How I treated my own mental health problem and what technology can do to save the rest of us
Two years ago I experienced a short period of acute anxiety. To be specific it was Obsessive Compulsive Disorder that manifested itself in the form of Negative Automatic Thoughts. In real terms, it meant that I had frequently recurring and deeply disturbing thoughts. It was almost impossible to quiet my mind.
It resulted in sleepless nights for almost three months, a constant and sometimes painful knotted stomach, and at times thoughts of suicide and symptoms of depersonalisation—a terrifying phenomenon that can only be described as a feeling of being disconnected from one’s own body.
About one month into this slump I sought professional help. I made an appointment with my NHS doctor. Ten minutes (the standard time for NHS GP appointments) was all I had to describe my symptoms and for the Doctor to prescribe me with a course of action. I left the doctors with very little advice, a ton of unanswered questions, and a referral note for a course of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). I’m not sure what I expected of my doctor but reassurance that I was normal, that I would be able to manage and cope with my anxieties was not what I received.
What I naïvely wanted was a quick fix that could help me get back to ‘normal’. Instead, I had to join a six-week-long waiting list for the CBT. Anyone that has suffered from anxiety and depression will know that six weeks can feel like a lifetime. To add to this the nearest mental health clinic I could get to was 45 minutes from my home address and two hours away from work. Needless to say, the CBT was scheduled during work hours.
Dismayed at the inconvenience of it all I began to self-diagnose. It’s worth stating at that point no one, not even my doctor had told me what it was that I was actually experiencing. I’m not one for labels, when it comes to mental health everyone’s experience is different, but what labels do help with is getting started with a Google search.
It’s there on the internet that I learned the clinical definitions of anxiety, OCD, negative automatic thoughts, and depersonalisation. It’s there that I also read stories from people who had experienced shockingly similar thoughts and feelings, which was instrumental in helping me realise that what I was going through was not uncommon.
Of course on the internet there’s no stopping you from over doing it on the self-diagnosis. Being the hypochondriac that I am there were moments when I convinced myself I had Generalised Anxiety Disorder and schizophrenia. Ironically, during a period of anxiety you genuinely fear that symptoms will worsen and become chronic—Hollywood depictions of ‘crazy people’ do little to reduce these fears.
Lost in the murky depths of Web MD and still waiting for my CBT to begin, I became increasingly worried. It’s at that point I decided that I would go down the medication route of treatment. I had another appointment with my doctor and asked if I could have tablets. The Doctor gave me this short questionnaire to complete. It featured questions like “Have you found little pleasure or interest in doing things?”, to which I answered by way of multiple choice, indicating the frequency at which the feelings were felt. I handed back the questionnaire. In return, I received a prescription for Citalopram, a popular Selective Serotonin Re-uptake Inhibitor (anti-depressant to me and you), and was sent on my way.
After just a week on Citalopram I began to feel relieved of the physical symptoms. But the medication did not stop or change the negative thoughts, which were my primary concern. At this point, two months in and only 20 minutes of face-time with a professional I continued to search for a solution to my OCD and Negative Automatic Thoughts. I found the solution in the popular mindfulness app Headspace and a multitude of blog posts on self-directed CBT.
Through them I learned to disassociate my self from my negative thoughts and treat the thoughts as my illness. I then learned to accept the thoughts when they came and rather than fight them off, which only amplified them, allow them to simply drift in and out of my consciousness.
Over time my symptoms and the negative thoughts became less frequent and less disruptive. I taught myself to cope with the anxieties more effectively, eventually getting to a point where for the last year I’ve been free of mental health problems. I never did go to the CBT course, I had to move house as one often does living in central London and was forced to join a new waiting list at a different clinic. In the end, I just thought ‘sod it’.
Throughout my experience when dealing with the NHS I felt like my condition was treated like a physical health problem, a checkbox in a form, the next step in a process, and that ultimately I was out there on my own.
There’s a lot to be said for discussing mental health with the same frankness as we do physical health, especially when trying to break down the stigmas associated with it. But when providing treatment for mental health problems the opposite is needed. I resorted to medication and self-directed treatment after becoming frustrated with the lack of efficiency and empathy I was getting from the NHS system. I wonder how many others have done the same?
Each year 1 in 4 adults experience a mental health problem and it’s a growing concern. By 2030 it’s predicted that in the UK we’ll see some 2 million more adults with mental health problems*. It’s clear from my experience alone that the NHS is not equipped to deal with this predicted growth, not least due to government’s cuts of funding in this area.
In my opinion, the underlying principles of delivering effective mental health treatment are efficiency, convenience, and empathy. The NHS failed to deliver on all three counts. It’s no wonder I resorted to hacking my way to better health with technology, piecing together apps and information from here and there to patch up the gaps in the NHS system.
It seems obvious to state that technology makes it possible to deal with scale more efficiently and the organisations best placed to deal with growth and demand are the startups of the world. There are a swathe of new apps coming to the fore that promise a magic cure-all but many of them are not grounded in validated research and most critically don’t provide access to trusted healthcare professionals.
What if we were able to bring these two together? The efficiency and convenience of technology with the expertise of healthcare professionals. If we did that then I truly believe we can start to unlock the solution to more effective treatment for mental health problems and potentially many other health problems.