The Sound Of The Silence

I find it absolutely bizarre when I hear about people refusing to believe that mental health problems are a real issue, and not just a name for a teenage, dark fringed fan of My Chemical Romance. I don’t mean to say that all 15 year old ‘emos’ believe they have mental health problems, nor do I mean to say that none of them do. I’m just baffled by the proportion of people who will assume that if, and only if, you fit this stereotype will you be bound to suffer from mental health issues.

To me it’s almost as strange as people who’ve never stumbled across mental illness in themselves, or their friends. I’ve suffered from depression on some level previously. But thanks to being in a friendship group that’s very open with their feelings, I knew that I was far from being alone. I’d guesstimate that coming up to 50% of close friends I know have suffered from some form of mental health issue at some point in their lives, ranging from bipolar disorder and depression, to anorexia and anxiety, to someone getting committed into a psychiatric unit at one stage as they’d become delusional.

I refuse to believe that I act as some sort of magnet for people with mental health issues. And the stats hasten to agree with this. Did you know 1 in 4 people will suffer from some kind of mental health issue over the course of a year? Not even their life – a year! And I think people not realising that ‘being depressed’ or whatever doesn’t have to be a permanent lifelong state is perhaps half the reason why people are skeptical of it. If you see someone claim to be depressed a few months later seem happy as Larry, then I believe people are prone to writing off the depressed phase as an over reaction.

I’m currently pretty happy with my life. I’m working well, I have a good friendship circle, a relationship that’s still in the happy honeymoon period, and as a whole, I’m really enjoying uni life. However, if you’d have talked to me a few years ago you would have got a completely different impression. You’d have seen me crying at frequent intervals for absolutely no discernable reason that you could make out from the situation, or even that I could tell you. Half the time I had nothing to attribute my tears to, other than an encompassing feeling of unhappiness. You’d have noticed I’d lost a decent amount of weight, and that I claimed to feel nauseous when I was faced by my concerned parents with meals. I’d have been a lot quieter, a lot less confident, and a lot less engaged by anything we were supposedly doing together. Hell, a lot of the time my close friends spent with me at that time was spent in absolute silence because I had nothing to say. You might have noticed, should you have for whatever reason been allowed to see them, that I had fresh scars stretched around my thighs that made me flinch when I leant against something. My extended family expressed concerns to my parents that they thought I becoming a drug addict. In reality I was just incredibly unhappy.

It didn’t last too long. Not really. Five months or so. But I worry that for a person at the moment to say ‘I’m depressed’, leaves people thinking that it’s a lifelong sentence. It’s not. I mean people can suffer from depression all of their lives, but it’s not a necessity to being depressed. According to mentalhealth.org, 50% of people who experience a mental health problem, will no longer be experiencing it after 18 months. My friends know that although I can be prone to being down, it’s not a constant state of mind for me. However, this needs to become a more widespread fact. People are still unwilling to acknowledge mental illness, or talk about their problems with it. And so it’s still regarded as a novel thing for someone to admit they have a mental health problem. And believe me it’s not an abnormal thing to have.  Mental illness is an incredibly common occurrence that absolutely anyone can suffer from – Rich, poor, black, white, boy, girl, it doesn’t matter. It’s also common enough that you’re incredibly likely to encounter it at some point in your life, be it through yourself or a friend suffering. The scarier thought is that you’ll encounter it and either you or whoever else will not feel confident talking about it. Because so many people remain silent about their experiences. Because bottling up and suffering alone surely  has to be the worst thing.

And so I’m hoping these blogs will make it easier to avoid that. I’m hoping that seeing other people – other students – write about their experiences with mental health will make it easier for others to do the same. I can’t see any other way than being completely open about mental health problems to fully get rid of any stigma still lingering around the problem. The uncomfortable silence surrounding mental health experiences needs to be broken.

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Working with people who live with mental health difficulties

My experience with mental illnesses started in my early teen years, when my grandma developed Alzheimer’s disease. Seeing my Dad having to watch his mother decline slowly was so hard. It started slowly, with her forgetting small details about things; but escalated into disorientation and severe confusion. After a nasty fall down the stairs, we decided that a nursing home would be the best environment for her to live in, as she would be surrounded by people who could care for her at all times of the day and night. Visiting was the most painful experience, especially when it got to the stage where she couldn’t remember who we were or where she was. Her personality changed so much it was like she was a different person. My mum was so supportive, having a background in nursing and working in a care home herself. But my dad found it hard to deal with the slow change in brain function and personality, as a result of the disease which onset is upsettingly inevitable.

When I turned 16 and started working in nursing homes, first as a cleaner and then as a carer, I found that these feelings were common in relatives who had to watch their loved ones change as a result of mental illness brought on by the onset of old age: their personality quirks faded, they could forget details of their lives or their families, and in some cases they could become distressed, aggressive or inappropriate. Of course, this brought great sadness to the families concerned but also to the person that was suffering from the mental illness. During my time as a carer I have spoken to residents who are scared; who know what is happening to them, and are aware that there is little they can do to stop it. They feel distressed at their confusion and embarrassed when they draw attention to themselves with erratic behaviour.

As a carer used to looking after elderly people suffering from mental illnesses, I thought that the care and treatment that they receive should be universal and apply to people of all ages who have trouble with their mental health – whether it be an illness, or just a temporary instability of the mind. I also believe that just because mental illnesses are expected more with old age, they are still very common in younger generations and so just because they are not necessarily expected to suffer from a mental illness does not mean that it is unlikely to happen, or that it should be looked down upon as a weakness. I find that far too often the pressures of life in the 21st century mean that people become run down and unable to cope with everyday demands. People cannot be seen to be ‘weak’ in any way, and so admitting that they cannot come to work because they are suffering from a mental illness or condition is often seen as less of a reason than if that person was physically injured.

So, my reasons for joining the Mental Health Matters society are because I believe in the right to have equality and recognition of mental illnesses and conditions across all ages and lifestyles, and that the stigma attached to mental health, especially in the younger generations, should be wiped out completely.

My Brother

Most people know the statistics about mental health, especially with celebrities such as Stephen Fry becoming ever more vocal about their own battles, but there’s the general consensus that no one ever thinks it will happen to them until it does. The biggest problem we have is that people will not talk about it. Everyone appears to be ingrained with this stoicism that they can’t talk about their problems, and they must suffer in silence. It is this outlook that fosters an attitude of being a sufferer of a mental health illness as being something taboo. Everyone is affected in different ways, some for a short time, some long term, some directly and some indirectly, but until we start to talk about and share our experiences, nothing is going to change. We as part of Mental Health Matters society are not only personally interested, invested and passionate about this cause, but we are also willing to be that change we want to see. We will be starting a series of blogs to see how different people, from different walks of life around the university are affected in different ways by mental health problems.

My personal journey with mental health began five years ago, when my older brother was diagnosed with depression in his second year of university. At the time I was 16. Being that he lived away from home, and my parents were never overly forthcoming with details, believing (quite rightly) that it was his own choice who and how he told people, I was able to sweep it under the rug and brush it off as a phase. It wasn’t until he moved back from university, that I was forced to confront the idea that this wasn’t going to be a phase, but something that my whole family would have to deal with long term.

Adjusting to life back home was hard for my brother; he would be grumpy and lash out at my little brother, something that would be difficult for me to deal with. I would resent my parents for walking on eggshells around him, not wanting to upset the balance of our usually peaceful house. I didn’t understand why he couldn’t be nicer, why he never wanted to spend time with us, but instead locked himself in his room. Looking back at this time I was selfish because all I could think about was how his illness had affected me. I felt so angry at how he had changed our lives, because I didn’t understand that it wasn’t his fault, he couldn’t just snap out of it. And overall I felt helpless because I couldn’t talk to him because I was scared, scared that I would make him worse. This was a feeling I couldn’t shake for years. I felt guilty that I was able to escape from being at home by coming to Sheffield, leaving my parents and little brother to deal with it alone. I didn’t speak to anyone about my brother’s depression, in denial about how much it had affected me. I never wanted to go home for the weekend; because it was going back to a life away from the carefree existence I had created for myself, to a place that I worked so hard to keep secret from my friends.

Over the summer of my first year of university, however, this all changed. I was looking for a book in my older brother’s room. Whilst I was in there I found a sign that he had written, and put by his mirror. It read; “Today WILL be a good day. I WILL be more positive.” It was at this point that I realised how selfish I had been. All I had thought about for years was how his depression had affected my little brother, my family, and me. Without a second thought to how he felt about how he was affecting people too. I felt sadness that I had been ashamed for so long about something that was no ones fault, and I had spent so long, not trying to understand, but rather trying to avoid it in the hope that it would go away.

It was at this point that I made the choice to stop trying to avoid his depression. I researched it and found people online and read about their experiences living with a sibling that suffers from mental health problems. And most importantly, I spoke to him about it. Realising that you are not alone is something that is invaluable in the battle against an illness that we still don’t fully understand. Despite this, people still aren’t talking about it enough, which is why we have created this blog. The more people share it, the more people see it, the more we might help someone who is feeling isolated and alone. Depression isn’t something that is magically cured, in my family there are still ups and downs, but it is something we all go through together. Since I have accepted that I can’t just ignore it, I have found better ways to cope. Getting involved with Mental Health Matters is therapeutic for me. Though I may not be able to help my brother in his battle, I can spread the word, fundraise and challenge the stigma surrounding mental health. I can’t help him to feel better, so I campaign for something I believe in, in the hope that someone, somewhere is benefiting from what we do.

Dating Someone with Bipolar

There are many articles on personal mental health and these are incredibly important in their own right; I’ve often used them to help me when things aren’t going so great. However, I did not realise how isolating actually dating someone with mental health can sometimes be. Due to mental health stigmas and a general lack of understanding it is often difficult to talk to anyone when your partner turns round and states that they wish they were dead. After a while you run out of reasons to show them how wonderful life can be and how important they truly are to the world. I had this moment and broke down in tears because I felt I couldn’t help the person I love. It took time but I realised the most important thing; it’s not my fault. I am not the reason they don’t want to be here. It is chemicals in their mind causing emotions which cause them to feel this way. So I thought I would share my experience of dating someone who suffers with bipolar.

My boyfriend was diagnosed with bipolar towards the start of our relationship. He was grateful for the diagnoses because for many years doctors had wrongly diagnosed him and even prescribed anti-depressants-certainly not what you should give to someone with bipolar. I didn’t really know what bipolar was, but after a bit of internet searching and talking with my boyfriend I started to understand and this is kind of it;  Sufferers of bipolar go through stages of mania where they almost can’t stop moving, thinking or talking. It is as though anything is possible; ‘hey lets jump off the roof because I can’. On the reverse of this there are bouts of depression often leading to self-harm, suicidal thoughts and sometimes suicide. These moods can last for weeks, months or even years. This is all well and good but anyone who has any experience of mental health knows that everyone is slightly different and so, although I understand the basic outlines I don’t pretend to fully get it. I tell him I see his brain as a solar nebular-beautiful to look at even if I don’t fully understand it.

He was nervous about  taking medication for the bipolar, which is understandable due to his past experience, but also because he didn’t want to become ‘zombie-like’ with no emotions. He did experience some side effects when he started the meds, he would often twitch involuntarily and sometimes his legs gave way. It was saddening to see him get upset and I was worried as if he was going to collapse I wouldn’t be able to move him as I’m fairly petite and he is 6ft4. We did have a moment where his legs gave way in a supermarket but he held onto me and I supported him as we walked home, it took quite a while longer and he was annoyed at himself but it didn’t matter. After a few months the side effects faded and he was back to his usual self.

What was difficult was explaining to him how ‘normal’ emotions work, that often people do have ups and downs, even on a daily basis-he wasn’t overly pleased at this revelation as normally he experiences long periods of being mega happy. He has been treated for nearly 2 years now but it has not been easy. Medication is not the final answer or a magic fix by any means. There are still times when he’ll tell me he wants to die. He still gets upset and angry at the world because he wishes he was dead. It hurts a lot to hear and sometimes I feel like quitting because it’s so hard. Someone once told me I should end things with him because of the stress and worry and upset but as soon as they said it I knew that it wasn’t an option. I don’t have to stay, no one has to stay with anyone they don’t want to, but I love him and I wouldn’t change him for the world.

When you date someone with bipolar, or probably any other mental health thing, it can be heartbreaking-why is life that bad you want to die? You feel like you are slamming your head into a brick wall because when someone goes into a depressed or down mood it is very difficult to say anything to help, often they need time, sometimes that’s alone, which can also be hard. People comment on my patience and how strong I am but I’m only strong on the outside. I struggle and sometimes I have what I like to call ‘kitchen floor breakdown’ when you just sit on the floor and cry because what on earth else can you do.

Please don’t get me wrong, the majority of the time we have a wonderful relationship; we go out, discuss how whales should have gills, debate human evolution and dance like we are in an 80’s aerobics video-you know what all couples do! And it is these moments that make the few bad days/weeks irrelevant; the bipolar is not important to me, it is just one of those things in our relationship. Some people have long distance relationships, some have partners which don’t speak the same language as them and some have partners with mental health issues. Dating someone with a mental health issue can be trying at times but if you want to be with someone it shouldn’t matter. My boyfriend has no control over his bipolar as it is just chemicals in his brain, just like love is a chemical and you wouldn’t break up with someone because of that.

Turning Points

I don’t really like to think back to the time when I had anorexia. I don’t like to think about the way I looked, the way I acted and especially the way I thought. However, I think it is something that I have to do in order to really accept what happened and so that I can fully move on.

My mum and I have always been quite close. The kind of close where we go shopping together or watch films together, though not really the kind of close where we would spend hours talking about our feelings. I liked this.

When I got anorexia this changed. When I think back to our relationship during that time I always imagine her with this certain facial expression. I don’t know if I can fully explain it, it wasn’t quite anger, there was an almost vacancy to it. To me it looked like someone on the brink of losing hope, unaware of what to do, but determined not to do nothing. The main emotion though was sadness, absolute and utter sadness. I hate that I did this to her, I know it was not my fault, but I wish that I could take back the pain that I caused her.

We didn’t talk anymore, not properly. Our conversations were her asking me about food and me lying to her. They were about her wanting me to see a doctor and me refusing. Even when this wasn’t what we were talking about explicitly it was always there. We weren’t friends anymore, I don’t know what we were.

The night I told her I knew I had a problem and that I was getting help, she cried. The first time she saw me finish a meal and dessert she looked pleased. When I started to try on clothes and not look like a skeleton, she complimented me. However, I could still see that there was a sadness whenever there was any reminder about anorexia and what we had been through.  She didn’t like to talk about it. She never said, but whenever the conversation came up, she would become teary or move onto something else. That was ok, I understood, I didn’t blame her.

Then there was another turning point. A little while ago I wrote a status about having had anorexia and I have been working with mental health matters to try and raise awareness of mental health. When I first told my mum about this I wasn’t sure what she thought about it. I thought she seemed a bit upset or reserved.

Then one evening last week I got a phone call. It was my mum phoning to tell me that she was proud of me. There were no tears no sadness, just happiness.

Getting over anorexia was difficult, but that phone call made that struggle worth it. What’s more, her acceptance of me and what happened has helped me to accept me and what happened and move on.