Mental health awareness week / by Ailsa Fineron

Hello everyone. It's the 11th of May 2015 which means we have just started Mental Health Awareness week (MHAW). Though this year the focus is on mindfulness, I'm going to talk about combatting stigma a bit. This is purely because I am a mindfulness novice, whereas I have a fair bit of experience of being very open with people about my mental health/lack thereof. 

This MHAW I have decided to change my facebook profile picture to a self-portrait. However, instead of it being a self-portrait of me looking happy, or like an empress (it's a look I've been working on recently), it is a snapshot of what I look like when I'm depressed. It is by no means a full representation of how I feel when down, or even what I look like when down (often I'm faking a smile), but hopefully it will help to fight the silence and stigma around mental health issues a little. I've chosen to do this because I'm hoping it will make people face some of the reality of mental illness, and also confront the fact that we present a very polished version of our lives to the outside world- both face to face and through social media.

Facebook and other forms of social media are often seen as complete insights into friends' and even strangers' lives. They are definitely insights, but heavily edited ones. Rarely do I see people saying that they are struggling, that they are unhappy, that they need help. The majority of the time, people's profiles consist of photos of them having a laugh, smiling, surrounded by friends. This is definitely not a bad thing! However, it is all too easy to forget that these people whose lives we watch through a screen are actually real humans who have problems in their lives, who get lonely sometimes, and who may even suffer from a mental illness.

Though I have written in the past about my experiences of depression and bipolar II, I know that my facebook profile still only represents a few facets of my real life. If you were to scroll down my wall, your impression would be of a young woman who takes pictures of things constantly, has lots of energy and passion for fighting for inequality, who is confident and popular. Some of these things are pretty much true, but there's an awful lot missing from that narrative.

What you don't see is me lying in bed having just spent the evening meeting new people, agonising over how I talked too much, came across as idiotic and how everyone must think I'm an arrogant twat.

You don't hear the occasional tirade of body hating thoughts and urges that even now still come back to fill my head sometimes.

And last night you didn't see me curled up in a ball, sobbing, because I couldn't see the point of trying anymore. Even though I knew that good people still existed, it didn't matter in that moment because they were all outnumbered and outweighed by the apathetic people, and those who are intent on hurting others. You didn't see me shouting at myself and how I should be able to snap out of this and do something. Or hitting myself when I couldn't.

I know that the above is not a nice picture to imagine. Especially when you consider that I was also covered in snot due to the amount of crying I was doing. But it's an important one. 

I know that there are some people who look up to me and consider me strong. I think I'm strong too. But I also think it's incredibly important to look at what each of us means by 'strong'. 

All too often it means someone who is 'immune to emotions', who never admits to suffering, who doesn't need help. I think this is a very damaging idea of strong. When we hold up this definition of strong as ideal -and we do, particularly for men- it leads to people being unable to reach out for help. This would be fine if we were all happy and healthy but we're not. 1 in 6 British adults experiences mental ill health at any one time and the suicide rate in the UK has risen since 2007 to the same rate it was at in 2004, with men's suicide rates consistently higher than women's, and at their highest since 2001 in 2013. Clearly people, particularly men, are not getting the help they need and I believe that our ideas of what makes you a strong person contribute to this, in the form of creating stigma around suffering, mental illness and talking about our emotions.

I am happy to call myself strong because my definition is different from the above: I believe that to be strong is to be able to admit to being weak -because we all are sometimes-, to be able to be vulnerable in front of others, and to take the steps you need to to look after yourself. Being strong is bending so you don't break, but then, if that fails, realising that that' s okay, that you can ask for help, and that you can accept help when it comes along. Doing so is not weak, or self-indulgent, or attention seeking, it is necessary for survival. Being strong is admitting that you are not perfect and never will be and knowing that that's okay, it's human.

Unfortunately, for far too many, mental illness wins out over hope and help, with the aid of stigma. I want to be clear that I do not think that people who commit suicide are weak, on the contrary, I think that they are amazing people for holding on for so long. I understand that sometimes the pain is too much. However, I think that often this pain is preventable and lives can and should be saved. 

It may seem like a small thing, but being open about mental illness can lead to so much good. Taking care to watch your language and not throw around phrases like 'I've had such a bipolar day', 'you're so OCD' etc can make a big difference to those who actually suffer from these illnesses, unknown to you. And just saying that you'll be there for someone, even if you don't understand what they're going through, can be a life saving act. And, though it's hard, saying openly that you suffer from a mental illness can be a wonderful and liberating thing. If you're not in a position to do that, then that's fine. But if you do feel okay with doing so please consider it. I've chosen to also change my profile picture because I think it will be a stark, in-your-face reminder of how no one is happy all the time. If you would like to do the same then please do. Alternatively, you can share mine. Hopefully together we can dispel the stigma around mental illness and create a new, helpful narrative around weakness, strength and asking for help so that in the future, we can all get the help we need and deserve.


I'll leave you with a variety of resources which I have found helpful:

How to reach out to someone with depression
An excellent comic about experiencing depression
Part 2 of said excellent comic
Mind: charity for mental health