The ‘Mental Health Conversation’ Is Not Boring – And Still Relevant

ACS-0013

I’ve seen a shift recently in how people view advocacy and raising awareness around mental health and mental illness. To some it’s now ‘boring’ or no longer necessary or needed. I think they’re wrong.

It should be obvious to anyone in the UK that mental health services are underfunded. Waiting times are atrociously long and there is still is no parity of esteem (when mental health is given equal priority to physical health) in the NHS. Understaffed services mean staff are stressed and over worked. Patients can’t be admitted when they’re seriously ill because of a lack of beds. Young people are being sent hundreds of miles away from their families for care. Suicide rates have gone up and are at the highest since 2002. The problems go on and on. It’s vital we talk about this and make change happen by campaigning, writing to our MP’s and making our voices heard when there is a general election.

Some people are making the case for this being the only issue, or at least the main topic, in the mental health conversation. To say we are at saturation point of awareness coverage, or we need to move on, I think underestimates the stigma many individuals still face. It’s almost naive and I think sometimes comes from a position of privilege. Some mental illnesses are talked about more than others. They’re more accessible, easier to digest and people to relate to. Certain groups are more willing to listen, accept and support someone with a mental illness. When you mix in other prejudices that people cope with (racism, homophobia, transphobia, for instance) which exacerbate mental ill health, these issues need to be addressed.

It worries me that with this attitude, there will be instead a shift in focus in the media, to another cause or issue that feels more relevant, or needs addressing. Our valid concerns will be less in the public eye. Changing public perceptions of mental illness shows the public how serious these conditions are and why it’s so important that we can all access quality, timely care to mental health services when we need it. Awareness educates and informs, and sways public opinion to standing up for our cause.

We often talk about reducing stigma/raising awareness or the need for more funding for mental health services, but why are they seen as mutually exclusive? Surely we can talk about both issues and still help to create change. This conversation as so many have labelled it, is far reaching and means different things to different people. So what do we actually mean when we say ‘mental health’ ?

People still don’t know how to talk to someone who is experiencing psychosis. They’re still scared and uncomfortable around people with schizophrenia. They think bipolar is just being happy or sad. They still believe people with BPD are manipulative. That PTSD only happens to soldiers. People still describe OCD as being overly tidy. They still think people talking about depression and anxiety are attention seeking. So can anyone please tell me the conversation is no longer needed?

 

To My Online World, And How You’ve Helped Me Grow

ACS-0008

 

TW: Suicidal ideation

The period between 2003 – 2013 was a whirlwind of changes for me. The catalyst for these changes came from my online world. A place that held me safely in it’s hands. It was a place without judgement and a community full of compassionate individuals. I could feel the warmth and strength of genuine friendship reverberate around me. I felt like I’d finally found my family.

Where did this vulnerability, this raw honesty come from? The internet was full of the outsiders. Individuals trying to find their people.

In real life I was struggling. I felt like an outcast. I was trying to discover who I was and I felt deeply uncomfortable in myself. I’d never found my ‘tribe’ at school, or even when I started University in 2004. I was constantly called ‘weirdo’, ‘freak’, ‘alien’ during my time at school. I thought University would be a positive change, but I was so very wrong. I found myself surrounded by people I had little in common with. It caused me to modify my behaviour; the way I talked, the music I listened to, the shows I watched, so I could fit in. There was an intense, feverish need to belong. I wrongly thought I was the one that needed to change. That my differences were holding me back. I didn’t have anyone in my life urging me to celebrate them.

University life ended abruptly for me. I didn’t know at the time, but I was struggling with bipolar disorder. For the first term I’d been manic, euphoric and full of an insatiable energy. I fitted in with others in my halls of residence because I was the life of the party. By the next term I was in a downward spiral into depression. I realised the friendships I’d made were based on going out to bars and clubs and my unceasing hyperactivity. I had nothing else in common with them. Feeling alone and desperate, I dropped out.

Going to Uni meant owning my first laptop. At home we’d had a family desktop computer. It was so ancient that my teachers would ask why I was writing essays on a typewriter.  I’d missed out on msn messenger. Having one computer between six people as a teenager meant battling with my brothers’ to use it. Homework would have to come first and then there was my Dad who was also studying for a degree. My best friend lived five minutes away so if I wanted to chat, I’d just go over to hers. Now she’d left for University and I was back at my family home. My deepest connection to someone outside my immediate family had disappeared.  I felt lost without her.

Having my own laptop coincided with me finding my independence. I didn’t discover the online world until I’d dropped out of Uni. I was a huge anime fan and in my search for original Japanese versions I stumbled upon the then humble world of internet forums. These were the days of  hours of constant buffering. An online video could take half an hour or more to buffer enough to make it watchable. Infuriating as it was, it meant my attention was drawn to the forums in the sidebar of these sites. I felt awkward introducing myself to strangers on the internet, but I was bored and wanted to waste some time whilst the wheel of death spun round in front of the video. Greetings started pinging back. I felt a rush of excitement that people were acknowledging me.

I started paying more interest in the content. It wasn’t just people discussing anime. They were talking about their lives, their hopes for the future, their worries and doubts. These were people that were showing a genuine interest in me. Collectively, we were lonely. I had always been made fun of for my passions. I listened to under the radar indie, electronica, house, techno and hip hop music. An eclectic mix that people in my real life just didn’t get. Then I was also a nerd who watched Star Trek and read graphic novels and manga. I played video games and was obsessed with Nintendo and the Zelda games. Now I’d found a group of people that had had the same experiences and liked what I liked. A group that were smart, funny and lovable.

Names didn’t matter in the forums. Your age, gender, ethnicity wasn’t important. What was important was creating meaningful connections and supporting each other. If I’d had a bad day, I’d go straight on the forum to vent my frustration. It didn’t feel like I was shouting into the void. 

The first people I came out as bisexual to were my online friends. The connections we’d forged meant I was comfortable enough to tell them. It was the most vulnerable I’d ever made myself, but I wasn’t afraid. I was met with a pure acceptance. These were no longer just strangers, no longer just people, but my close friends. Coming out online to this small, tightly bounded group made me feel safe and secure. One person in particular was almost deafening in their support. She called herself Mel9000, and we’d grown close. About a week later she made an unusually tentative message. She’d found the courage to tell us all she was gay.

This brings me back to why we felt we could be so open online. These were people that didn’t feel accepted, because of their lifestyle, because of their idiosyncrasies. The internet opened up the world to us; we could find people that we clicked with instantly. Many of us felt socially isolated in real life. Everyone else seemed to connect and create friendships so seamlessly. I could hide who I was and put on an act to fit in, but many of the people I met online either wouldn’t do this, or had no idea how to. I wouldn’t say I was lucky to be able to put up a facade and make real life friends. In fact, it made me feel more alone and isolated. 

My family didn’t understand how I could spend hours alone in my room. When in fact, I was surrounded by friendly, supportive people; my online family. Mel and mines relationship had grown. We were speaking to each other privately away from the forums. We realised we both lived in the UK, living a few hundred miles apart. Excitedly we realised we could meet, out in the real world. We met and started a relationship. It felt we already knew each other, we had overshared so much of ourselves online.

The most valuable gifts the internet gave me were of self belief. That being weird was an asset. I could use it to propel my creativity forward into new and exciting places. That there were people that would accept me out there in the real world, I just had to work harder to find them, and I did.

The internet began to change. The forums I’d grown so attached to started petering out. But then, I hadn’t been paying them as much attention. I also changed. I met my now husband through online dating. He sent me a ‘wink.’ I brazenly sent back an essay about myself, with a touch of oversharing thrown in. It obviously worked and we’ve now been together for coming up to ten years. The forums had shown me that the internet could bring individuals together, that otherwise would never have met. As we got to know each other, we realised we’d been living in the same town, and going to the same gigs. I’d been up at the front dancing away, he’d been standing shyly at the back. It felt so strange to realise someone I had such a powerful connection with had over the years been standing just meters away from me at music festivals and at bars. To be in so close a proximity to someone but never speak, only to meet online and fall in love shows the power of the internet.

After over a decade of struggling to understand my constantly extreme mood swings and bizarre behaviour, I was diagnosed with Bipolar 1 and Psychosis. It whipped up an array of emotions for me; of a deep guttural anger, a sense of purest relief and of almost overwhelming fear. This was in 2012. I doubt without the forums I was so attached to I would have survived to receive a diagnosis. I never felt judged for sharing my feelings.

I’m still deeply connected to my online world and the connections I continue to create. There’s been this refocus in my online life in the past three years, to twitter and the mental health community that resides there. Twitter can be an endlessly supportive place, it’s just the way you use it that’s important. I’ve managed to find yet again a group of people who I can rely on, that I can lean on when life gets tough. People will share the most intimate thoughts about their mental health which takes serious guts. Most of the time we’re met with love and support, but every now again a troll finds it’s way through. This for me is the major difference in how the internet used to be. It has harsher edges now and it’s easier to find yourself getting cut. It feels more open and although I embrace the fact that more and more people have access to the internet, it can easily lead to confrontation.

I look at it this way; it’s an opportunity to educate and inform someone who has lived life from an entirely different perspective. Whether they are willing to learn and grow from my experiences that I share online, is entirely up to them. I believe by utilising this perspective the internet could become a better place to be in. We need to relearn that we can’t change people. We certainly can’t force that change by shouting and screaming our opinions at one another. We can use the passion for connection and understanding from that more innocent time on the internet. We are capable of putting our thoughts forward with both passion and kindness. There is growth for more genuine acts of listening and accepting difference. In the mental health community on twitter is where I’m seeing a burgeoning sense of togetherness. I feel like part of a group of like minded people again.

I felt pretty lost after my diagnosis. In fact, I became suicidal. I remember I had been sitting at the table crying for what seemed like hours. The thoughts circling my mind were becoming too painful. With conviction, I walked to the kitchen and opened the drawer where my pill boxes were laid out. Collecting them up I spread the medication over the table. I grabbed a bottle of whiskey and began drinking from it, grimacing as I did so. The tears continued unabated and between sips I cried hysterically whilst staring at the tiny pills.

I was inconsolable. I felt there was no hope for me, that I had to keep fighting when I had no fight left. I was crying so much I could hardly breathe through my sobs. I felt devoid of life. It felt like I was in a haze between life and death, of wanting to die and making it a reality. It didn’t feel like my mind was connected to my body any longer. The world around me felt ethereal, and I in a trance. A trance that could only be broken by ending my life. I wasn’t alone for the rest of the day, with my boyfriend coming home early from work to look after me. I don’t remember much else from that day. The hours morphed into a muddied state of tears and an inescapable dread. The only escape I could find was going to bed, and as I lay there I wondered if dying was like falling asleep, and how I wished that it could be this easy; that I didn’t have to ever wake up from this sleep.

I would never have written this, or admitted it, if it hadn’t been for the support I now have from the community on twitter. It’s different to the support I had on the forums back in the noughties, but it isn’t inferior. The way I spoke about my mental illness back then was full of oversharing, but often with a pinch of sarcasm and self deprecation. I hadn’t grown to accept what I was going through and how much of an impact it was having on my daily life.

As a writer I self promote; as a freelancer its essential. I’m older now and the way I use the internet has evolved as I’ve matured. I have more of a foothold, a stronger online presence. I’m fiercely open, loud and proud about my experiences of mental illness and being bisexual. There’s no more anonymity from me. I’ve found that’s a positive step. The forums I found such a connection with may have disappeared, but they gave me the confidence to stand up for the vulnerable, embrace the weird and fight against discrimination. I truly believe these online communities forged the way towards creating a generation more open to difference than ever before.