I sat there quietly trying to control my breathing, my hands were shaking and my knees were knocking under the table. Everyone was laughing and talking and I was worrying again that I may have to leave if I couldn’t calm my pounding heart.
I was having a bad patch, tired and worn out from a virus and my anxiety had reared its ugly head. The night before the similar feelings had crept up my body and fear, terror and panic had again sought to grip me and hold me ransom. I had fought my fight and struggled to get through the next day and get to the meal I had been looking forward to for weeks. As I sat with my friends I smiled and tried to include myself in the chatter, hiding the the fact that I was struggling.
Mental illness is a silent illness, cast in shadows, little understood and sometimes feared. Sufferers often feel guilty and seek to hide the the reality of the daily struggles they face. Sometimes battling on not knowing how they manage each day.
As I looked around the table I wondered if anyone could see my shaking hands or hear my pounding heart but of course to everyone I seemed like me, only maybe a little quiet. Anyone with anxiety will know the struggle it is to eat when your stomach is churning and somersaulting. As I picked at the beautiful meal in front of me willing my taste buds to work, “no wonder your so slim you hardly eat” was accompanied with an elbow in my side and a laugh. Oh if only they knew the reason I picked, not to be slim, but because my stomach was in knots, no this meal I wouldn’t enjoy.
One of my friends was sitting not too far away, with her recently fractured wrist in a lovely pink plaster. Everyone was asking her how she was, how it was healing and asking her how she was coping. Her pink plaster was adorned with little messages and get better soon notes, flowers and hearts. Our friends helped with cutting her food, fetching drinks and hugs were in plentiful supply. She was being treated exactly how she should have been, with kindness and compassion. There was no guilt for needing or accepting help, and it stuck me, why is it different for mental health?
Of course we could say no one knew I was suffering and that would be true, but the reality is I couldn’t have acknowledged to anyone how I was struggling. Why? Because sometimes trying to explain the thoughts in your head, the physical feelings and the effect it has on you is hard. Even if you do lay bare your feelings sadly people don’t always understand and although well meaning, may say things like, “oh what have you got to worry about”, or “just relax and enjoy yourself” or “you just have to be positive and get on with it”.
Mental health can often be dismissed and misunderstood. After all there is nothing visible to see. You can’t put a plaster on it or use a crutch, you don’t have a scar that you can show everyone and you may not look ill at all, but deep inside the pain is great, the scars are deep and feeling ill well, lets just say that’s a definite.
This is why it’s so important that we raise awareness of mental health, that we reduce stigma and we view it as we view other illnesses. A person does not ask for a mental health problem, the brain can go wrong just like the heart or the lungs can go wrong or a foot may get broken. They cannot snap out of it or pull themselves together. Mental health can eat away like a cancer till the person is a shadow of the person they use to be. It can strip a person of dignity and self-worth. It can damage relationships, strain families and leave people feeling alone and isolated. A person may lose their job, their home and feel despair.
This year May 11-17 is mental health awareness week, what can we do as suffers and as non- suffers to help?
A new survey by YouGov of over 2,000 British adults, commissioned by the Mental Health Foundation, reports significant numbers of people always or often feel stressed (29%), anxious (24%) and depressed (17%). Add to this the people that are diagnosed with various mental health disorders and we can see that mental health touches the lives of nearly everyone of us. Despite this we still find little in the way of understanding of mental health and many who are suffering but scared to reach out and ask for help. Support also can be difficult to obtain with waiting lists for therapy long and some therapies not available but dependant on where you live getting help and getting well can be a long road and a hard battle.
But what can make a difference?
- Ask for help. However hard it may be if you are struggling ask for help, if no one is listening, keep on asking until they are listening. If you are someone supporting or caring for someone with a mental health disorder then help them get help. It may be just making a phone call for them, taking them to appointments or just sitting listening and holding their hand.
- Speak out. If you can and you feel strong enough, share your story with others. Sharing struggles, pain and also hope can truly be a light to those also suffering. Mental illness can lead to isolation and loneliness. Reaching out to each other, comforting and supporting each other, encouraging and building a community can do wonders. (This can be seen by the PND support group on twitter, that is supporting families from all across the uk and beyond.) The more we share, the more we talk, the more we support and the more we understand, we will help reduce the stigma of mental health.
- Research. There is nothing like knowledge to empower. So if you have a mental health disorder, research it, read up on it as much as you can, get to know the tormentor your living with and the ways that can help you to manage it. Become the expert in yourself and your symptoms. Get to know what triggers you, what helps you and what gives you hope. Likewise if your supporting someone, get to know as much as you can about the disorder so you can help and support them the best way you can.
- Win the battle, then the war. The battle we wage with mental health disorders can feel overwhelming. Eager to be free of the suffering we may seek to fight the war in one go. But we forget that daily we are winning battles that we don’t always give ourselves justice for. Just getting up, getting dressed and surviving the day for some is a major achievement. For others its holding on another day at work, caring for their family or managing that meal out with friends. These small victories give hope, build confidence and increase self-worth. Whatever battle you win, no matter how small you think it may be celebrate it because it’s one step closer to winning the war.
Mental health disorders are an illness and just like any other illness they can be managed with the right help and support. Sometimes that will be therapies, sometimes medication, but do not give up hope. There are many waging the same battles, fighting the same war you are not alone.
Next week during mental health awareness week reach out to someone, and give them a gift. Give them the gift of your time, of understanding, a listening ear, a comforting word. Give them the gift of your story, your victories, your hopes. Together we can raise awareness, increase understanding, reduce stigma and most importantly of all give hope because together we are stronger.
For more info on mental health and mental health awareness week http://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/