Most of us are only surviving this Mental Health Awareness Week, and we can’t just talk about it
[Content Note: discussion of suicide]
It is Mental Health Awareness Week 2017 and the theme for this year is “Surviving or Thriving?” It’s a good theme, it makes you think about the level of wellness you can have when living with a mental illness. It suggests that it is possible to be thriving and living your best life when you’re somebody who experiences poor mental health. But alongside the trope of “awareness” to begin with, it made me think about what we’re aiming for in mental health campaigning. To borrow from certain circles on the left, what good is a talking shop when real action would make a difference to peoples’ lives? The truth is that with mental health services the way they are in the UK most of us who live with mental ill health day to day are not given the opportunity to thrive. Instead we are constantly fighting for services and support, which is, as you might guess, not great for your mental health, and thus it is survival we seek before we can even reach a state of being able to thrive.
There’s been a lot of talking about mental health recently. Quite literal talking. Prince Harry was commendable in admitting to suffering ill effects from his Mother’s death, but his talk of attending counselling left a bad taste in my mouth. When you’re a royal you can afford the best counsellors, psychotherapists and mental health professionals that quite literally money can buy. When you’re Jo Bloggs living with bipolar II and just getting through the day, those things aren’t usually open to you. Of course it is important to reduce stigma around mental health, to present mental health as something we all have, be it good or bad. Stigma can destroy lives when it shuts the door on jobs, which is a very real occurrence, and we need to get rid of the views that schizophrenics are violent or those with BPD are manipulative, because these things just aren’t true. But we need to go to the root of mental health conditions and support those with them so that they are able to recover, to cope, not just to survive but to thrive.
The NHS is being underfunded on purpose. It’s being worn down to the point that we are supposed to feel relieved when private companies come in and offer a questionable service that’s being run for profit. It is those of us with mental ill health who are bearing the brunt of this (alongside people stuck in endless queues for operations and people who need a continuity of care). For us it means waiting list after waiting list, tablets with side effects that sometimes outweigh your initial reason for taking them, a lack of follow up support and short bursts of therapy that might well be run as a course rather than one to one. This is not to dispute that meds and therapy courses aren’t helpful, but it’s the lack of specialist care that’s available. For that you need to take a drastic step.
It is obvious that attempting to take your own life means that you are acutely ill and need help. But in many cases it is only after an attempt on a person’s own life that they are able to access secondary mental health services. This is psychologists, psychiatrists, people who specialise in mental health. And yet lack of early intervention is a factor that almost certainly leads to somebody becoming so ill that they make an attempt on their own life. People are dying every day because they are not getting the right sort of help. Raising awareness, talking about it, talking to a friend, whilst all good things, do not replace specialised support for people who are very mentally unwell.
I have anxiety which seems to be becoming less controlled as time is going on. I am having what I have to admit are panic attacks, something I was reluctant to admit to before. My mood is something I will never quite understand, the slightest disappointment can send me spiralling into a deep self-loathing that makes me think all sorts of unkind things about myself. I recently had 6 weeks of really quite shoddy CBT and have been referred back for higher intensity CBT, a process which means I have to wait for a letter, phone them myself and then get put back on another waiting list. I’m not filled with confidence. I’m never filled with confidence, that’s half the problem.
The thing is though, I cope. I get up in the morning. I feed myself. I’m doing better than a lot of people who are also stuck in the same loop of waiting lists. I feel rubbish most of the time. I can’t stop worrying. On a scale from surviving to thriving I’m nearer the survival end. And I can start doing mindfulness and practice sleep hygiene and use breathing techniques when I am panicky, and if I’m lucky things will get better. But what if they don’t? What if things get worse? How can I or anyone else guarantee they will be listened to by health professionals? Why should we be coming to harm before action is taken? Why aren’t we allowed the opportunity to thrive?
Unfortunately I don’t know the answer, and I know there won’t be one under a Conservative government hell bent on destroying the NHS. The prospect of another five years under Tory rule is filling many people with dread, and those of us who struggle to keep our heads above the water are feeling the threat pulling at our toes. We can talk about it until we’re blue in the face, and yes let’s break down stigma, but let’s focus on the cause and effect of difficult to access, at times poor, mental health services. And just as things won’t get better with the NHS under Tory rule, neither will people with mental ill health. Some of us will survive. But more importantly, some of us will not. And that’s why we can’t just talk about.