The guy in the photo, yes, the one who’s smiling back at you looking like he has no cares in the world, that’s me. I was inspired to share this picture after reading an excellent blog which deeply connected with me, written by Lily and entitled ‘Losing friends due to a mental illness just doesn't seem fair to me’, where she highlights just how looks can be deceiving. If you don’t usually follow these blogs, or haven’t had a chance to read Lily’s, then I highly recommend taking the time.
Reading Lily’s blog post gave me the courage to tell my story. A story which I am very much still in the middle of. Behind that happy-go-lucky smile is a darkness that I have kept hidden from most. Looking back on my childhood and adolescence I can now see the signs that I didn’t understand. It was not until I reached university that I began to realise the full extent to which anxiety, and later depression, was shaping my life, but it was in my fourth year, when studying at Master’s level, that I had a full-scale breakdown. Ironically, I study Psychology, and contrary to popular belief, this doesn’t help when suffering from mental illness. The day this happened I thought I was done – I was through with University, through with the effort it took to get through every day, through with life. A then 22-year-old man who studied Psychology – how could he possibly suffer from mental health problems?
However, I was lucky, and still am, to have extremely supportive parents, without who I wouldn’t be where I am today – a final year Psychology PhD student. For me, I am learning to accept that I suffer from anxiety and depression and although this is a part of who I am, I am also learning that it doesn’t have to be me, or define who I am. I use the term learning, because that’s just it, you learn and grow. Anxiety isn’t something you can just switch off and forget about, you learn to cope with it. My daily life is still very much a rollercoaster, I can feel on top of the world one moment, and the slightest thing, which may seem insignificant to some, will knock me back. Some days are light and some are so dark they don’t bear thinking about. I am still on my recovery path; these things take time. I am learning to accept that I am not a bad person or a ‘loser’, and most importantly, I am not weak, and neither is anyone else who suffers with their mental health.
People often fail to realise that we all have mental health. Still, many don’t talk about it. It is, in fact, just as important as our physical health, if not more so. Mental health can cause physical illness.
I am now 26 and I still find it hard to discuss…partly because I am within this bubble myself, and partly because I can never be sure how other individuals will react. This itself is a massive obstacle to overcome as it only serves to induce yet further feelings of isolation. The longing to be normal and to fit in. I have also heard the classic lines…small words which can have a lasting and severe impact. “Man up”. “Grow up”. “Pull yourself together”. “Get over it”. Words that all indicate a very poor understanding of mental health, but leave you feeling more isolated, more alone, and, if possible, with less self-esteem than you had before. That you are the problem; but this is not true.
I am lucky to have such supportive parents, and one particular friend who has stood by me throughout, steering me in the right direction and not being afraid to let me talk. Sometimes I lash out, sometimes I get angry, but usually these are linked to the fear of being alone, and these people understand that, for which I am forever grateful. They understand that the last thing I ever want to do is cause upset or hurt, and that the thought of doing so is cataclysmic to me.
Being able to talk openly is a blessing. It is not always easy or possible but is one of the only things that will help end the stigma around mental health, and inevitably make the road to recovery a little easier. Very few people know my story, and yes, this is just a small portion of it. For me it was a big step in recovery to talk so publicly, but I hope I can inspire others like Lily inspired me.
Remember, the smallest words and actions can make the biggest difference – both positive and negative. Be kind, open and honest. Help end the stigma surrounding mental health.