day, I regularly find myself battling my own demons. Sometimes I really struggle. I’ve never spoken openly about it, I’ve never sought any kind of help and I’ve never expressed how it affects me. For the past couple of years I’ve just bottled things up and only occasionally shared small insights with the odd friend here and there.
It comes and goes in waves, and the majority of the time I really am my definition of ‘fine’.
But, then there are the infrequent storms that wash over me and take total control when I wallow in my own self-pity – that’s when my patience is nigh on non-existent. When articulating myself in any capacity seems impossible. When my creativity ceases to exist and my patience is short.
It can stop me from wanting to move in the mornings, it has led to panic attacks, bouts of anxiousness, holding me back and dictating how I spend my time – evenings spent procrastinating. And it can be dilapidating.
I feel so lucky that I have a compassionate group of close friends and a loving family, great colleagues and an extended network of people who I highly respect. There isn’t a huge amount of alone time that I get. But, sometimes despite being surrounded by people that mean the world to me, I couldn’t feel more alone. I could be on a train ride or in the middle of a night out, and I’ll be lost inside my own head, when an overwhelming sense of loneliness washes over me.
In the course of working on #IAMWHOLE people have shared their stories with us with the upmost honesty and when I presented the campaign at a recent YMCA young leaders conference, people came to me after to tell me their experiences. I admired them and I’ve been motivated by what they have said to in turn share some of my story.
So on World Mental Health Day 2017 I want to encourage you to speak out. No one should ever have to hold in their struggles for fear of other people’s reactions or perceptions, especially when the self-stigma can be bad enough. Everyone’s experiences are different, the way that everyone needs supporting is unique, and my difficulties are no more or less important than anyone else’s. It’s taking me years to speak up about my mental health difficulties, but if I’ve learned one thing, it’s that talking is the first step towards tackling the stigma.
So, stand up against the stigma and harmful language that stops people speaking out, and seeking help for so long, so, join the conversation on World Mental Health Day and beyond with #IAMWHOLE. Find out more at www.whole.org.uk.