I've been a Time to Change Champion for a number of years now but it's only very recently I have joined with the movement. I would be lying if I told you this involvement has been easy. But I hope, my struggles make things better for others like me who are living with a mental illness.
When it comes to the need to talk about our mental health, we seem to put all of the responsibility in the court of the person who is already struggling. Sure, nobody can read minds, and people can’t expect specific help without asking for it. But mental health problems can make it harder to talk and ask for help in the first place. The responsibility of reaching out for help has to be matched with our shared responsibility to look out for each other - to provide safe spaces to talk, to listen, and to offer caring responses.
For years I didn’t speak about my mental health issues. They began to aﬀect me seriously when I was about 14 years old. School became challenging, I experienced bouts of paralysing depression, I developed a panic disorder and had real trouble with pretty much everything from work and relationships to food, sleep and self worth. I didn’t think I’d make it to 30. It just didn’t seem feasible.
People often say that a problem shared is a problem halved. Unfortunately I’ve learnt first hand that this is sometimes easier said than done when it comes to mental health. Having been diagnosed with Bipolar and Anxiety Disorder when I was 19, I spent 10 years never really talking about my mental health.
I have always been open about my diagnosis but when it came to really talking about it, discussing what it meant, how it felt and most importantly how to deal with it, that was a conversation that only ever happened internally.
In March 2018, a week before my 21st birthday, I was diagnosed with anxiety and depression. The doctor also told me I was in recovery from bulimia, but still showing signs of the behaviours associated with it.
Today, any of my friends would tell you that I am more than happy to talk about mental health openly and without shame. In fact, it's one of my favourite topics of conversation, and I think sometimes people might wish I would give it a rest. But I refuse to stop talking about it, because I know exactly how much impact a single conversation can have, and what it feels like to struggle alone in silence.
Starting a conversation about mental health can feel scary, but it doesn’t have to be. I’m sure there are many times we have all noticed that somebody doesn’t seem quite themselves but haven’t known how to approach them. There is no ‘one size fits all’ formula for a successful sharing session, but there are some things that you can do to make the process feel a little bit easier for you and the other people involved.
We all want to be good friends who are there for the people we care about. We might be worried about a mate, or want to check in with a colleague, but starting conversations that seem ‘deep’ or potentially emotional can be daunting.
Here are 5 tips for starting conversations about mental health that you might find helpful this Time to Talk Day.
I can’t remember when I first heard the word ‘depression’. I expect it was in the context of weather. And, growing up in the nineties, ‘that’s mental’ was an expression of disbelief. So, despite a parent having experienced multiple episodes of mental ill health, it just wasn’t something we talked about at home. Or indeed at school. Or anywhere. If my brothers or I complained of feeling sad, we were told, “Cheer up! It might never happen.”
A simple gesture, a simple ‘Hey, how are you?’ can make all the difference in someone’s day. Talking about how the world around you is closing in on you, how you feel alone, how it’s raining gasoline and you’re trying your hardest to resist the urge to set yourself on fire can be very very challenging to talk about especially if you’ve never had that space to talk about it before.
I remember the first conversation I had about mental health. I didn’t mean to: I must have been about 13, and I’d not been feeling myself for weeks, but I had no idea what was wrong with me. My school friend remarked that I had been quiet recently and didn’t seem myself. Back then I didn’t really know what mental health was and I certainly didn’t put a label on what I was feeling. Now in my late twenties, it’s a relief to put a label on it – and to be able to go online and read stories of others’ experiences.
Just before Christmas this year I began to have thoughts that weren't entirely to my liking. I put it down to the usual feelings I get around that time. They'll pass.
Christmas came around, the thoughts were getting worse. The nagging thought that something isn't right. I was deeply unhappy. It was only Christmas Day afternoon that I found myself at peace. As a family we were all enjoying time together.
I’m no stranger to talking really. In 2014 I went to my first Gamblers Anonymous session and poured my heart out to total strangers. Professionally I can stand in front of 500 people and do a half-hour presentation. I can walk into a pub and introduce myself to absolutely anybody - as long as I am not talking about my mental state.