One of the hardest things I’ve ever done was try to explain my mental illness to my mother.
I’d been struggling for upwards of two years before I built up enough courage to tell her. After moving to university, I had one of the worst years in terms of my mental health; after my self-harming became out of control and I found myself regularly thinking about taking my own life, I decided that I needed to seek help. I referred myself to the counselling service at my university and, at my first appointment there, I was advised to see my GP to look into perhaps starting a course of medication to help with my treatment.
My mother blamed herself for my illness
I couldn’t find the confidence to talk to my mother, so I instead wrote her a letter and posted it home. When she received it, she couldn’t stop crying for days. She phoned me a few days afterwards, because of course she had a few questions – but the conversation didn’t go the way I would have ideally liked. Instead of accepting that it was an illness that needed treatment just like any other condition, she blamed the stress of my education and even asked if anything she did wrong whilst I was growing up had contributed. Of course, this was only due to a lack of understanding, but it made me feel so much worse because I realised that – as I’d feared - she was blaming herself.
If I could have that conversation with my mother again, I’d do things very differently
If I could have that conversation again, I’d do things very differently. I’d explain that mental illness is usually caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors, and is essentially a chemical imbalance in the brain – not something that can be solely blamed on another person. I’d explain that, if anything, my education acted as a welcome distraction. I’d explain that, even though she didn’t realise that I was struggling at an earlier point, this was not her fault because I dedicated a lot of my time into hiding my low moods and covering any evidence of self harm. And if I could ask her to respond differently, I’d have suggested that she do some research on the symptoms and causes of depression before talking to me about it or making any assumptions. I would have asked that she perhaps read some tips on supporting those with mental health problems, and directed her to a website or a publication that provided such information. I’d have asked her to not blame herself, because although that’s a natural reaction for a mother to have, it didn’t help the situation and in fact made me reluctant to discuss it with her again.
The ability to be supportive isn't only a consequence of going through mental health problems
I hope that soon, with the help of the Time to Change campaign, everyone who has no experience of mental illness will be able to offer their support and guidance to loved ones who do. I have some incredible friends who have literally saved my life on several occasions; not all of them have firsthand experience of mental illness, which proves that the ability to be supportive or empathetic isn’t only a consequence of going through it. There is a lot of stigma surrounding mental health conditions and particularly psychiatric medications, but it’s important that people realise that mental illness is very common. 1 in 4 people experience difficulties with their mental health at some stage in their life, so I believe that it’s time to get educated on the topic. Hopefully as a result, everyone will be well-equipped to react in an appropriate, supportive and constructive way when a loved one opens up to them about their struggles.