December 5, 2013

HarrietHarriet is on the steering group of the Growing Voices project. Growing Voices is a Time to Change grant funded project that works alongside local artists and craftsmen to create a large movable tree themed shelter. The tree will act as a canopy under which volunteers can chat to the public at festivals and country shows. Using this creative idea, the Growing Voices project will engage people from rural communities in conversation about mental health.

Harriet's story

I was diagnosed with depression when I was a teenager and it was many years before I was diagnosed with bi-polar and borderline personality disorder (BPD). When I got this diagnosis I’d never heard of BPD and struggled to find any information about it. I’m at a stage where I manage my illness well, despite this I have experienced mental health stigma in all aspects of my life.

The first time I experienced negative discrimination was at work

The first time I experienced negative discrimination was at work. At first my employer wasn’t very understanding about my need for sick leave, they treated as if I was just taking time off. I wasn’t paid and they put a lot of pressure on me to come back. When I did come back there was very little support. Later on when I was seeking work I had been told not to mention my illness because employers often discriminate against people with mental illness despite equality policies. In the interview I was asked about my time off work and periods between jobs so I was honest and told them it was due to mental illness. They seemed concerned that it would affect my performance in this job. They also asked difficult and personal questions, such as “What triggered the illness?”, that I struggled to answer as I have had it all my life. This really knocked my confidence.

I have also experienced stigma from people I know who suddenly kept a distance when they heard I had a mental illness. This surprised me as I wondered why they weren’t more supportive and made me think there was something wrong with me, when actually it was their problem, not mine.

I joined Growing Voices because I wanted to use my skills

I joined this project because I was off work and I didn’t feel able to work but I wanted to do something to use my skills. I also I thought it was important to be involved in something and meet other people who had similar experiences and I wanted to do something positive towards changing stigma.

When I was first diagnosed it was something I never spoke about because no one else did. I found in the workplace this was a particular problem and that’s something I’m personally passionate about changing. I love the Time to Change advert that focuses on this problem. I think it’s important to make sure people are well informed about mental health issues in order to change their attitudes.

I am a member of the steering group for the project and I plan to go to events supporting other volunteers and I will be helping with their training. I’ve been very involved in the art and craft aspect of the project, there’s been a nice balance between taking in a lot of information in the training and having fun and getting creative with the arts.

The project gives people the opportunity to share their stories

Although we haven’t done any events yet, I think the project is already making a difference by bringing lots of different people together and giving them the opportunity to share their stories, some of whom have never done that before. These stories will also be shared with the public at events, I’m really happy that this is happening because people don’t hear these kind of stories very often. I’m happy to go out and meet people at events knowing that some of them will be surprised to find out I have a mental illness.

What have I gained from the project? First of all being involved in something positive, also finding out from others how they’ve experienced stigma and how big a problem it is. It’s been great to meet so many new people. I have shared my experience and now feel more confident to talk about it with others I’m not so familiar with. I feel I’ve gained skills from the training that will help me raise awareness when I’m out talking to the public. It's good to feel I can take positive action on an issue that has affected me and so many other people. I’ve had a lot of fun doing the creative activities and it’s good to have the opportunity to do something I would not otherwise have done.

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Too many people are made to feel ashamed. By sharing your story, you can help spread knowledge and perspective about mental illness that could change the way people think about it.