Last year, I discovered Time to Talk Day. It’s organised every year by Time to Change, a mental health charity led by Mind whose goal is to end mental health discrimination. However, last year I didn’t really do anything for it, for two reasons: I was a tad busy with things in College and writing a dissertation and countless other essays which I didn’t even know where to start with; and I had two wonderful people on my Welfare Team who took the initiative to organise a little event to raise awareness of the day during our lunch time (and I was really proud of them for doing this).
This year, I’m getting involved. I went onto their website and I joined the 88,000+ people who have also pledged to do something to end the stigma. I decided to pledge to do two things: to share my mental health story to help others understand mental health, and to challenge mental health discrimination and discrimination when I see it. I think I’m already doing the former, so I wanted to write a bit about the latter, and about how it was fear of being judged and the stigma attached to mental health that stopped me talking about mine for so long.
It’s probably easy to assume that there isn’t discrimination against those of us with mental health issues. It’s the 21st century after all, we don’t get locked up in the asylum in a straight jacket by the doctors who are supposed to help us. We’re supposed to be in this accepting society where equality trumps all. But the stigma is still there. Sure, it’s not as bad as it used to be. But it can still hurt more than the mental health issues so many of us have to face.
When I was at my worst, I was terrified of the reactions I’d get from people when I told them I had a mental health problem because of the stigma that is attached to it. I was worried I’d be told I was being silly, that I couldn’t possibly be depressed because of all the good things in my life. You hear all these stories about acceptance and there being people out there who do genuinely care, but they always take a back seat to the stories of discrimination that we hear about.
The day I first started talking about what I had been going through was without question one of the most difficult days I’ve ever experienced. It probably wouldn’t have happened had I not by some fluke ended up living in a flat with someone who gets what it’s like to be depressed, who asked me why I hadn’t been able to sleep when I said I’d been awake all night and listened as I spilled my guts out, and for being one of an incredibly small number of people who has been able to find the courage to ask me direct questions about what happened when I was attacked, because I know that’s a difficult thing to ask someone about because you don’t want to cause more upset and pain, because you care.
As time went by I began to be able to talk to my friends more about what had been happening, most notably when I went back to Durham one weekend and was able to speak to so many of my friends about what had been happening and also learnt about all of the things they had been going through too. It was simultaneously one of the most difficult and yet most important weekends of my mental health journey. The reason it was difficult was because of the stigma that affects those of us who have depression. I was scared what people would say and think, even though this seems silly to admit to now because I’m finally able to recognise the people in my life who care and accept me and my slightly different outlook on life. You see that’s what depression does to you. It heightens all the bad things and diminishes all the good. You think that only bad things are going to happen to you because you don’t think anybody will care, even though there are so many people around you willing to be that listening ear for you, that shoulder to cry on. The fear of being judged by someone else, when you’re already judging yourself and think you’re a terrible human being, is immense. The stigma that’s there adds so much negativity to the bad feelings that already plague you on a daily basis.
Even after beginning to open up about things to the people around me, I didn’t tell my department about my mental health issues until I had been studying for over two months…well, trying to study. Talking about it, yet again, was incredibly difficult. I was scared, yet again. I was scared that they would turn around and say that they wouldn’t help me and that I was on my own
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
The meetings, emails, the open doors in my department are one of the greatest things about coming to Warwick. That and the fact we have a student network which wants to jump up and down and shout at the top of it’s lungs that it’s OK to be having a tough time (there was even an entire campaign about it which was what made me start to get help).
But that first step is scary. It’s scary because of the stigma, because even when you have people around you who don’t judge you because of your mental health you still think they they’re the exception, that the rest of the world is still against you. The stigma in many ways can be worse than the not-getting-out-of-bed, the lack of appetite, the feeling of worthlessness. It hurts in ways you can’t imagine unless you’ve experienced it yourself.
We need to fight the stigma. We need to fight the discrimination. We need to stop it preventing those out there struggling with their mental health being able to seek the help and support that is out there waiting for them with open arms. There are so so many people out there who don’t discriminate, who accept you and your mental health issues and who will do whatever they can to help you. There are so many of them you’ll be overwhelmed when you find that they were around you all along.
We all need to talk about mental health. If we have issues with it ourself, if we have close friends and family who we’ve had to support through it, if we have no idea what it’s like but want to be able to understand. Talking is one of the greatest ways to fight our mental health issues and the stigma that surrounds it, but that first step is the most difficult of them all, and it can take a while for it to get easier.
To end the stigma, we need to speak out. We need to ask people how they are. We need to say the honest answer rather than hide behind the niceties of “I’m fine” when we’re not.
We need to talk.