“You are a bloody strong woman”, something my counsellor said to me session after session and, for the last ten years, I have believed it wholeheartedly.
Growing up more than 50 years ago, I stood out. Dysfunctional single parent family; loyal but socially reclusive mother, boomerang, guilt-wracked father, in a tidy, middle class suburb. I was socially inept, anxiety-ridden, relationship averse. Teachers thought I was attention seeking. ‘Friends’ thought I was weird. There was something wrong with me. I learned to mask it through either risky or avoidant behaviours and I stumbled through because that’s what you did.
Wind forward 40 years or so, trying to deal with a full-time teaching job, single parenthood (of course), the recent loss of my mother and a teenager with a chronic condition.
The denial of my fragile mental health was devastating; my line manager belittled me in a staff meeting when I tried to ask for leeway, even GPs were dismissive when I made stumbling, inept and guilt-ridden attempts to explain. So I went on for years, until one day, I fell apart.
And that’s when I became a strong woman.
Not immediately, but with an understanding GP and the patience of a wonderful, person-centred counsellor. I was incredibly lucky. She and I immediately established a rapport based on absolute trust, a trust I couldn’t quite extend to close friends for fear of pushing them away or being judged. She listened; she allowed me to explore my perceived short-comings; and every session, she would always remind me of my strength.
For the first time in my life, traumas and anxieties were validated and in time, I had the intellectual tools to repel the insidious, invasive inner critic which had been leeching away my well-being for years. Most importantly, the twin mantles of guilt and failure lifted.
With that strength came the openness and outspokenness about my mental health journey. And through my transparency, I do believe others became more open and began their own healing.
Understanding mental health stigma
At my current school, mental health for staff as well as pupils is now high on the agenda of Senior Leadership and Governors. Our pupils have access to dedicated and caring staff who are trauma, attachment, nurture, CBT trained. Yet, however enlightened we believe we are, there is perhaps still the odd person in school who has raised a silent but disparaging eyebrow when a colleague has been off with stress. Maybe they would never acknowledge their reaction. That isn’t their fault. For many, an understanding of and a positive response to mental health is uncharted territory. They have no vocabulary, either conceptually or practically.
Denial of mental health issues is generational, no question. Had I presented as a child in my school today with those lived experiences and anxieties of half a century ago, things would have been very different. Denial remains institutional in the workplace, sometimes thinly disguised as ‘work ethic’. I believe denial to be cultural - it’s just not done to share mental health issues. The imperative to ‘soldier on regardless’ is sadly still entrenched, and that all adds to the sense of guilt and stalls the healing. Perhaps it’s the ‘martyr’ culture - I’m still going so why can’t they?
We need to keep sharing
Sharing and speaking out is what is going to effect change...eventually but inexorably. The more we speak openly, articulate our experiences, the better the education and understanding we can promote. We need to enable the vocabulary of change and the will to use it.
I still have Anxiety Disorder. I still have moments when it’s crippling. I probably always will. But I am a bloody strong woman. I realise that now. I always was.