The Dreaded Question

Question After Question

Questions.  Our lives seem to revolve around them and be driven by them, don’t they?  Job interviews, health checkups, shopping visits, even some of the ordinary conversations we have; there are questions.  “Where can I find…?”  “How do I do this?”  “Would you like fries with that?”  OK, that last question might not be such a frequent occurrence but it still crops up every now and again!

Regardless, we come across many questions in our lives.  Some of them are easy.  Others…not so much.  That being said, it’s a normal part of life, to question.  One of the things my partner’s toddler often does is practically interrogates us.  I’m sure parents are familiar with the word “why?”  Combine it with “but why?” or “OK…why?” and you’re got a recipe for a headache!!  Children are inquisitive by nature though, aren’t they?  It’s how they learn, how they grow.

As we get older, though, those questions become less inquisitive and more practical.  We ask how to do things, what kinds of specifications there are and other such things.  Sometimes it can lead to secrets or to the latest gossip, but we can be just as curious as those children.

An Uncomfortable Question

Not all questions are good questions though, as I’m sure you’d expect.  If I was to ask you all what your least favourite, or most uncomfortable question, I’m sure you would all the say the same thing…

“How are you?”

Yikes!

What do we even say in response?  For the majority of us, we’ll put on a smile and say “I’m fine”.  Even if we’re not fine, we’ll say that we are anyway because if we don’t, we unleashed a tidal wave barrage of more questions.  No one wants that, aside from masochists!  Why would we want to be asked more questions on top of the uncomfortable “how are you”???

But that’s just an uncomfortable question.  I believe there is one that’s even worse…

Intrigued?

Want to know what it is?

The Dreaded Question

So here it is, the dreaded question.  Personally, I believe it to be a horrible one, though admittedly it’s one that I use loads, especially when talking to others who are struggling.  Have you guessed it?  The question is:

“What can I do to help?”

That’s right: I asked “What can I do to help?”  On the surface, it might not seem like that bad a question but really it’s probably one of the most frustrating and exasperating questions ever asked!  Or is that just me and I’m overexaggerating it…?  I’m never sure!

See, people ask us this question when we’re struggling and it seems like a perfectly innocent question.  Yet…what do we say?  Just like “how are you”, we have no idea what to say.  Most of the time, we don’t have an answer we can give to ourselves, never mind anyone else!  How do we answer that question when we don’t even know what would help us?

Now, it’s not that people are being mean when they ask this question, as really they’re asking because they care.  Yet sometimes it’s one of the most awkward things that we can be faced with.

So how do we deal with it?  What can we do?

An Alternative

As difficult as it is, an alternative is possible.  One of my favourite suggestions is, instead of asking what people can do, simply come alongside them and try this:

“I know you’re not particularly good at the moment, so I just wanted to remind you that I’m here for you.”

It’s simple, it’s reasonably succinct and it gets the right message across.  There’s no pressure, then, to figure out what’s wrong, no obligation to give a truthful answer if we don’t really want to answer the question in the first place.

Believe me, it takes a major retraining of the brain because it’s almost human nature to ask what we can do to help, but it will be worth it.

So why not try it?

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Evaluating Experience

The Weight of Experience

Experience is one of those things that we seem plagued with in life.  Often, it can be beneficial because there are situations we go through and we know what to do or not do because experience has taught us.  Sometimes, though, experience can be a problem.  Take, for example, a job interview.  Nowadays, a lot of companies want previous experience – something which you, as a fresh-out-of-uni/college student, might not have.  Getting that experience can be difficult, especially if no one will give you a chance without you having previous experience.  It can be extremely frustrating!Quote: Experience is the teacher of all things - Julius Caeser.

Another thing that usually goes hand in hand with experience is qualifications.  If you are going for a job as a translator, for example, employers will look to see if you have the experience (ie, living in the country of the language you are translating to/from) and whether or not you have the qualifications (ie a degree or equivalent).  Qualifications are something that can be hard to come by, though at the same time a lot of people nowadays go to university to get degrees and an emphasis is put on getting higher education.  Sometimes, though, things happen, plans change and qualifications become a little redundant.

Take me, for example.  I trained as a linguist, getting a degree in French and Linguistics.  I didn’t do too badly and languages open a lot of doors, as it provides opportunities in translation but also in different countries if I wanted to move.  Having a background in Czech as well from the time I lived in the Czech Republic with my family, you’d think I would have gone into a career in languages.

Then depression happened.

Granted, getting a job in those fields was rather difficult and I ended up first in a wholesaler warehouse and then a bank, but depression knocked my career aspirations completely off.  Instead of looking at translation or language teaching or a career in France, I looked into blogging.  Specifically, mental health blogging and writing.

Which, as you know, is what I do now.

Experience…Or Lack Thereof

From that bit of my background, you’ll have seen I don’t have any qualifications in mental health.  In fact, you’ll see on every page of this website the words: I am not an expert, nor am I medically qualified.  Always seek medical advice in the first instance.  I put that because, no matter what I write, I am not qualified.

But I have experience.

Now, one thing I’ve noticed during my walk with depression, anxiety and insomnia is that people seem to look more for the qualifications.  When I first started posting content from this website on Facebook, a psycologist that I know immediately started commenting telling me she was surprised I was doing this and how “in her experience” these were the arguments against what I was saying.  She also went to great lengths, at one point, to make sure I knew exactly how long she had studied and how long she had been a psycologist.  Similarly, in my post about the So-Called Professional, I went with my friend to speak to that doctor after that disasterous appointment and she was equally dismissive of the things I had to say.

In more recent weeks, I’ve had similar struggles with my own GP.  I believe the things I’m feeling and experiencing, such as the vast swinging of my mood, to be symptomatic of Rapid Cycling Bipolar or Ultra Rapid Cycling Bipolar.  It’s taken a couple of months but I’ve finally managed to get a GP to listen.  It took both my partner and I fighting, where the GP refused to entertain the notion based on “his experience”.  It seems my lack of any qualifications and my lesser experience than his was simply not good enough for me to have an opinion, as it seems to be with a lot of other people.

But is experience all that it’s cracked up to be?  Is it the be all and end all?

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Extenuating Experience

One thing that I find to be true is that those of us who have personal experience of mental health seem to relate to it far better.  I know this is like the majority of things in life but hear me out.  Where doctors see us as patients who have X condition and need treatment A, therapy B and department C to be successfully treated, we take it to a more personal level.  We interact with each other, we look at how things affect us and apply that to other situations.

Customer Experience MattersMy prime example would be my blog.  Specifically, things like my Understanding Self-Harm guide.  Imagine a doctor whose only experience of self-harm is the patients in front of him and what they’ve done.  Explaining self-harm the way I have would be difficult, if not impossible.  Would he understand all the innate needs and desires that we feel when we want to do it?  Could he imagine just how different all those needs or desires would be?  After all, no two mental health struggles are exactly the same.

Is not my experience, in this instance, far more valuable than his years of training, his qualifications and then his subsequent years of qualification?  Am I not able to explain the phenomenon of self-harm better than the doctor might?  Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that my opinion is so much better than the professional, qualified opinion.  What I’m saying is that my opinion is different and that that can be a good thing!  You see, the professionals, with all their years of study, qualification and experience, will have all the technicalities, the medical and physiological answers down to a T.  Me, standing in for the lay person Joe Public, will have the whys, the hows and some of the reasoning behind what I do.

Is that so difficult to imagine?

That I, Alex Davies, lay person with no qualifications in the mental health sector whatsoever, might actually have a different, yet just as important, understanding of mental health?

The Power of Our Experiences

Unlike the professionals, as not all of them will have lived with these conditions, we know what’s going on inside our heads.  We know where we fall on categorisations.  Mood charts and on everything else that would come under our diagnosis, we understand.  We know how we feel.  Don’t we?  We know if something isn’t right.  Does that mean we should always bow to the professional opinion because they have their qualifications?

No.

I don’t think so.

Professionals are great, as they have the technical side of things nailed, this is true.  But we understand what’s actually going on inside our heads.  My opinion may not be a learned, qualified one but, instead, it’s one brought through first-hand experience and one that, in its own way, is just as valuable.

What do you think?  Are our experiences and our opinions just as valid as the professional one?  I’d like to know!

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Ignorance or Ignoring?

Are People Ignorant or Just Ignoring the Issue?

So often, while I’m scrolling through tweets and doing my interactions on Twitter, I see stories of how people seem to be struggling with how others view mental health.  Too often they are talking about how other people dismiss their struggles as trivial or “all in their head”.  I can’t help but wonder, when reading these, whether it is deliberate.  Are they ignoring the issue?

In the past year, someone I know has gone through a separation.  This separation has been made difficult by the other party effectively burying their head in the sand.  Despite my friend being out of the house for a year or so, the partner still insisted that my friend was going to come back, that they were all going to be happy families again.  My friend has said unequivocally that that will never happen, yet still the ex-partner insists on referring to my friend as “love” and won’t accept that they are completely separated.

Is the ex-partner truly ignorant of the issue?  Or simply ignoring it?

Ignorance

At Pushing Back the Shadows, we are no stranger to ignorance.  We see it every day on our Twitter account, on our Facebook account and on other social media profiles.  Plenty of people don’t seem to understand mental health.  More the hows and whys than anything else, but there is that lack of understanding.  When I see these, I try and offer explanations for some of the things going on.  I try and shed light on those issues.  After all, it’s what we do.

Personally, I find ignorance is excusable to a point.  If you haven’t really come across anything that really requires you to learn about the subject, how can you be expected to know about it?  With mental health, if you don’t really know of anyone who suffers (granted, statistically there will be someone but they might not be open about it) then why would you feel the need to educate yourself?  To a point it is excusable, as everyone has something they need educating about.

But when does it become inexcusable?

Ignoring the Issue

As with my friend’s ex-partner, there comes a time when the ignorance is more than just ignorance.  It’s deliberate.  People who have the evidence put in front of them or have had the problems explained multiple times are ignoring the issue, plain and simple.  Unfortunately, there aren’t two ways about it.  They are burying their heads in the sand, unwilling to accept that their view or their belief is being challenged.  Some perceive mental health to be a load of rubbish and, despite more and more people talking about their struggles, refuse to budge from that stance.  Others realise there is a problem but won’t accept that the person suffering cannot always make a change the way they would want.  They think of it as an issue of laziness, which isn’t always the case.

For people like this, it doesn’t seem to be a case of ignorance, as they have had plenty of opportunities to learn.  It comes down to ignoring the issue, refusing to accept something different to what they believe.  It’s sad that people like this exist, but that’s what makes us all unique and all different.

Ignorance vs Ignoring the Issue

So what do we do with these people?  Those who are ignorant and those who bury their heads in the sand?  Realistically?  We should seek to educate those who are ignorant to the struggles of mental health but not to the point of exhausting ourselves.  We should identify when they are refusing to accept the truth or reality and when they are burying their head in the sand and realise that we’ve tried our best, we can do no more.  As long as we’ve tried, that is what counts.

What do you think?

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The Long Haul

The Long Run

There is no quick fix.  No shortcuts.  When it comes to mental health, it’s something that can be thought of as a long run.  A long-term illness.  Wouldn’t you say?

See, that’s the thing that I hear most often about depression and mental health.  The most common misconception seems to be that depression is like a light switch, that we can just switch it off and snap out of it.  Too often we hear people telling us to just get over it.

But it’s not that simple.

If it were that simple, wouldn’t we just get over it?  Wouldn’t we try and avoid living like this?  From the things I’ve experienced and some of the things I’ve heard, I can’t imagine anyone who would ever want to actually live like this!  I could be wrong, of course, as there might actually be someone out there who wants to live like this, but somehow I doubt that.

No, the sad fact is that depression is a long-term illness and there is no quick fix, as I’ve previously discussed.  Out of all the mental health stories I’ve heard, none of them are over and done with in a matter of weeks.  It takes months and months of medication and/or therapy to recover.  Even then, there is a possibility that it will never truly go away, that it will lie under the surface much like a ticking timebomb, ready to strike again.  There is no short solution.

In It For the Long Haul

Recently, I talked about how we, as a society, put the onus on the person who is struggling.  Phrases like “you know where I am if you need me” have started to become the norm.  Roughly translated, a lot of the time it means “I’m going to make the offer of support but never follow it up, so it’s up to you to contact me when you’re struggling”.  Is that your experience or is it just mine?  (Disclaimer: I know that it isn’t the way everyone means it, it’s just been my general experience with people and I’ve heard of a lot of similar experiences).

Anyway…enough about that bit.  My point is that we have a tendency to put all of that responsibility onto the person who is struggling.  Coupled with that, we seem to have some kind of misconception that it is that short-term illness with a quick fix.  A couple of pills, a little therapy and you’ll be alright.

Wrong.

It’s long-term and, subsequently, you need to be in it for the long haul!  Half of people’s struggles nowadays come from people promising they will be around and then disappearing after a couple of weeks when they realise that it isn’t going to be an easy fix.  They stick around as long as they think they can bring you out of it but, at the first signs of rebuttal or long-term illness, they retreat and abandon you.

Be Prepared

Now, this isn’t what everyone does, I know that.  I’ve been blessed with some great friends who have stuck by me through thick and thin, whether I’m in a good place, a bad place or an absolutely awful place.  That said, I’ve also had people just drop away like flies the moment they realise it isn’t as simple as providing me with a little encouragement and a kind word here and there.  Admittedly there has to be some give and take as well, we as the sufferers have to be more understanding of other people’s situations as well, but as I’ve said in the Onus: it takes 5 minutes to send someone a message checking up on them.

So be prepared.  Be prepared to help these people.  Be prepared to accept that there isn’t a quick fix.  There is no easy solution, nor should there be.  To fix something complicated, you have to take time.  So we have to take the time to fix mental illness.

That means we’re counting on you.  We’re counting on you to support us and to keep supporting us, whether we’re ill for weeks or months or even years.  We need that support.  In our minds, we can’t do this on our own.  We either believe we’re not good enough or we believe we simply can’t do it.

So please, if you say you’ll be there for someone then make sure you’re there for the long haul.  If you don’t think you can cope with that, please don’t promise the help.  We need you.  We need your support.  So please…be in it for the long haul.

That’s all we ask.

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A Blanket Fort

Memories of Blanket Forts

Have you ever made a fort out of blankets?  In our house, it was something we used to do a lot as children.  Grab an airer or clothes horse, grab some sheets and blankets and build a den or a fort.  It’s simple, it’s fun and it’s something that kids enjoy.

I remember we had some brilliant blanket forts as children.  We used to let our imaginations run a little wild and see if we could make it bigger and better than last time.  Often this meant borrowing some of the double sheets from mum and dad, or a large blanket.  Add some torches, some pillows and a couple of fun things to do like books or toys and you were sorted!

Does that sound like something that you’ve tried?  Perhaps you’ve got some fond memories of making dens or blanket forts when you were younger.  I think it might be something we’ve all done from time to time.  It’s great fun!  But guess what!

It has a practical application for adults too!

A Blanket Fort

Roughly six months ago, I made a blanket fort.  My friend, who was in the process of learning how to cope with being separated from her husband, was struggling.  She’d had to take the kids over to see him for his visit.  Consequently, her anxiety had tripped, she was doing really badly.  During these times, it’s common for her speech to disappear so she can’t communicate.  She also worries at her hands with her fingernails, scratching psychological itches.  Frustrations increase when she can’t talk or when she catches herself itching.  Needless to say, it gets into a bit of a vicious cycle that she can’t seem to bring to a halt.

I was on the phone with her at this point, as she and the kids were staying with me for that day.  Due to housing troubles, it had had to be arranged like that so she could leave her old house.  As I was talking to her, I quickly picked up on just how bad things had got.  It was then that I remembered this cartoon:

Making a blanket nest to help someone through depression.

You probably see where I’m going with this, but I had an idea.

Quickly, I grabbed the airers dotted around the flat.  Grabbing some blankets off the bed and duvet covers out of the cupboard, I started setting up a nice blanket fort around the sofa.  It took a little work but it was there, able to be sat in.  A few cushions came next, then I had another idea.  I have a little light-up Death Star model that changes colours and can be quite therapeutic, so I added that as well.  Finally, I put my tablet in there, setting it to play some relaxing music and go through space pictures.

The fort was complete.

The Effects of the Blanket Fort

It may sound silly, perhaps almost childish, to make a blanket fort.  After all, it’s something we do as children, not as adults (unless we’re playing with a child).  That said, it had the desired effect.

Upon her arrival, I brought my friend into the lounge where the blanket fort was set up.  Her initial reaction was surprise that anyone would do something like that for her but, once she had been brought into the fort, her anxiety started to abate.  After about an hour or so of sitting in that blanket fort, she was completely calm once more.  Even though it sounds a little daft, it worked.

And perhaps that’s the most important part.

You see, it doesn’t have to be a blanket fort.  It can be a snuggly blanket, a little nest like in the cartoon above, or any number of other things.  The whole point is that you’re creating a safe space for them.  Somewhere reasonably confined, warm and inviting where they can relax.  If they like music, put music on.  Lights?  They can help.  Alternatively, darkness might be more their thing.  Whatever they like, try and make it as inviting to them as possible.

As another small example of a safe space, I’ve talked about how music has a big influence on my life.  When I need a safe space, I plug my headphones in, turn my iPod on and listen to music.  With noise-cancelling headphones, I can retreat from the world and relax a bit.  It works for me, it might work for others.

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Just a Trend

Mental Illness is just a Trend

That’s right, you read that right.  I, Alex Davies, founder of a website that promotes mental health awareness and support, just said that mental illness is just a trend.  Do I really believe that?  Of course not!  That said, it’s an interesting topic to consider.  Take a walk with me as I unpack it.

Over the past few years, we’ve seen an increase in people being diagnosed with mental health issues.  Now, this could be partly due to the increases in external pressures and triggers, as some people would say, or it could be a greater awareness and openness for mental health.  In the past, mental health was not something that was widely talked about.  You kept it hidden.  It wasn’t heard of.  Out of sight, out of mind, that sort of thing. Nowadays, however, it’s more widely talked about.  So is it that it is on the increase or is it just that more people are talking about it?  That’s something for the philosophers to debate.

What I’d like to know, though, is whether or not the epidemic is as bad as it seems or whether it is “just a trend”.  (Note that my opinion will come at the bottom, so you’ll have to read on to find it!)

So is mental health a trend that people follow?  Are the people who claim to have mental health issues genuine?  From where I sit, I see three immediate categories that we can put this into:

  1. Genuine Sufferers
  2. People who don’t quite get it
  3. The social media hype types
Genuine Sufferers

This is exactly what it says on the tin: people who are genuinely suffering with some form of mental illness.  They have those day-to-day issues that hinder them, whether that’s getting out of bed, looking after themselves or being unable to leave the house.  Their struggles are real, their issues hamper their everyday activities and they clearly have some form of mental illness.  Note, these are not always diagnosed as, for some, they cannot make themselves go to the doctor but many of them will have been diagnosed.  They might be on medication and they may be undergoing therapy or they may be managing it with alternative means.  Nevertheless, they are struggling.

For genuine sufferers, they face a wall of stigma and judgement that often prevents them from expressing how they truly feel.  They keep it buried inside, fearing that other people would be harshly critical of them or simply not know how to express it.

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People Who Don’t Get It

These are probably the most multitudinous that I’ve come across.  You’ve seen them, I’m sure.  The people who post statuses like: “I have to wait a whole year for more Game of Thrones, I’m so depressed!”  In reality, they aren’t depressed, they’re just a little sad, but they blow it out of proportion.  How often do we see it?  Far too often, I think!

Why am I picking up on this group?  Well, I believe it simply adds to the fog of stigma and judgement around us.  If we can see they’re not really depressed, others can see through it too and it just builds up this wishy-washy idea of what depression actually is.  By associating it with the word, it can create that false image that others will then believe.  For all we know, it could be where this “just snap out of it” rubbish came from…

We see it a lot, though, don’t we: the ones who over-exaggerate this sort of thing.  People who give themselves labels without taking that moment to understand what it means.  What is depression?  What is anxiety?  Is it what they make it out to be – being “anxious for school exams” or “depressed because the latest season of Game of Thrones has ended” – or is it something more?

The Social Media Hype Trend

As I’ve mentioned previously, I do a lot of interactions on Twitter and on other social media sites and I now notice patterns in some of the things that go up.  The most common example is the number of people who post things online – particularly photos – and appear to be fishing for compliments.  Comments like “I’m so ugly” or “I’m no good at anything” or “I’m so fat, I need to diet” and other such things are frequent posts.  The photos that are coupled with them, however, more often than not, contradict what is being said.  Like I said: it’s almost as if they’re fishing for compliments.

Now believe me, this isn’t always the case.  Insecurity is a horrible thing and it might be that they just want someone to give them that reassurance.  However, it’s possible that some do it just for the compliments.  If social media makes it “trendy”, everyone wants to get involved.

Your Turn

Over to you…what do you think?  Do you think I’m right or do you think I’m wrong?  Let me know by leaving a comment.  I’m interested in getting a discussion going here.

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The Onus pt 2 – The Damaging Effect

The Onus – We’re Here For You

In June last year, I tackled a subject that I thought was very uncomfortable yet very pertinent to mental health struggles: the effect of putting the onus on people.  In that article, I acknowledged that so often we mean well – we’re here for you, if you need help then all you have to do is call/message/shout – but sometimes that can actually lead to people being more isolated or feeling as though their concerns are not valid.  Basically, it can be highly damaging .  Check out this snippet of my point:

The Onus Problem

What’s the problem?  You’re offering them your support, you’re telling them to contact you if they need the help…so isn’t that a good thing?

Do you know what?  It’s great, it really is.  I’m pleased that you’re there for your friend or family member.  That being said, there’s something you need to consider.

Can they talk about it?

For a lot of people going through mental health struggles, opening up and talking about it is one of the hardest things to do.  Every time my friend struggles and spirals, the first thing she does is hide because she doesn’t feel she can ask for help.  I’m the same: I find it hard to say “I’m struggling, please help me”.  It’s just not something that comes easily.

Are they likely to talk about it? Not always, no.

Realistically, there is another reason that we have to be mindful of when putting the onus on people, one that might be far more dangerous than the one I mentioned in the post itself…

The Onus Effect

For some, the effect that the onus has on them is simply what I said in my previous post about it: that they feel like they can’t ask for help yet they really should be asking and, so, they beat themselves up for not being able to ask.  It can lead to additional stress and frustration and worse.

But that’s not the effect I want to talk about.

I think this one is actually much worse.

For some people…it can make them feel as though they deserve it.

Let me expand on that a little.  See, for some people, they wouldn’t feel like they were able to approach others and ask for the help that they need.  As a result, they wouldn’t get that help because people are putting the onus on them, making them speak up for help and thus trapping them in that cycle of needing help yet being unable to ask for it so not getting it.  Moreover, when no one asks them how they are, if they need help or makes that effort to contact them, it starts them off in a cycle of increasingly negative thinking.

Check out Aimee W’s thoughts on the matter:

Realistically, it’s not an uncommon perception for people struggling with mental health issues, as I am and as Aimee W is.  I’ll be completely honest with you, it’s something I’ve thought plenty of times.  I’ve mentioned before about how people have just cut me off and I’ve not been able to bring myself to be the first to message and that, in turn, has led me to think that I’m not worth it.

That I deserve this…

What Should We Do?

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: we need to stop putting the onus on other people.  If someone was suffering from cancer or from another physical health condition that left them in hospital, we wouldn’t be expecting them to contact us if they needed anything.  No, we’d be checking up on them, asking what we could do to help.

So why should it be different for mental health?

That’s right: why should it be different for mental health??

The answer is: it shouldn’t!

Really, we should be asking people with mental health difficulties how they’re doing.  We should be making that contact.  Yes, we all have other things that we’re trying to do because everyone has a life to live, everyone has priorities that need taking care of but still…it takes five minutes (if that!) to send someone a message.

1 in 4 people in the UK struggle with mental illness.  Do you know what that means?  That means there are 3 people for everyone 1 of those 4 who could be checking up on them, making sure that everything is alright.  Unless, of course, those 3 people don’t care.

Please don’t be one of those people.

As I’ve said before, reaching out takes 1-2 minutes and it could save a life.

People don’t deserve cancer or leukaemia, they don’t deserve mental illness either.

So please don’t make them feel as though they do.

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Become a PatronDisclaimer: I am not an expert, nor am I medically qualified.  This blog is based on my personal experiences only.  Always seek medical advice in the first instance.

The Face of Depression

An Impassive Face

One technique that I use to cope when I’m around people, particularly people I know, is that I try and keep an impassive face.  I try and make sure there is no feeling out there, no outward emotion, nothing.  It wards off any unwanted questions.  You know the sort I’m talking about.

A person behind a mask.Previously, I’ve told you about my mask and how I use things like humour to keep people from seeing what’s really inside.  It’s something I do a lot and this impassiveness is a part of it as well, though one i don’t talk about as much.  You may have noticed it, you may not.  Anyway, I’m not going to talk much about my mask because I’ve written enough about that.

This is different.

This is about the face of depression.

The Assumed Face

You might be thinking I’ve lost the plot slightly but hear me out on this one.  You see, I hear it a lot on our social media accounts that people are under the illusion that they can detect a depressed person.  Call it similar to gaydar, where people think they can detect a gay person.  Personally, I think gaydar is a load of rubbish no matter what people tell me, although I will acknowledge that some people make it a little easy to work out!  Anyway, that’s beside the point.

My point is that people think depression has a face.

I remember having a conversation with one of my managers at my old job to tell him that I was struggling.  I clearly remember him looking surprised and saying, “I wouldn’t have guessed!  If you had been put in a line-up with nine other people and I’d been told that one person of those ten was depressed, you’d have been the last person I’d have picked!”

What does that even mean?  How can someone look depressed?  I suppose people will imagine someone looking like Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh, that gloomy, anhedonic character with the glum, flat voice.  They believe that that is the face of depression, that everyone who suffers is a lot like that.  Is that your experience as well?  Do people expect you to be like this?

That perception couldn’t be further from the truth.

The True Face of Depression

The true face of depression is a hard one.  Why?  Because really, there isn’t one.  Some people will look like Eeyore, it is possible.  They won’t go out, they won’t smile, they won’t show much interest or pleasure in anything.  Others, however, will look very different.  Like the picture on the right.  Most of you will recognise my face there.  I’m smiling.  I seem happy.  Yet, I am depressed.  I am medicated.  A lot of the time, I really struggle.

Where is the face of depression?

What about this image?  Cheryl, dressed up as a mermaid for a Halloween party.  She’s smiling, isn’t she.  If anything, you’d say she looks happy.  Surrounded by family – her daughter and son are just off camera in this photo – she looks as though she’s having a great day.  The reality?  She has depression.  She has anxiety.  Like me, she is also medicated and she struggles.  Perhaps far more than either of us care to admit, we struggle.

Where is the face of depression?

You see, the sad truth is that there is no “face of depression”.  It’s a myth, cultivated by the media and society to make them feel better about mental illness.  Realistically, as I mentioned earlier, it is about as real as this “gaydar” that people talk about.  Yeah, some people give off vibes that practically scream “I’m gay” but there are still plenty of people out there we surprise us when we find out they’re gay.  And it’s the same as depression.

So next time someone admits to you that they’re depressed, don’t ask them what they have to be depressed about.  Don’t tell them they don’t look depressed.  Moreover, don’t assume that we’re fine just because we look happy.

After all: all it takes is a beautiful fake smile to hide an injured soul.  They will never notice how broken you really are.

Depression has no face.  So don’t assume.

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Become a PatronDisclaimer: I am not an expert, nor am I medically qualified.  This blog is based on my personal experiences only.  Always seek medical advice in the first instance.

 

Workplace Workout

In the Workplace

What job do you do?  It’s a question we commonly face, isn’t it?  At those large social gatherings where there are lots of people who don’t know each other, it’s one of the staple questions for anyone trying to make the infamous “small talk”.  Do we have a family, what do we do for a living, perhaps what kinds of interests we have.  But…what about how our job is?  We get asked sometimes whether we enjoy it but…what if the workplace sucks?  Do we answer that one honestly?  Perhaps not.

What kind of workplace do you work in, then?  Does it have a good environment?  Hopefully you enjoy the job that you do, but sadly there are a lot of us who don’t.  For some, turning up to work is a chore, something that they do only to earn their keep.  They arrive, do their job, pack up, go home, then repeat the next day.  It might not be the fault of the workplace, it might just be them.  But nowadays there seems to be an awful lot of workplaces that people say aren’t quite as good as they should be.

So what am I writing about here?  Well, unfortunately it’s not to campaign for an overall overhaul of the workplace.  That, I’m afraid, is not something that can happen.  We can’t magically make everyone like their jobs as there are still jobs out there that no one wants to do.  Instead, I’m focusing on one particular aspect of employment.  Have you guessed it yet?

Mental health.

Mental Health in the Workplace

At the moment, it seems as though workplaces have a bad reputation as far as mental health is concerned.  It’s given an inferior place to physical health and colleagues with mental health issues always seem to feel discriminated against.  At least, that’s as far as people’s experiences and the conversations that I’ve had with them seem to go.  There just doesn’t seem to be that overall support for mental health.

In October 2017, the Guardian published an article stating that roughly 300,000 people with a long-term mental health problem lose their jobs each year.  Paul Farmer, Mind’s chief executive, and former HBOS chair Dennis Stevenson authored the Thriving At Work report, which was published with all the budgetary figures and other important information regarding this claim.  They were shocked by the findings, but put part of the problem down to stigma.  It’s almost as if mental health is still a dirty little secret that people have to hide.  They also believe there is a lack of support and a lack of understanding within some workplaces, along with a lack of quick access into mental health services.  Feelings of exclusion or isolation are also common phenomena.

Does this sound about right?  Are those words describing how you feel?  Perhaps, if you’re an employer reading this, it describes how some of your workforce feels.

But what can we do about it?

A Workplace Workout

Is it time to give your workplace a workout?  Stretch those cramped muscles and rejuvenate your workforce and give your employees that sense of value or sense of belonging that they might need.  It sounds difficult, particularly with mental health being such a taboo topic no one talks about, but it is possible.

One thing that I would recommend above all others is that you listen to the needs of your employees.  Despite this culture where we have to get medical professionals involved and get their stamp of authority on everything, the person actually going through the struggle themselves will be more of an expert.  They will know what sorts of things help them, what things don’t, how their individual conditions affect them and so on.  If anything, the doctor will be able to give you the technical know-how and the authoritative stamp, but the patient will be better suited to tell you what they think they need.  Then, it’s up to you.

What are they asking for?  Is it too much to put into place?  Perhaps find the compromise.  After all, the majority of employees with mental health struggles aren’t expecting you to move mountains for them.  They realise that they can’t get everything that they might want, they know there are things that they will have to compromise on.

So what can you do?  Realistically, getting occupational health involved is one of the best things you can do.  They are the trained professionals equipped to assess the employees and determine the best course of action.  Yes, there is a cost involved in bringing them in but surely that cost is less than the cost of your employee going off sick?  As for their suggestions or recommendations, again: is it going to cost you more if your employee goes off sick?  Have a careful think before you decide they are too much trouble.

Workplace Experiences

Those of you who follow my journey will have seen how my mental health affected my time at work.  Looking back, I’m still fairly adamant that I’d still be there if the right things had been put in place.  If occupational health had been brought in, if adjustments had been made, I might have been able to cope.  Instead, the employer decided that it was better to let me, as a temporary employee, go.  Whether that was legal or not, I’m still not certain, but they decided that was their best course of action.

Now take Cheryl as an example.  After an extended period of sickness, she’s returned to work – in the same place that I was.  In all honesty, it’s been a disaster.  She’s been back for four weeks and a lot of things haven’t quite gone according to plan.  Occupational health is only just getting involved, she’s not had a return to work, her manager has been so distant he’s almost not there and she’s been exhausted practically every day from the battle she’s having to fight to get in.  You can check out her experiences in First Day Fears, Educating Employers, Fumbling Through, Time to Talk and Got to Fight For It to find out more information.

The Short Version

In short, you as an employer need to listen to your employee.  Find out what they need and make those reasonable adjustments.  It will cost you less in the long run and help them continue to work for you.  Get occupational health involved and ensure your front line managers are equipped to deal with mental health issues in colleagues.  As mentioned in the report in the Guardian, a lot of people end up losing their job because of a lack of support.  And that’s not just a statistic; I am one of those people.  So please, employers, support your employees.  You could make a difference to them!

Time for that workplace workout.  Need more support?  There are plenty of resources out there, in the form of individuals and organisations who would be happy to help you, myself being one of them.  Go on, give us a chance.  Who knows what a difference it could make?

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Become a PatronDisclaimer: I am not an expert, nor am I medically qualified.  This blog is based on my personal experiences only.  Always seek medical advice in the first instance.

A Protected Bubble

Protected, Life In a Plastic Bubble

Have you heard of The Boy in the Plastic Bubble?  From 1976, the film stars John Travolta and is about a boy who was born with a dysfunctional immune system.  Contact with normal, unfiltered air might kill him, and so he has to live in conditions that can only be described as like an incubator.  If he emerges, he might die.  As such, he has to live his life inside that bubble, protected from the things that might cause him harm or kill him.

Now why the bubble?  What could that possibly have to do with mental health, I hear you ask?  After all, it’s not as if we are contagious or like the world outside will kill us if we come into contact with it.  So what is it?

The answer: protection.

More often than not, when I talk to people on our Twitter, Facebook, Instagram or Imgur accounts, I hear stories that have very similar themes.  People open up about their mental health conditions and others start to treat them differently.  Granted, not everyone does so, but there are definite examples of when people treat them differently.  What am I referring to?  Simply, those friends who will distance themselves and rarely talk.  Others who will almost shun them because they “have a mental health condition”.  In this case, however, it’s more specifically those that suddenly treat us as though we’re fragile.

To Protect Us

Do you find that people start treating you as though you’re made of glass?  After you’ve said, “Yep, I’ve got depression/anxiety/bipolar/etc”, it’s as though you’ve suddenly become that boy in the plastic bubble?  People who would confide in you suddenly stop doing so.  Others who might use you as a sounding board for their problems, or who might come to you for advice start to look elsewhere.

Slowly, one by one, they all abandon you.  Why?

For your protection.

Now, don’t get me wrong, sometimes that’s what we need.  We have the struggles of our own mental health and own life events to worry about, do we need the added pressure of other people’s lives on top of that?  Not always, no.  For some, that might actually succeed in making them feel more anxious.  But is that the case for everyone?  I don’t believe so.

There are two points that I want to make here, ones that I firmly believe in and hope that everyone else will have heard of at least once:

  1. We are exactly the same person that we were before we disclosed our mental health conditions to you.
  2. We might be sick, but that does not mean we’re weak.

Have you seen those words on social media or heard them from someone?  I know I have.  But what do they mean for us?  Us, as friends and family members of people who suffer.

I’m the Same Person

Believe it or not, I’m exactly the same person I was before you knew about my mental illness.  For the majority of us, once we are diagnosed, we don’t normally go shouting our condition from the rooftops.  Stigma tends to keep a pretty good wrap on that one!  If we’ve told you we are struggling, whatever that might be with, the chances are we’ve been suffering for a few weeks, maybe a few months or, if we’re really secretive and private, a few years!  So why should we be different now?

Realistically, we’re not.  We are the same person.  You just know a different aspect of us, the same way you might come to my house and suddenly discover I love Star Wars and Star Trek.  I don’t shout about it or advertise it, but it’s a part of me.  With that in mind, why exactly do people stop sharing problems with us or hide bad days from us?  To spare us?

Protected From Problems

I can understand that people would want to protect us from their problems.  After all, there is always that fear of making things worse for us, especially those of us who struggle with mental health.  The line “but I don’t want to make you worse” is often dragged out as the reasoning behind someone declining our offer of help.  It’s understandable that people would feel this way but is it justifiable?

No.

Granted, there will be times when we can’t handle someone else’s problems on top of our own.  We all have those days where everything is going wrong, where we can’t handle everything being thrown at us.  I get that frequently in my journey.  That doesn’t mean I can’t support you, even in a limited capacity.  Protecting me from your problems isn’t necessary.  If I can’t handle it, then I can’t handle it but realistically it won’t make me worse.  My mood might dip for a moment or half an hour or something, but it cannot and will not make me worse than I already am.

This is definitely an approach subjective to each individual, but I find hiding those problems for fear of making me worse can actually be the cause of that feared harm.  If I pick up on the fact that someone is struggling but hiding it from me, it kicks my mind into overdrive, telling me they don’t value me, that my help isn’t good enough, that I can’t fix their problems.  The list goes on.  Even though I know these aren’t true and that the problem, in this case, lies with me (in what I’m thinking), it doesn’t stop them from coming.  I still fear the reasoning behind why you’re keeping the problems from me.

So What Am I Saying?

What am I saying?  At the end of the day, keeping us inside that plastic bubble will prevent us from growing.  How can we learn to cope with different stressors in addition to our conditions if people keep things from us and prevent us from helping?  For those of us who find relief in helping others, how are we meant to find that relief?  While it’s definitely a subjective approach to each individual – as some won’t be able to handle it – it’s something that people need to consider seriously.

As Cheryl has stated previously, perhaps we are never meant to be complete but, instead, we can be broken together.  Even in our collective weaknesses, we can find strength and get each other through.  We don’t have to be whole, we don’t have to have it all together or know where we’re going.  It’s OK.

 

We don’t have to be kept in that plastic bubble to survive.

We can be broken together.

So please, don’t feel like you’re burdening us.  You tell us we’re not a burden, well neither are you.  So can we just be broken together?

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Become a PatronDisclaimer: I am not an expert, nor am I medically qualified.  This blog is based on my personal experiences only.  Always seek medical advice in the first instance.