January 29, 2014

rohanAmongst the many profound quotes attributed to Mahatma Gandhi, you might perhaps not expect to find the rather straightforward musing which most of us hear at some point in our early lives: “If you don’t ask you don’t get.”

Now very few people would ask to experience mental illness, but it does not prevent 1 in 4 of us from doing so. What is rather more shocking, at least to those who have not lived with a mental health problem, is the large proportion of that 1 in 4 who never actually ask for help.

I decided I was on my own and never asked for help

I speak as someone who lived with a mental illness, Bipolar Disorder, for the best part of 15 years. I did ask for help at the age of 19, but at that point in time doctors didn’t take the time to see, friends not the time to care. So I decided I was on my own and never again asked for help, not at least until I lay in a hospital bed at the age of 32, having lived with manic depression for 13 years and having attempted to take my own life the previous night.

The mental health charity, Mind, helped me piece my life back together

However, times and attitudes are changing, of that I have no doubt whatsoever. In the days and months after that overdose in 2006, it was Mind, the mental health charity, who helped me to piece together the shattered pieces of my life, to the point now where I am a very happy individual, and active volunteer, fundraiser and advocate for them, and Time to Change therein.

I did not, for the first few years afterwards, speak to anyone about my mental illness other than those counselling me or very close family. After all, I had a new job, new colleagues and friends, so why risk it all by talking about having been mentally ill? Why be judged and stigmatised now when happy?

I received so many messages after blogging about my experience

I finally blogged about it in 2010, and the response surprised and lifted me. I received so many messages, literally from all corners of the globe. Two stuck with me for very different reasons.

The first was a message from a friend at University. I had shared a house with him at a time in my illness when I took the first of my two overdoses. He, along with the others in the house, had asked me to leave and the landlord to remove me from the contract. He was now mortified at what he had done, at the fact that he had not understood and asked why I had not told him.

He was offering me an olive branch and as a result I held out the same branch of friendship to many from my past

I wondered what more he needed than an attempt on my own life? However, I knew what he meant. I had never said the simple words, “I am suffering from a mental illness and really need your help.” To that point, I was just a bad apple, out of control, someone looking for attention, to be avoided. And this is why that message lifted me immensely. He was offering an olive branch, redemption so to speak, and whilst I never regret my mental illness, shaping as it does who I am today, I am always sorry for the impact it had on those around me. As a result, I held out the same branch of friendship to many from my past, and found that several returned it. Again, how could they have known at the time why I had behaved so irrationally, when I never told them?

A message from a stranger

The other message came from a complete stranger who had been directed to my post via Twitter. His daughter had attempted to take her life a month earlier; my words had offered him an element of comfort at a time when he was in torment as to why she would do this and why he did not know it would happen.

I realised I had a responsibility to share my story

This was the catalyst for the person that I now am. I realised in that split second that I had a responsibility to share my story and to show that even through the darkest moments, there was and is hope. If I could touch this gentleman, a total stranger, and if he could use my story to help him engage with his daughter suffering from depression, I could never again live in silence.

Amongst all of this is the very constant theme of talking. When we are living with mental illness, our instinct is to retreat to our own bubble. We assume the outside world can see our pain, but why should they? The reality, as Gandhi said, is that nobody will help us unless we ask for it.

What surprises us is that when we do speak out, people listen, and in increasing numbers they want to help. And actually, when locked inside a world of torment, just knowing that somebody wants to listen and wrap an arm around you is everything.

So that is my simple message. If you are living with a mental illness, PLEASE don’t live in silence. I have been where you are now, and those four walls around you cannot make a positive difference. Speak to a friend, let them know; you may think that they already do know and don’t care, but they need to hear it from you.

All we need is to know that someone cares

On the flip side, if you know someone who is clearly living in the pain of depression or a related mental illness, just make a point of simply asking, “how are you?” Like you or me, all they need to know is that someone cares, and whilst many will still need medication of sorts depending on their condition, just the surety of your friendship will make their world a better place.

It’s never too late to start a conversation; it’s time to talk about mental health.

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