As many of you will know, Saturday 10th October will be World Mental Health Day. Our mental health is so very important, arguably more important than any other aspect of our lives, and we felt as though one day wasn't nearly enough for us to say all we have to about the topic. In general, we want to be a force for good and to help where we can - shining a spotlight on issues that matter and normalising conversations around issues that shouldn't be hidden.
Those suffering from mental health issues of all kinds report that stigma remains despite increased awareness - there is a fear of being judged by friends, loved ones and employers, and limited understanding of what specific mental health issues look like in real life as opposed to on the big screen. Those who suffer often do so in silence, afraid to reach out for the support of those around them.
On a personal note, one of my oldest and dearest friends suffered from bipolar disorder, or "manic depression" for much of her life. She found it hard to talk about, saying so few understood what it meant; some thought bipolar disorder was just extreme mood swings, others that it meant she was "mad".
Her childhood was pretty normal until she began to suffer extreme tiredness and low mood in her teenage years. Over time, she was diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and was no longer able to swim competitively, which had been her passion. In her late teens and into her early 20s, she began to suffer with periods of very low mood and incidents of self harming, drinking to excess and suicidal thoughts. In between these periods, she would feel fine- better than fine actually. The low periods were weeks or months long, and as time went on the depression in these periods deeper. The shorter phases of "mania" would follow, lasting days or weeks, before another period of severe depression would hit out of nowhere.
As is often the case with such periods in bipolar disorder, the high periods were as problematic as the lows, with very poor decision making, grandiose ideas that were not achievable, spending huge amounts of money without thought for the consequences, acquiring pets and generally taking on far too much. The inevitable crash in mood meant that the results of all these poor decisions were amplified. For twenty years, my friend suffered in this way. Drinking became a way of life, self harm and suicide attempts regular. She had periods in rehab, psychiatric interventions, huge help and support from family and friends, but ultimately the disease was bigger than all of us.
Living with bipolar disorder was so frightening, both for my friend and for those who loved her and could only stand by, helpless. My friend tried many medications, but with a tendency to abuse them or take overdoses at low periods, and feeling that they they were unnecessary during highs, it was incredibly difficult to maintain a regime. They also came with substantial and distressing side-effects, such as extreme weight gain, fatigue and a permanent foggy feeling. Neither the benefits system nor the health system seems terribly well set up to deal with people whose problems include an inability to consistently engage with support. There were a number of noteworthy social workers and CPNs who went above and beyond for my friend (before being moved to different areas or roles) and our local disability welfare charity Dial House were wonderful in coming through to help deal with the benefits paperwork that is far beyond a person who is unwell. But ultimately, my friend was failed by the services we expect to help people in need. There were times when she was treated as an inconvenience or a nuisance, others when it was implied that she made the choice to be seriously ill and unable to live a "normal" life. She hated her illness and talking about the more personal aspects of how it affected her. An intensely private person, few people knew the depth of her struggles, so it was a huge blow for her to share this with professionals and those in the benefits system and continue to be let down.
She died 2 years ago, and she is so very missed. Despite how she felt on the inside, if she was well enough to go out she would be smiling, laughing and making jokes. She cared so deeply for her friends and family, forever buying them presents and always thinking of them. When well enough, for the last decade of her life she would volunteer for with cat charities and in a local cafe. She barely passed another person without a friendly word or a smile. Despite her own struggles (or perhaps because of them) she never lost her desire to bring a little joy to the lives of those around her. And she was someone who would always text to ask, how are you? She could be in the darkest of places, and yet would still be trying to help someone else out of theirs.
She wouldn't want to be remembered for her mental illness, but I'm sure she would want to be remembered as someone who cared for others' mental health. That checking in, the "how are you" and the "but really, how are you?" are so important. It's easy to assume that our friends and family are fine, that they would tell us if they weren't, but in reality many would rather suffer in silence than risk feeling they are a burden on loved ones. 2020 has been quite a year, and I'd guess that moods may be lower and stress levels higher than usual. Knowing there is someone out there thinking of you, and who cares about how you are, can make a huge difference. I think of my friend a lot, and I resolved to take that lesson from her - the checking in on friends, the showing you care more often.
So today, as a little challenge, why not send a message to someone who you think might be struggling (or even someone you're sure is not) and ask how they are? Even if they are on top of the world, they're likely to appreciate it. And for people who are struggling, knowing someone cares enough to ask can make all the difference.