7th May 2017.
Tomorrow marks the beginning of 2017’s Mental Health Awareness Week. If you are at all familiar with my blog or follow me on social media you will know that, when able, I am very open about my mental health issues and frequently write about the challenges I am met with as a person living with mental illness. Some people, however, still don’t feel able to openly talk about their hidden disability and the inner turmoil they experience. And for a long time I was the same. This is largely due to a lack of understanding among society-at-large. The sad truth that there is a heightened, and disproportionate, level of support for those with a physical ailment remains. I’m not for a moment suggesting that mental illness should be considered any more important than physical illness, I’m affirming that they should be viewed as equal, with equal funding, equal provisions and equal respect. We would never make an insensitive joke about, nor belittle, someone suffering from cancer, for instance. But for a reason unknown, derogatory terms such as “crazy,” “mental” or “schizo” are still flippantly disseminated to either facilitate a joke or to demonise. I’ve written before about negative portrayals of the “mentally ill” in the media. Even this week we’ve seen Piers Morgan utilise his high-profile and position to publicly denounce “public soul-bearing” especially where men are concerned. To add some context, his remarks were provoked by a candid interview Brad Pitt recently gave to GQ Magazine whereby he emotionally discussed his battle with alcoholism and the effect divorce has had on him. “I can’t remember a day since I got out of college,” he says, “when I wasn’t boozing or had a spliff, or something. Something. And you realise that a lot of it is…you know, pacifiers. And I’m running from feelings.” I, personally, congratulate Pitt for no longer running from feelings – this, surely is something to be admired and respected.
Sadly, for many, it is not.
I’m often asked why I “keep going on about my problems.” Firstly, I don’t (or, at least, not to the degree to which they insinuate), indeed I’m ever-aware of “relying” on my mental illness and it becoming the thing that defines me. I do, however, vocalise quite fervently, and, yes, quite often, my personal accounts of living with depression and anxiety, along with experiences regarding suicide, panic attacks and self-harm. And I do this for three main reasons. One, to make mental illness as an entity TANGIBLE – I’m very much of the belief that something can only be dealt with and aided when it takes a tactile form (be it verbal, written, or even pictorial). By adding my voice to the discussion, it can only cement mental health’s worth. Secondly, to reassure others who may be suffering from similar issues that they absolutely are not alone. If I can encourage just one person to ask for help because they’ve seen this guy Nathan talking, then it’s all worth it – I’d have “paid it forward.” I suffered in silence for years – it was instilled in me that “men don’t show their feelings” and that I simply “wasn’t tough enough.” In this new age where social media had the ability to dominate we have the responsibility to employ it for the good. It seems clear to me that, for a significant proportion of those people (young or old) who are yet to openly admit they’re struggling an individual in the public domain may be the only source of solace – “If someone like [insert celebrity name-of-choice here] is feeling like I am, then I can’t be the only one.” I, for instance, didn’t have any family that I felt comfortable talking to. Those of us who are able to openly talk about mental illness in a positive, hopeful and honest way (and I, of course, do not consider myself a celebrity!) have a duty to encourage those who may not be quite ready yet. The unfortunate counter to this is that if people in the public domain do the contrary by belittling, disregarding or overtly criticising those with a mental health problem those suffering alone will simply be pushed further and further back into the darkness. This MUST be avoided. I pointed Piers Morgan to a previous post where I described the crippling anxiety to which I am all too familiar, asking him during a particular event whether or not I should, or even could, have “manned up.” He neglected to comment. My fear where throwaway, ill-thought-out comments like this concern those more impressionable that myself – those who are ground down into believing that they’re just not strong enough. “Man up” is the flippant, out-dated, outmoded go-to reaction of the dominant male who, in a futile attempt to cement his dominance, positions those of the same gender who show any sign of emotion as weak and dismissible.
And to the third reason why I am so open about my problems: simply because it helps me. Sometimes when I’m in the midst of a dark period writing can prove to be incredibly cathartic – it helps focus my irrational (at times) and blurred, overpowering thoughts. If I spend an hour working towards the end of a blog post, then that could be an hour in which I very slowly come back from the brink. In periods of good health I find it very grounding to look back on the darker times – it can be difficult to coherently recall or remember what it’s like when I’m “in it.” Having a primary source as documentation is useful; it reminds me to never take good health for granted, and gives me encouragement that I can, will, and have come out of the darkness.
As I’ve mentioned the importance of me documenting experiences, it now seems pertinent to briefly describe my most recent period of ill health. It was probably the most intense, yet thankfully, short-lived period I’ve battled through in the past year. And I don’t use “battled” for dramatic effect. I woke up on a Thursday morning a little over two weeks ago now and the immediate feeling I can recall is that of panic. My heart was already racing, my hands were clammy and my vision was slightly blurred. I managed to sit up on the bed and I remember gripping the duvet, tightly, with both hands in an attempt to ground myself. Eventually I managed to control my breathing but I knew that today was a day that I simply could not do. The idea of using the phone to call in sick to work petrified me, and when I attempted to rehearse what I was going to say, no words emerged. I simply could not speak. My manager, who I am extremely lucky to be able to call a good friend and who knows about and respects my illness, was off that day so I sent him a text summarising the above – he could tell I was in a bad way, assured me that everything was okay, and told me that he would call in and let the rest of the team know. For the rest of the day I hardly left my bed. I didn’t eat, I barely moved, I was falling in and out of sleep and during the times of consciousness I was overcome with the guarantee that I was totally worthless, unloved, a failure – paranoia developed and every recent memory, every recent conversation was analysed to the point of complete insanity. The lethargy was almost too much – functioning simply was not possible. The end could not come soon enough. I emphasise that I was not suicidal at this point, I just wanted everything to go away. I sobbed and slept my way through the early evening and the next thing I knew it was morning again. By this point I hadn’t eaten a thing in over thirty-six hours, so I was physically weak. After forcing down a piece of dry toast I noticed the sun was shining. Suddenly my garden seemed quite inviting and the more I did – washing my face, putting some clothes on – the more things seemed to get a little easier. My anxiety was still high, but I forced myself to leave the house and buy something from the local shop. I couldn’t speak to the cashier, nor look him in the eye, I dropped my change and bumped into someone as I hurriedly left. But I’d done it. I spent the next hour sat by a nearby river watching the ducks before walking home and going back to bed. The following day I was due to see my best friend in London – I don’t get to see him much and every opportunity I can, I grasp with both hands. He has saved my life on many occasions over the years and truly is the love of my life. I felt excited – something I hadn’t experienced in a long time. I knew now that I was gradually coming back. The day was lovely, my friend was his usual wonderful self, but I came home empty. Normally, days in London (especially with this particular friend) fuel me, give me a boost, but this time I was devoid of all emotion, I could not empathise with, or relate to, anyone I met. I felt so out-of-place, convinced I was a burden who no one wanted around. Nothing mattered, I didn’t matter and I couldn’t make myself matter. That hadn’t happened before so intensely in this situation before. It not only scared me, but it also angered me – why hadn’t I FULLY taken positivity from the day? Why hadn’t I been able to enjoy it? I was so upset that I wouldn’t get to see him again for a long time. I punished myself – once again I was worthless.
By the Monday the panic had all-but-disappeared, now though I simply just did not care, I looked at myself in the mirror – I was grey, my eyes were emotionless, but at least I could function again. For the next three days I got up, went to work, came home – leading quite a solitary few days. I went through the motions and clung on. Then on the Thursday, something truly wonderful happened, which I see now was the turning point of this particular episode. You may be aware that I dream of forging a career in TV News. A head anchor at Al Jazeera, based in Doha, and a former broadcast journalist at BBC News and CNN made contact with me after reading this piece detailing my career ambitions. This in itself was incredible – someone so busy and so successful had taken the time to email me.
I will not do him a disservice by divulging any specific personal details, but Adrian Finighan informed me that he too had had experience of depression. We’d connected. A few months later he was showing me around the London newsroom of Al Jazeera, I met the team in the gallery, sat in while a bulletin went out live, met some of the journalists – everyone was so lovely. I felt calm, yet excited. I felt at home and welcomed into this dream environment. Afterwards we had a talk and I truly felt that he respected me, had faith in me – we’d bonded. He told me that I would succeed and had the potential to go far – I don’t think anyone has said that to me before, certainly not with as much conviction and definitely not by anyone so experienced and successful in the industry. My purpose had been restored. When I published the photo I captioned it thus: “This man may never fully know just how much I needed today and what it truly meant to me.” I stand by that.
There is still an awful lot of work to do in order to remove the stigma levelled at those of us who suffer from a mental illness, as well as increasing the understanding of such. Most hospitals across the United Kingdom are unable to provide mental health services around the clock with the chief executive of the mental charity Mind affirming just last year that there are “pressing and urgent needs, with very few people ever getting the right treatment at the right time.” A joint investigation between Mind and ITV News revealed that between 2010 and 2015 a staggering £85 million had been cut from mental health budgets for those under the age of 18. Much-needed money, money that has been promised is yet to trickle down to where it is needed. Deaths from suicide have increased 3.8% since 2014 in the UK, with female suicide rates at their highest in a decade. Suicides by men remain consistently higher than those by women – across the UK as a whole, three times higher. Sometimes “manning up” is not possible. Lack of investment in mental health services is a major issue, with many professionals on the frontline using terms such as “crisis point.” Creating parity between mental health services and those who support physical problems will never be possible while attitudes regarding mental illness are still so misjudged. Even this week I came across this appalling suggestion on a list of fundraising ideas. Fundraising for mental health charities is vital, but this is certainly not an acceptable method. Great care and sensitivity need to be taken when publicising anything related to mental illness. We can all be triggered in different ways by varying things and we certainly need to reach a position where society realises that “depression” does not equal “sadness.” The use of the word “mood” suggests that we have control over it, that we can quickly shift from being happy to sad, and vice versa. This belittles the condition with which so many of us live, and battle, every day. I’m unable to reveal its source, but let it be known that my upset, anger and disbelief were verbalised strongly.
So, I urge you – if you know someone who is, or you suspect is, suffering from poor mental health don’t judge or belittle their condition. Tactfully offer help and advice – let them know you’re there (and if you yourself don’t feel equipped enough to help, point them in the right direction). And if you’re reading this and YOU are struggling, NEVER be shamed into silence. It can, and will, get better.
If you have found this at all helpful, I’d love to hear from you. On Twitter: @NathanEChard and you can use the hashtag #MHAW17 to keep up-to-date with this week’s events.