This week is Mental Health Awareness Week. So far I feel that 2017 has been an incredible year for Mental Health awareness. The London Marathon's chosen charity last month was Heads Together and the press surrounding that was truly incredible, most poignantly of course being the interview that The Telegraph's Bryony Gordon did with HRH Prince Harry about the therapy that he got after the death of his mother.
With 1 in 4 of us now struggling with a mental health illness in some form, there has never been a more important time to have this conversation, to do what we can to rid the world of the stigma that has somehow attached itself to illnesses that we can't 'see', that aren't 'physical', that are all 'in our heads'.
Doing what I do I am lucky to see the work of some truly incredible people fighting to end that stigma. My Twitter feed is full of the most inspirational women talking honestly about their issues and friends of mine regularly send me news stories and pictures that they think I will be interested in relating to these issues. Through my work with Help For Heroes I have learnt about PTSD and the extraordinary things that the charity are having to do to help the 70,000+ sufferers of it. I have known friends who have been consumed totally by eating disorders and watched others battling with the darkness in their mind that is depression. And me? Well I'm incredibly anxious. All of the time. Parties scare me, people scare me, the worry that something has happened to my dog/mum/brother/sister/dad/boyfriend/neighbour/dog-sitter/childhood friend when I can't physically see them safe and well in front of me? That TERRIFIES me. I have read incredible stories from people, had some heartbreaking conversations with people and negotiated the whole thing out in my head over and over again. Mental health is very important to me.
And so that is why I have loved 2017 so very much. I can feel the change this year, something feels different, conversations are being had, we're being more open, I can't pinpoint the change exactly but deep down I feel that something magnificent is happening. And about time too. For so long we have battled mental health illnesses, alone. Suicide is the biggest killer of men under the age of 45. The BIGGEST KILLER. More men are taking their own lives than dying of cancer or being killed in a car accident. They're suffering in silence, afraid to speak out until they physically cannot go on anymore and they take their own lives. Eating disorders, anxiety disorders and OCD would go undiagnosed for years as the sufferers either got a) too good at hiding their conditions or b) were brushed off as attention seekers or weirdos. Depressives were told to get a grip, were assumed to be going through a 'phase' or were ignored and undermined. And all of this happened because we didn't know how to deal with it.
We still don't really. Despite the fact that we will all know someone who is struggling with a mental health problem in some capacity, many of us still don't have a clue what to say to them. We're out of our comfort zones and out of our depths. It's not simply a question of telling someone to pull themselves together and dust themselves off, nor is it a question of trying to heal everyone with the same stroke, every condition is complex and differs massively from person to person. The NHS is overstretched, assuming that people feel that they can ask for help in the first place and the combination of all of these things? Well it makes conversations about it difficult, to say the least. What do you say to someone who is starving themselves to death? How can you say ANYTHING to a person fighting a disease so powerful that it is killing them? A person who perhaps doesn't want to die, who wants to be better, but who physically can't bring themselves to eat? What do you say to someone who's mood fluctuates so massively that over the half the time they can't control what they are saying? How can you be angry with them or reason with them or talk to them when they can't hear what they are saying, let alone what you are saying? How can you help someone that doesn't know how to accept help?
So how can we blame people for not understanding? For lacking empathy or compassion? I can't. I get frustrated with them, I get angry with them, but I can't blame them because our total lack of understanding has come about as a result of a complete lack of education. And that's what needs to change, that's, to my mind, what Mental Health Awareness Week and every week after this should be dedicated to: helping people who don't understand, to understand.
I asked people on Twitter to tell me the one thing that they would say to people who didn't understand their condition and the answers all struck a similar theme: "please be patient with me", "please don't be too frustrated with me" - this is people feeling like they need to apologise, that they need to ask for you to understand them, they're having to make an excuse for their behaviour, for their ILLNESS. And I shouldn't have received these answers to this question. People shouldn't have to feel like this.
Would you say to somebody that had broken their back that they needed to just 'get over it'? Would you fuck! Would you say to somebody in a coma that the should 'stop attention seeking?' NO! Would you say to someone who had lost their leg that you 'understand what they're going through' because one time your whole toenail fell off? Not unless you were an actual and literal moron you wouldn't. So why do we think it's okay to say these things to people who are suffering with mental health issues? Telling people with depression to 'get over it'? Telling someone who is having a panic attack that they are 'attention seeking'? Telling someone who is experiencing an episode that you 'know what they are going through' because when your cat died twelve years ago you were like, SO bummed out? Because these things happen, so much more than you might think.
"Just because I don't look ill, does not mean that I am not struggling."
This was a response to my question on Twitter and this is something that we need to understand. We really don't know what anyone else is going through, until you have walked a mile in a person's shoes you can neither understand what they are going through, nor can you comment on it. But that does not mean that we cannot try to be more understanding and more compassionate. 2017 is going to be the year that attitudes towards mental health issues changed, I can feel it.
But we really need to work together to ensure that the hard work of not only the people that ran and campaigned in the London Marathon but of all of those who took the time to read a story about a mental health condition or open their eyes to these issues over the last four month hasn't gone to waste. Now is the time to talk, to help and to try to understand.