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Why can't we talk about mental health?
Posted by lizzie.coopersmith
7th Mar 2014

Our mental wellbeing is something that we take for granted. We do not ever imagine that one day, for whatever reason, we might find ourselves not mentally healthy. Maintaining our mental wellbeing is not something we devote time to, like we do our physical wellbeing. We understand itís important to keep active and healthy; we know we need to do exercise regularly, and eat well, and most of us make a conscious effort to do these things. The importance of keeping healthy is drilled into us by our parents, schools, and by mediums such as television. There is a growing number of media campaigns promoting fitness and healthy eating, and even an increasing number of sexual health campaigns emerging. But, the question I am compelled to ask is: where are the campaigns emphasising the importance of looking after our mental health?

Most people seem to be under the impression that mental illness is rare; that it is something that affects only disadvantaged people, or those who have had severe trauma in their lives. But, sadly, this is far from true. In fact, I did some research and discovered that 1 in 4 people will experience some kind of mental health problem in the course of a year. So, if thereís four people in your family, thatís one family member. If youíve got, say, 300 friends on Facebook, then thatís 75 people out of those 300 who will experience a mental health problem. That is not a small number of people. And this just goes to show that mental illness is not uncommon, and that it can affect anyone, no matter what their circumstances are.

Iím an example of this.

Growing up, Iíve been very lucky. I come from a loving and stable family, I live in a nice area, I went to good schools, and there have been no obviously traumatic events in my life. Iíve never been abused, Iíve never taken drugs, admittedly I didnít have the best time at my first secondary school but I wasnít what you would call Ďbulliedí, and Iíve always had a good group of friends around me. In short, thereís no reason that I should be affected by mental illness, right?

Wrong. The truth is that my mental health has not been stable for several years, and in the last few months that fact has becoming increasingly apparent. In the past, Iíve self-harmed, and had a complex relationship with food and exercise that entailed periods of bulimia, and exercising obsessively. During my A-Levels, I worked myself into the ground, and I failed to see that I was severely damaging my mental wellbeing. Even after the exams were long over, I still felt numb. As much as I wanted to enjoy my last summer before university, I couldnít. Even when I was surrounded by my best friends, I felt distanced from them, and more alone than ever. When I saw some of my favourite bands at festivals and gigs, the music just washed over me. I couldnít feel it. I couldnít connect with it. That in itself was devastating, because music is something I absolutely love; itís always been something that Iíve been able to find comfort in. Like some people have religion, Iíd always had music.

So, I spent my whole summer feeling, well, not entirely Ďthereí, and by the time it got to Fresherís Week, I was drained, upset, disappointed with Ďwastingí my summer, and absolutely beside myself with nervousness. I had always known that university would be difficult for me, because firstly, I love my home comforts, and secondly, I donít drink. At all. (Yes, shock horror, call the news team, teetotal university students do exist. Hello.). However, I didnít think I would find university quite as hard as I actually did. I had, quite frankly, a horrendous time settling in, and I would be lying if I said that I am completely settled now. The weeks went by, and whilst I was hearing news of my friends (scattered at different universities across the country) all settling in and having a great time, my university life, and indeed my own mental health, was continually going drastically downhill.

In November last year, I took a turn for the worst. I didnít know what was happening to me. I would look in the mirror and nearly scream because I didnít recognise my own face, my entire body felt like lead; when I moved it was like wading through treacle, I was permanently exhausted even though I was sleeping more than 12 hours a day, I completely lost the ability to make even the most trivial of decisions, and I was losing touch with what was real Ė I was trapped in my own nightmare. I had to leave university before the semester was over, and was unsure whether I would ever return, because the whole environment was eating away at me.

I was diagnosed with depression, and severe anxiety bordering on psychotic illness; the anxiety was so severe that it had gone past the point of actually making me feel Ďanxiousí. I didnít feel anxious at all, and at first I refused to accept the diagnosis because it didnít make any sense. But what I came to understand was that anxiety affects people in a whole host of different ways. For me, it was producing a phenomenon called Ďdepersonalisationí, which was the main thing troubling me. This is a very difficult concept to explain, but basically, I felt as if I did not have a Ďselfí. Every time I spoke, it wasnít me speaking Ė the voice was alien. Every time I moved, it wasnít me moving; it wasnít me controlling it. I would sit for hours just staring at my hands and wondering who on earth they belonged to. My sense of Ďselfí, the whole anchor of my being, had utterly vanished, and I canít even begin to explain how alarming and disturbing that was. (I use the past tense rather optimistically here. I still have these feelings but have learned better how to live with them).

During all this time, I havenít been able to stop questioning why attitudes towards mental and physical illness are so vastly different. If you had a broken leg, for example, people wouldnít hesitate to ask you about it Ė theyíd ask you how it happened, how long youíll have the cast for, if youíre in any pain currently. But it isnít the same for mental illness. We donít talk about it, because we donít know how to. Itís taboo; itís a topic thatís avoided at all costs. Itís like some secret world that you only know about if youíve experienced it first hand Ė so secret, in fact, that I didnít even know until late last year that there was mental illness in my own family. Just because mental illness is not something you can see, it doesnít mean that it doesnít exist in the real world, or that people (sufferers or not) should feel that they canít talk about it. Suffering in silence makes the problem worse Ė if you bottle up all your feelings and emotions, they gnaw away at you, and one day those feelings will explode in a way that might cause harm to you or others around you. We shouldnít feel that we have to disguise our problems, or that we have to keep our treatment a secret. Why, for instance, is having therapy for a mental illness any different to having physio for a broken leg? Why is it such a secret affair? Why should we feel ashamed of it?

Iíve come to the conclusion that the reason we donít talk about mental illness is because we donít understand it, and we fear it. Itís unpredictable, and sometimes impossible to categorise. The boundaries between different conditions are blurry, and itís difficult to tell where one ends and another one begins. Anxiety and depression, for example, often occur simultaneously, such as in my case, and sometimes you canít tell which is the primary condition. Some symptoms of the two conditions overlap, so how can you tell which is which? In addition, the same mental illness can affect two people very differently. For example, one person with depression might overeat; another might severely under eat. In terms of recovery, mental illness is not straightforward, which is another reason why we fear it and avoid talking about it. Itís not like when you get an infection, you get prescribed some antibiotics and itís gone within ten days. With mental illness, you have good days and bad days. For instance, sometimes Iíll see my therapist, and to be honest I donít even know why Iím there, because Iíll be feeling perfectly fine. But other days, Iíll wake up, and really wish I hadnít. Iíll open the fridge, and burst into tears. Iíll see my therapist and sit there in stony silence, wishing that the ground would open up and swallow me whole. Iím unpredictable; mental illness is unpredictable, and people donít know how to deal with unpredictability, so they avoid it altogether.

If people had a better understanding of mental illness, they wouldnít fear it so much, and it wouldnít be such a taboo. We could talk about mental health in the same way we do other aspects of health. Just as schools educate in how to keep physically healthy, in terms of being active and eating healthily, they should educate children in how to guard their mental wellbeing, and inform them what mental illness actually is and how it affects people. And from a young age, too, because the amount of children and younger people affected by mental illness is, sadly, only increasing. After all, if 1 in 4 people are going to be affected by mental illness, then itís of paramount importance that we begin to understand it and feel comfortable talking about it. Someone you know is probably suffering from some form of mental problem right now, but the chances are that youíve got no idea, because nobody knows where to begin talking about it; nobody knows what to say.

This needs to change.

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