I was in the psychiatric ward. Tears were rolling down my cheeks as a nurse looked over me, giving me a hell of a pep talk.
I had just opened up to my parents that I was in a psychiatric ward, suffering from mental health issues. Despite their support towards me, I felt ashamed. I felt as though I was weak. I felt as though my so-called weakness had been exposed. “There is absolutely no shame at all in suffering from mental health conditions!” the nurse said to me kindly. “You wouldn’t be ashamed if you had a fever and asked for help there, would you? So why the shame here? You’ve done nothing wrong. This is not something that you could have helped.”
Of course, the nurse was completely right. I should not have been feeling the way I was feeling. But yet, I was. And ever since then, it got me thinking – why is it so difficult for us to open up to help, when that is the thing we need the most?
Not wanting to ‘worry’ anyone
For any ailment – mental or physical – this is a very common one that I have come across. I’ve come across this both as a patient myself and as a Medical Student talking to other patients’ concerns. An elderly gentleman is diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, for example. He has children, grandchildren, a loving wife and many other people closely attached to him. This gentleman may feel scared to open up to anyone or ask for help, out of fear of worrying them.
It’s a similar case for mental health issues, especially if you have people close to you who you feel as though you can trust. Indeed, this is the factor that led to me withholding the information from my family from a long time. My Mum was alone, looking after my siblings. My Dad was working day and night abroad, living alone there with enough problems of his own. So why should I bother them with my troubles?
In pretty much all cases, however, loved ones would rather know that not know about anything negative that is affecting us in our life. Sure, it may worry them but it won’t distract them from anything else as such. And even if it does mean they have to spend more time for us, it is something that loved ones are always very willing and happy to do from the bottom of their heart. To anyone else who felt similar to me – please don’t worry about worrying others. Honestly, opening up to my parents was the best thing I could have done.
Anxiety really does make us anxious!
This issue isn’t exclusive to people suffering from anxiety, but it can be an issue for people suffering from any sort of mental health condition. Anxiety can really destroy the mind. It is horrible. Anything and everything is over-analysed. For example, I smile at my best friend and they seem to only give half a smile back. Oh my goodness, are they upset at me? What did I do? I swear their smile was only a half smile, not a full one! Should I go and apologise? Did I smile at the wrong time? Should I go and confront them? And so on.
It is a very similar case in trying to ask for help. On the one hand, we are so desperate for any sort of help that we can get but then on the other, we always over-analyse the countless possibilities that could occur if we do decide to go down that route. Mental illness just does not seem to want to let us be. It constantly forces us to think irrationally, many times making us not even realise that we are thinking irrationally. It is a very clingy and manipulative illness.
Just because we don’t always go to ask for help does not necessarily mean that we don’t want the help in the first place. Quite the contrary.
“The stigma is bullshit and shouldn’t exist.” That’s what my tutor at Medical School said to me when I opened up to him. He is quite right, of course. Sadly, the stigma does exist and this makes it hard for us to open up.
For some people, mental health is associated with people being ‘dangerous’ or whatever rubbish like that. A film or TV series portrays some crazy character to be mentally ill. In some cases, the mental illness is used to provide some sort of comic relief, as though it is funny that they’re acting the way they do. The reality is that it is not funny at all. The vast, vast, vast majority of mentally ill people are not dangerous and certainly, going through an acute episode is not funny in any means.
To potentially open up to people when this is the way we are portrayed seems almost foolish. I cannot understand why the media still portrays mental health in this negative light. It is encouraging to see more and more people trying to end the stigma (and indeed, this is why I started this blog in the first place) but until the reality of mental health is understood, it will remain difficult for people to open up.
Some of you may be reading this, smiling as though I’m crazy and saying: “Dude, those films are a joke for goodness sake!” Regardless of whether it is meant to be a ‘joke’ or not, they add to the stigma associated with mental health. And I also find those jokes to be rather rubbish and unoriginal.
Why opening up was the best thing I did
There are many other potential reasons as to why people may feel scared to open up to others about mental illness, but I thought I’d try to finish on a bit of a positive to explain my story of opening up.
I have already explained this briefly in my other blog post about my experience in staying in a psychiatric ward but here I’ll go into more detail.
I remember it being late at night in the psychiatric ward with me feeling very lonely. I decided to give my parents a call. They asked me how I was, like they usually did when suddenly – bam, I burst into tears. I didn’t hold back. I told them everything from the beginning. How I was on antidepressants, how I was admit in a psychiatric ward, how I was hearing voices in my head, how I felt so empty inside, how I felt so lonely, how I felt I was losing a part of myself, how I felt as though life wasn’t worth living…
I told them and…silence. My Dad gently asked me questions, while my mum continued to remain silent. Eventually, I snapped and asked: “Is Mum OK? She’s being awfully silent…” and I held by breath. Was she going to be angry? Annoyed? Upset? To my surprise, there was gentle laughter from my Mum. “You’ve been so, so, so brave to tell us all this,” she said to me kindly. “It’s your birthday tomorrow. We’ll buy a cake, I’ll make your favourite food and we will have a huge celebration. How does that sound?”
It didn’t stop there either. Over the next few weeks, my parents were there to constantly check up on me to ask how I had been feeling. When I was celebrating my good mood, they’d celebrate my good mood with me. When I was feeling down, they’d help me get back up. If I wanted to cry, they’d offer me a shoulder to cry on. Every singly time I think to myself – thank goodness I broke down that day and revealed everything to them.
My (true) friends
The biggest fear is the unknown. Indeed, with mental illness, you get a mixed bag in terms of responses from your friends. Whilst this does have obvious negatives, I try to take it in a positive light and say that it shows me who my true friends are. My friends who will be reading this will know that I’m talking about them but I shan’t embarrass them by naming them and telling the world how awesome they are.
I remember when I first got my diagnosis of depression and was started on citalopram. Many of the side effects I got to citalopram were the uncommon ones, and caused me to behave slightly differently compared to how I used to. Eventually, I decided that I couldn’t continue like that so took a huge gamble and…told my friends about why I seemed to act strangely sometimes. To some of my friends, I’d send them the strangest texts from time to time and not even realise I’d done it. They always helped me see sense via social media and helped calm me down when I most needed them. In many ways, I don’t think my recovery process could have even begun if it weren’t for them.
Then there were many other friends who I had at Medical School. I couldn’t go in to sessions like dissection for my own wellbeing and that caused me to feel very much isolated. But despite that, my friends seemed to pick up on that and would phone me without fail after their lectures so that I could talk to them. They’d come with me to the GP practice sometimes, even if they were meant to be asleep or they would offer to cook for me, or get my post for me when I was feeling down and out. I’d lose my temper from time to time at the sheer frustration of my position but did they leave me? No, absolutely not. And that helped my self esteem.
My personal tutor
Sadly, this one is a mixed bag. Some people who open up to their supervisors, tutors or colleagues may feel as though they start getting treated differently – and not in a good way – to how they used to be treated before they opened up. For me, thankfully, I got a very understanding tutor. Indeed, I was pleasantly surprised by how my Medical School did deal with issues such as these. It did, for the first time, make me slightly optimistic about mental health awareness for the future.
The tutors at my Medical School are either all doctors or professors, with very busy lives. Despite this, my tutor always managed to find time to see me (I should add, I feel, that he was our tutor on a voluntary basis rather than for any incentive). Any concern I’d raise with him, he’d feed back to the Medical School to make my life much easier. Any times the Medical School asked me about my absence, he’d be on hand to reply to them and make sure it was clear that I wasn’t doing it on purpose. He’d text me even on the weekends or late at night just to check up on me to see how I was doing.
“What about my exams?” I once asked him. “I’ve been off so much lately that I can’t emphasise how unprepared I am for them.”
“Don’t worry about those things,” he said, waving his hand. “The most important thing right now is yourself. We’ll apply for mitigating circumstances together to make sure you’re not disadvantaged in any way, and I’ll make sure you get them.”
Mental Health issues are not easy to open up to at all. In my experience, however, when I did eventually open up, it proved to be the best thing I had ever done. The hardest step, in my opinion, is the initial step in opening up to them. After the initial opening up, things seem to fall into place. There is absolutely no shame, or sign of weakness in talking about your mental health issues. I hope that my experience can give others the encouragement to have a go.