I first experienced mental health problems at age nine, but I didn’t really know what was happening. My parents just thought I was scared of everything and that I was a nervous little girl. At around the age of 14 I went to see a young person’s counsellor because my anxiety had got worse. I’d got to the point where I couldn’t sleep alone any more – I had to share a room with my sister.
It wasn’t until university that I got a formal diagnosis of depression. At the time I didn’t tell anyone because I was embarrassed. Anyone that knew me would never guess there was anything wrong because I was so good at hiding it. On the outside I was outgoing and friendly – but on the inside it was a very different story.
It’s taken me a long time to feel comfortable talking to people about my experience – I’m 28 now, and I’ve only just told my best friend about my experience of depression and anxiety. Even though there are more people talking about mental health these days, I’m still afraid of people judging me. Also, coming from an African Caribbean background, people have this expectation that I’ll be a strong, confident woman, which I am. But I also have a mental health problem, and for some people those two things can’t exist at the same time.
I’m getting more confident speaking out about my mental health: I decided to film different people with mental health problems talking about their story, including myself. It was screened at a cinema, and some of my colleagues saw it. Since then some of them have come up to me at work and shared their own experiences of it. My work has been supportive and given me time to go and speak about mental health in schools. I know that not everyone is so lucky.
But there are some people, like my family, I’m still not comfortable talking to. My dad has had difficulty understanding, it’s not in a nasty way; he just doesn’t ‘get it’. I do try to explain but in the end I don’t want to feel like a burden. If I keep talking about how I feel, I sense people losing patience with me – they don’t know that I can’t just snap out of it. If I could, I would!
I think part of this ignorance is down to the fact we aren’t always educated about mental health in school, and because many people base their understanding on TV programmes and media coverage. Portrayals and documentaries on TV always show someone at their worst, when they’re really at rock bottom. I feel like you never see anyone like me, who does cope day-to-day and has a job and socialises – basically someone who leads a normal life but happens to have a mental health problem.
We all need to do a better job of opening up to mental health - of showing people that it comes in different shapes and sizes, that there is no one stereotype that fits every person with a mental health problem. And we need to extend patience and understanding to people with mental health problems, not expecting that they will get better straight away but listening and accepting without judgement.
Follow Katherine on Twitter at @katwhittam