What does mental illness look like to you?
Someone who sits in bed all day, unable to face the world?
A person who goes around crying all the time and is never happy?
Or perhaps even a nutter who shouldn’t be alone with children?
The reality is far less interesting. For you see, mental illness looks like…me.
Or your brother, sister, mum, dad, uncle, friend, cousin. Even your son or daughter. Maybe even you.
1 in 4 people in the UK suffer from some form of mental illness. That’s an incredible number isn’t it? But despite what the newspapers, television programmes or social media might lead us to think, we’re not all nutters and weirdos. Most of us are normal people going about our business.
Let me ask you a question. Before I opened up about it, did you know that I suffered from depression? What about anxiety?
And here’s another question. Do you know that I still do? Or did you think I was all cured now?
How many of you have stopped to ask? How many of you even know what depression and anxiety are?
Depression is not being in a state of permanent sadness. Sufferers do not walk around constantly on the edge of tears. Most of us are not bed ridden or house bound recluses. Depression doesn’t care if you are happy or sad. As a matter of fact, depression is in some ways the complete absence of emotion. Life loses meaning, there is no joy to be found, no matter how we may be blessed. We exist because we have to but we do not live. Not really.
But mental illness isn’t a real illness, is it? It’s all just in the head. It’s not like having cancer or breaking a bone. That’s real, I can see that, it’s physical.
Well let’s put that myth to bed.
Mental illness is real and believe it or not, it is physical as well as mental. Quite apart from the complex chemical imbalances that cause depression in many sufferers, symptoms include the very real physical properties of loss of energy, poor concentration, changes to diet and changes to behaviour. Sufferers may withdraw from life, isolate themselves.
But even without these physical manifestations, the mental anguish is difficult enough. Imagine being told every day that you’re no good, that you’re stupid, that you’re ugly, that you’re fat, that you’re a failure, that you get everything wrong, that everyone hates you, that you don’t deserve happiness, that you can never change.
Now imagine that this voice is your own.
That is what it feels like to live with depression and anxiety.
But if it’s all in the head, just stop thinking that way, right? Just forget about it, don’t take things so seriously, pull your socks up, get on with it, think how lucky you are!
Oh if it were that easy. Depression is not feeling down because your favourite programme just finished or because they didn’t have any beans at the supermarket. Depression is a persistent, pervasive lowering of mood. It can come quickly, perhaps triggered by a specific event, or come on gradually.
And anxiety is not worrying that you’ve run out of milk or that it might rain at the weekend. Anxiety is a state of hyper stimulation, locked in a constant state of readiness for an event that will never come, expecting the worst.
Stress is not the enemy. Stress is a friend that gives us the impetus to move forward. But anxiety and depression hit when the stress becomes too much for too long. Like a kettle constantly at boiling point but never able to shut off. Or the elastic band, so pliable until you pull too hard for too long and it snaps in two.
Mental illness destroys lives. Sometimes it even ends them.
I am lucky. I had the opportunity to undergo therapy. I spent three months in a mental hospital, surrounded by patients with a broad spectrum of illness; from depression to OCD, bi-polar to self-harming.
In some ways my mental illness cost me my job. At least it didn’t cost me my life.
But two years on, I am far from cured. I am wracked by anxiety on a daily basis. Depression remains an uninvited guest, constantly banging on the door to come back in. Sometimes I let him, it becomes too difficult to say no. But it’s even harder to get him to leave.
I decided to be open about my illness because I wanted to change and to show others that mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of. But many others are fighting their own private battles or suffering in silence.
Together we can end the stigma around mental illness.
Mental illness is not mental weakness.
I am a married father of twin girls and a young son.
In 2013 I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety and spent three months receiving treatment at the Priory Hospital in Roehampton. As part of my recovery, I began exploring mental illness in blogs and stories and in 2014 I self-published three collections, which are available on Amazon.
Recent pieces published on my website include a series exploring how a healthy living plan affected my mental health and a look at the highs and lows of being a parent whilst battling mental illness. I also write weekly retrogaming articles for a videogaming website.
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