There are plenty of conversations around mental health at the moment, and rightly so. It’s an issue which has gone unnoticed and unrecognised by the general public for far too long. There’s a huge amount of stigma around mental illness and that has forced sufferers into the shadows, unable to seek the help they need.
Of course, with that stigma slowly but surely being broken down, it’s never been easier to seek help for mental illness. There is definitely some way to go for the NHS to catch up to the burgeoning mental health crisis that is becoming clearer every day, but it is getting better.
We’ve probably all heard a little bit about the treatment, medication, and counselling available to those suffering from mental illness, but with one in four people being diagnosed as suffering from some kind of mental illness every year in the UK according to Mind, a leading mental health charity, it leads to questions about how widespread these illnesses really are.
After all, if 25% of the population have seen a doctor to get themselves diagnosed, how many people haven’t? How many people out there are living their lives every day suffering from mental illness and not knowing about it or how to classify the way they’re feeling? How many people aren’t seeking help because they don’t know that what they’re going through is actually mental illness?
I count myself very lucky to be able to say that I’ve never had to deal with mental illness myself, but I do know a great many people who have struggled with issues relating to mental health. I reached out to some of these people to talk about how they identified their mental illness and the warning signs that other people should look out for, as well as the kinds of treatments and coping strategies they’ve employed to help them live with those illnesses.
Speaking to Peter*, a 21-year-old suffering from social anxiety, I wondered whether he’d known much about his condition before he spoke to a doctor about the way he was feeling:
I knew I was feeling wasn’t normal or healthy and I knew a bit about mental health conditions before going to the doctor.
This was a common experience amongst a lot of people I spoke to: a sense that something wasn’t quite right without being able to put your finger on what it was that was the matter. Plenty of those who answered my survey said they could identify a change in how they were feeling, often around puberty, without having the exact words to describe it.
I was curious about the people I spoke to who identified mental illness, compared to the normal sense of angst, fear, worry, and sadness that the other people go through in their life. While Peter had already told me that he discovered his condition by proactively researching his symptoms online, others were less certain at the time.
Rob, a 23-year-old who suffers from clinical depression said he was able to identify his thoughts as markers of mental illness compared to normal concerns because he was unable to pick out what had caused those feelings:
I could name what the causes of my normal worries and sadness were, I could say ‘this is what is wrong with me’. But with depression I had no idea what it was. It was like someone asking you what’s wrong, you know something is up, but you just can’t put a finger on what it is.
Alice* who suffers from depression, social and general anxiety says that even once you’ve got a diagnosis, it isn’t always easy to figure out which parts of your life are caused by mental illness and which ones are every day things experienced by everyone and that can cause further problems:
It’s difficult sometimes. I’m still learning how to differentiate between them. There are some things that are quite easy to put down to mental illness, like self harm or suicidal thoughts. It’s quite hard to dispute that that’s just ‘normal sadness’. But some other parts of it are harder to distinguish. Like, am I not getting out of bed today because I’m depressed or because I’m lazy? I definitely used to assume it was the latter a lot of the time, which just kinda fuels the self hatred. But it’s getting easier to understand the differences.
Rob explained that with mental illness, once you start to see and recognise the signs it becomes impossible to stop seeing the ways that illness is affecting your day-to-day life.
One thing that struck me about the people I spoke to was how few of them believed that their mental illnesses had been with them throughout their lives. In fact, several spoke about how happy their childhoods had been. All of these people lived lives untouched by mental illness until they started to recognise symptoms. I was curious to know whether they believed that specific events had sparked their mental health battles or whether it was something which gradually got worse.
Alice explained that she believes her anxiety and depression developed gradually over a period of time, after never having experienced anything like it before. She also explained her theory about the way that certain events have influenced her mental health:
I had a happy childhood, and didn’t start to suffer with mental health until I was a teenager when hormones kicked in. I guess I could probably pinpoint certain events that happened at the time that contributed, and events since have definitely made it worse. But I feel like the issues I’ve had with my mental health were kind of a predisposition, and that if life hadn’t have happened the way it did, some other event would have triggered it instead. I don’t know if that makes sense.<
I think it was probably gradual, but in quite a short space of time. So I didn’t wake up one morning like ‘I’m depressed now’, but at the same time I think it all spiralled pretty quickly. I don’t think I realised how big a deal it was until mental health professionals were involved.
For all of the people I spoke to, there was a sense that mental illness was a something that would have affected them, no matter what life experiences they’d had.
However, for Peter, certain influences in his life definitely helped worsen his condition and pushed him to the point he is at today:
I certainly remember times when I wasn’t so nervous all the time.
I think realising I was gay and subsequently hiding it and worrying all the time that people might find out can’t have helped my anxiety.
Even aside of my sexuality, I’ve always been a slightly different or ‘weird’ kid and so after years of being aware of that may have exacerbated the feelings of worrying what everyone else thinks of me so much.
But once you accept and identify your mental illness, how much does that term help you? Does an official diagnosis from a doctor help you figure out how to cope or is it just a further cause of concern and worry?
For Rob, a diagnosis was imperative in helping him accept and confront his condition as well as being able to wield his diagnosis to fight off some of the criticism that was attached to the way he was feeling:
Knowing is a big thing. At least there’s a term for it and then there was something you could do about it rather than just being told to snap out of it or man up.
Chatting to Peter, it became clear that without a proper diagnosis it can be almost impossible to battle your mental illness. If you don’t have some concrete term that you understand and recognise then it can lead to even more self-hatred for the sufferer which obviously only exacerbates the problem. It’s a vicious cycle and a diagnosis can help break that:
This is probably why so many mental health problems go on without people getting help.
On the one hand, you’re freaking out about the smallest things like going out to buy food or making a phone call, which you know isn’t normal or healthy. But on the other hand you’ve got a voice in your head telling you that you’re being stupid, and that everyone has worries that they just have to deal with and you just need to man up and deal with it.
But in reality, these aren’t things that everyone worries about and they are markers of a problem.
It was nice to get a reassurance from someone that I wasn’t just being weak or stupid and that there was something medically wrong with me.
I don’t know that it necessarily made it any easier but it was like a kind of concrete thing like ‘right there is definitely a real problem, what can we do about it?’
And for Peter, a diagnosis helped him to recognise areas of his life that needed to be improved:
There are aspects of my behaviour that I only really noticed weren’t healthy after I looked at my life through the lens of a diagnosis.
But what comes next? When you’ve identified the symptoms and you’ve seen a doctor about it, is there an end in sight? How do you cope with the weight of that diagnosis?
One thing that was common amongst all the people I spoke to was the feeling that mental illness can’t be healed. It isn’t something that can be defeated and one day you’ll wake up and feel fine about everything. Having a mental health condition is a lifelong affliction.
However, not a single person I spoke to had any trace of a defeatist attitude about their mental illness. These are all young people who’ve been dealing with their mental illness for a relatively short amount of time; a matter of years. And if mental illness is a lifelong affliction they’ve got fifty years or more to cope with it.
But while depression, anxiety, and all the other mental health conditions that people suffer from might not be monsters that can be defeated, they can be monitored, dealt with, and kept in check.
Alice summed it up best when she said:
I’ve stopped looking at it as waiting for an ‘end’ as such. I don’t want to be wishing away any part of me or any part of my life. I like to think that as time goes on it’ll have less and less of an impact on me because I’ll be dealing with it more efficiently.
In addition, it’s important to remember that just like any other illness, mental health can be medicated. If you had a persistent headache you’d take paracetamol to treat it, right? Well mental illness can be exactly the same.
Of course, there’s a stigma attached to medicating mental health and that’s something that Peter brought up in our conversation:
People should be less concerned about taking medication for mental health problems because I do think there’s a stigma about that in particular. Really it’s just like taking medicine for any other illness.
Medication is a big help. It’s a physical thing that gives you confidence. You can say to yourself ‘I can take this pill and it will help’. That’s something comforting and real to hold on to. And the ones I’ve taken in the past really do help.
So what should you do if any of this sounds familiar? If you think you’ve noticed yourself started to slip into a bad place mentally, Rob has this advice:
I think the key is to acknowledge how you’re feeling. I know that sounds simple, but a lot of people don’t take much notice of it. If you find your mood slipping regularly go see a doctor. That’s the best way.
There are also plenty of resources available online too and I was pointed towards Mindwhich has a plenty of information as well as helpline for those suffering from mental illness and those around them.
What was clear to me from these conversations was that mental illness is something that you can spot yourself and being able to see it clearly for what it is helps. So if you think that you might be facing issues with your mental health, don’t try to run from it. The help is there if you reach out and grab it.
*Some names have been changed to protect anonymity.