December 10, 2016

Jonathan Lee

I am delighted to have the opportunity to write this blog post for Time to Change. Sadly, I am qualified by experience in relation to mental health issues having lost my brother to suicide and having suffered from varying levels of depression and anxiety intermittently throughout my adult life.

Until I lost my brother, the thing that I always found difficult was the admission that something was wrong. Society isn’t prepared for mental health issues and it is largely seen as a dark taboo that we shouldn’t speak about or admit to for fear of being admitted to some leafy Victorian institution where we walk around in clockwise circles all day. Every day.

My third novel, A Tiny Feeling of Fear, tackles mental health head on. Andrew, the lead character, has made a decision that he has to be honest about his feelings of despair and depression or they will literally swallow him up. He is worried that he can no longer contain the dark thoughts that circle and swoop around his head. In one chapter of the book, at a moment where his anxiety threatens to overpower him, he telephones into the office where he works:

“Good morning, you’re through to reception, how may I help you?”

I put on my croakiest, drowsiest, most fatigued voice. “Hi, Jo. It’s Andrew.”

“God, you sound awful. Are you okay?”

“Not really. Is Nick there?”

“One minute.”

[Hold music.]

“Hi, Andrew. It’s Nick.”

“Hi, Nick.” I pause breathlessly for effect.

“God, you sound terrible.”

“Yeah, I’m not so good.”

“Cold?”

I cough. “Yeah, just so bunged up. And headache.”

“You not coming in today, then?”

I cough again. “No.”

“Okay, well, let me know how you get on.”

“I will.”

“Get well soon, Andrew.”

“Thanks.”

He dreams of a world where people are honest about their mental health issues. A world where people share their feelings openly, which in turn has the effect of making those who are suffering feel more included. Not so alone. He dreams of the same telephone call instead playing out like this:

“Good morning, you’re through to reception, how may I help you?”

 “Hi, Jo. It’s Andrew.”

“Oh, hi, Andrew. You okay?”

“Not really, to be honest.” My voice cracks. “Woke up feeling really, really panicky today.”

“Oh no. I hate it when that happens. I was the same last week.”

“Were you?” (It’s not really a question, more a show of solidarity.) “Nightmare, isn’t it? Is Nick there?”

“Yeah, sure. It’ll pass soon, Andrew. You take care.”

[Hold music.]

“Hi, Andrew. It’s Nick.”

“Hi, Nick. Sorry, I’m not going to be in today.”

“Oh, right. Everything okay?”

“I’ve just woken up feeling really panicky. It’s taken me ages to catch my breath to call you.”

“Right. I can’t say I know how you feel, because I don’t, but my wife and daughter suffer terribly from anxiety.”

“Do they?”

“Yeah, sadly – it’s a nightmare at times.” He pauses as if he’s thinking. “Must be awful. Listen, see how you feel tomorrow and give me ring then, will you?”

“I will. Thanks.”

“Take care, Andrew.”

And this is the position that we, as a society, need to get to. We should no longer have to pretend to have a cold or a sprained ankle or a migraine or the flu on the days that we are suffering the most. We shouldn’t have to introduce a common illness to our boss as the reason we can’t make work. Mental health issues affect one in four people. By definition therefore, such issues are a common illness. We should be able to be frank without fear of retribution. We needn’t go into detail, just be honest. We certainly shouldn’t fear for our jobs should our bosses get the slightest hint that we may suffer from anxiety or depression.

Put simply, in this day and age, we should be able to telephone into work and tell the truth. Generally, in relation to mental health issues, society induces us to conceal our deepest thoughts.

Not to let people know anything is wrong.

Not to stand out from the crowd.

To smile and bear it.

To lie.

And if we can change this, then mental health issues will become commonly accepted. And ultimately the stigma will be removed. And lives will be saved.

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