World Mental Health Day: Be Kind to Your Mind
By Sali Earls
October 10 is World Mental Health Day. It’s an important day in the calendar annually, as it sheds light on mental health issues, and opens dialogue between individuals and groups, as we all attempt to reduce the stigma of living with a mental health diagnosis.
With everything we’ve been through this year, World Mental Health Day 2020 feels like the most important one yet. The months of lockdown and loss have had a huge impact on us all, and prioritising mental health has never been more important.
Mental health is just like physical health. We all have it, and all need to take care of it. But, if you broke your leg or had a migraine, it’s highly likely that friends and family would be sympathetic to your physical pain, as they would be able to imagine your physical discomfort and the impact that has on your life. With mental health problems however, the situation is not so cut and dried.
Around one in four people are likely to suffer from a mental health issue in any given year. These can range from fairly common issues like anxiety and depression, to rarer problems like bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.
Mental wellbeing describes how you are feeling and how well you can cope with day-to-day life. It can change from moment to moment, day to day, month to month or year to year.
While everyone knows what it’s like to feel sad, not everyone knows what it’s like to be depressed. In my own experience, depression feels like drowning; you are overwhelmed by emotions, but strangely feel nothing. When you feel like that, it’s not helpful for a friend or family member to tell you that everyone feels like that, to snap out of it, or query what exactly you have to be depressed about. Going back to the broken leg analogy, if your friend told you to walk it off, you’d probably be justified to tell them in no uncertain terms to go away!
I have lived with mental health problems since my late teens. I didn’t know what it was, or why I felt the way I did, so I tried to cope. I wasn’t diagnosed with depression until I was in my mid-30s, and finally received the correct diagnosis of bipolar disorder three years ago, at the age of 44.
Mental health problems are hard to diagnose, because everyone perceives things differently, and GPs only have so much experience in this field. With more complex issues like bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, diagnosis can take around ten years.
In my case, other people knew that there was something wrong with me before I did. I knew I was depressed, often suicidally so, and medicated for the depression. When the pills stopped working, the GP would switch me onto another prescription and the process would start all over again. But the mania was more difficult to pin down.
I would have periods, a few weeks at a time, where I barely slept or ate, had the most amazing ideas that were going to make me rich beyond my wildest dreams; wrote lists of things I would achieve, and crazy stories. More worryingly, I spent every penny I could lay my hands on, on things I didn’t want or need; and indulged in some extremely risky behaviour. I put myself in real danger, more times than I care to remember, and it was this that finally made me realise that there may be more to my condition.
Speaking to my psychiatrist, I discovered that manic episodes are often more dangerous than deep depressions, as the patient often feels utterly invincible. I certainly did, and I’d never discussed any of the behaviour with him, as I didn’t realise how extreme it was. Worse still, being treated for depression only meant a course of antidepressants, which were actually making my manic episodes increasingly extreme.
I spent the first two weeks of 2017 in a psychiatric hospital, and while that sounds terrifying, it was actually an extremely positive and nurturing experience. I could speak to people everyday who understood my condition, and did all they could to help me; and I was put on a course of treatment which has enabled me to reclaim my life.
I have very limited memories of the years between 2013 and 2018. The daily memories from Facebook are often something of a shock! I spent much of the time very unwell, hiding from the world. When I think of where I am now, compared to that time, it feels like that’s another person entirely.
I live with bipolar disorder everyday, and will most likely be on medication for the rest of my life. I no longer allow it to define me, and I’ve made peace with my past behaviour, as I was so very ill.
I describe myself as a mental health advocate. I want to share my story, no matter how uncomfortable it makes people, as it’s so vital we end the stigma of mental health issues and start treating all health problems with the same deference and attention.
My experience may resonate with you, but not everyone goes through what I’ve been through. Talking therapies, like Cognitive Behavioural Therapy works brilliantly for some people; while medication is necessary for others.
If you recognise any symptoms of mental health problems in yourself, a friend or loved one, please seek help. You are not alone, and you should not be judged. Your GP is usually the first port of call, but you can also access support from the university’s Wellbeing Support, or the mental health charity Mind.
On this World Mental Health Day, as with every other day, take care of yourselves.