Why You Need to Know That Mental Health Can Kill Any of Us
TRIGGER WARNING: mental health, suicide, NHS, depression, austerity.
It’s a normal Monday night in 2021 and the cats are each chilling on the sofa and my desk-chair, respectively. I’m tidying up the living room because I meant to do it all weekend (and didn’t). I’ve put on a new album that came out on Friday — Icon for Hire’s Amorphous — to keep me company.
Little did I know the story those songs would form in the next few hours.
“How can I separate me from the remedy?
I can’t be sure, be sure — Am I the curse or the cure?”
— Curse or Cure, Icon For Hire —
My husband is at his night shift at the hospital. I finally pick up the pile of medical magazines we receive in the post, but rarely read.
I flip through the pictures, seeking inspiration for my art journalling or novel writing, and then skim the contents page for topics that may be interesting for me. I tear a few pages out to read later. (We all know I won’t, but I tear them out and keep them, nonetheless.)
I turn to “No End in Sight”, a story about mental health patients having to travel further and further from home (and from their support networks) for help.
I’ve seen this myself: parents in my area being sent to a hospital bed hours away from their home, their children, their friends. Then I flip forward a couple of pages, barely paying attention — still thinking about those people I’ve known sent away for treatment.
“Died by Suicide”
The phrase hits me in the chest; breath catching in my throat. My laptop shifts to a new song from the album, as I read the subtitle of the article now in front of me.
The piece is titled “Fallen Friend” and I am reading before I can stop myself. The lyrics of the song drift gently around the room.
“When I go I already know
My life will only be a story
All that I’ve been, all that I’ve built
All fades away inside a moment”
— Only Be A Story, Icon for Hire —
I wrote last year about the impact of my neighbour’s suicide. With all the talk of returning to ‘normal’ from our lockdown, I’ve been thinking about how it will be more noticeable. Once I’m going outside more, that reminder will be daily again, as I pass that house on my street.
It was my third ‘close’ experience of suicide. I haven’t shared the two prior experiences because I don’t want to pass on that trauma. But I think of them often.
Especially since, if things had been different, one of those people might have been saved. I don’t talk about these things out loud, but suicide is not new to me.
Still, once I began the article, I couldn’t stop.
Reading about the doctor who had to sit in the GP’s seat after that GP had completed suicide, and having patients express their own grief, but the person’s colleagues not being able to say “that’s my friend you’re talking about” sent a pang of recognition through me.
I understand the need for professional boundaries, and I have attended work when I was struggling because it was the best thing for my wellbeing — having made my manager aware.
But I also recognise how damn hard it is to keep yourself in that professional boundary on a general bad mental health day, let alone in the throes of that kind of grief. (And the guilt that we practitioners tend to feel alongside it.)
There are many ways in which our system is flawed, and I recognise no system on earth is perfect. But knowing this is common doesn’t comfort me. It horrifies me.
And echoing behind everything I see, hear, and read is this fact: Research has shown that ‘hopelessness’ is a key factor in those with suicidal feelings.
Think about it: What feelings arise when we see that something horrible is happening everywhere?
When my loved ones come home from a shift where they lost a patient, where they were yelled at for not knowing something that wasn’t handed over, and when they can’t speak in full sentences after a 14-hour-night-shift on 5 hours of broken sleep… Hopelessness is all I see in their eyes, and it terrifies me.
I sometimes look at this system and feel a pang of desperation myself: seeing a decade of people being stretched beyond what any human should have to emotionally cope with. And change feels so far off, if it could even happen.
If hopelessness is a common factor in mental health difficulties and suicide, and our systems are driving those who the population counts on to feel hopeless… How is this NOT a self-perpetuating cycle? How are we not creating this?
Then I saw a phrase at the end of the article which made my blood boil.
“They gave me a medical certificate but, of course, if you’re the single-handed GP, who would you give your certificate to? The work needs to be done. I just tore up my certificate.”
Fallen friend — dealing with the loss of a colleague
When GP Louise Tebboth died by suicide, her partners had to keep the practice open, dealing with their own intense…
Some people might tut or shake their head, may feel sympathy or empathy.
But in me, this elicits a cocktail of anger and demoralisation.
The injustice of such an action being… so normal, so matter-of-fact because there is no option to take care of yourself… I don’t think I can adequately express the rage inside me when I am reminded that this is the health service we have after years of austerity.
And that was before a global pandemic, and prior to our government using the term ‘unskilled workers’ to those who hold the emotional burden of hundreds of other people’s trauma every single day.
I assume most of you reading this have experienced low mood or grief in some form.
It’s an overpowering, exhausting experience.
The very idea that during the 2020s, in a “developed nation,” someone who is in charge of other people’s health is unable to take time off to grieve… It feels inhumane.
Yes, there are legalities and definitions around grief versus mental health issues, but the concept is the same. There are regulations and you need a certain number of staff to keep patient’s safe.
- Would you like to be treated by a doctor who is well, or one who can barely focus?
- Would you like to be able to take time off work, or to ask for help, if you felt like the world was crushing you?
- Would you feel safe if you knew that your support worker was crumbling from the inside out?
Health practitioners are human too. But our society still stigmatises mental health as being ‘lesser’ than physical conditions. In this pandemic, I have seen the services stretched beyond anything I recognise.
And the people in power? They point out the failings of those humans put under a strain so great, the term resilience doesn’t even begin to cover it.
“Wondering if this is as good as it gets
Am I always gonna just be, just be getting by
Telling myself it’s alright?
Does it matter how hard I try?
Am I always gonna just be, just be background sad”
— Background Sad, Icon For Hire —
I’m familiar with this restless anger.
I’ve worked in mental health, but I am, first and foremost, a human being who has experienced mental health difficulties. One of the reasons I supported the band’s new album release is because I feel they put into words what depressed-me couldn’t express. They say what my soul cannot find words for.
I get that in this world there are so many places to divert our attention. I recognise that MY pull towards understanding the human condition isn’t felt by someone else. But the fact that suicide is still so misunderstood, that people still don’t think (or feel) when talking about mental health (especially in the health services, damn it)…
It’s frustrating. It’s exhausting. It shouldn’t be this way.
“I tell myself
Keep breathing, don’t lose focus
I’m alive, I’m not a diagnosis.”
— Brittle, Icon for Hire —
It paralyses me as my body floods with furious energy.
I try to help, but everything I do feels so insignificant.
I have volunteered for, been employed by, and donate to the Mental Health Foundation and Mind. I write self-help articles, make worksheets for people to download, and openly tell people it is safe to talk about suicide with me. I educate people who use the term ‘commit’ that it was decriminalised in 1961.
I have supported people’s mental health since I was a teenager. First, it was friends, then volunteering for youth projects, and then making this my main career.
And throughout it all, I’ve battled my own experiences of depression and obsessive-compulsive anxiety symptoms. The kind of thoughts people outside of mental health seem to find ‘shocking’ have become ‘merely tiring’ to argue against in my mind after decades of doing so.
I used to think I didn’t fit into the box. These days I believe no one fits inside their black-and-white definitions of what a human being ‘should’ look like.
“They always come for the wild ones,
They always come for the freaks.
I don’t fit quite like they like it and now they’ve come for me.”
— Last One Standing, Icon for Hire —
It is part of the human condition that we reinvent ourselves; lose our identity then form a new one. It is part of our journey that we compare ourselves to others, and get to know ourselves. It is part of the life experience that we feel everything.
I am bloody lucky I never lost hope that things would improve.
I know that part of my role in this world is to help others find that hope when things feel dark. I am here to help shift the conversation around mental health, to ensure that early intervention is available as far and wide as I can possibly help it spread.
But I am also here to speak up. To share that these experiences are not rare. That those people aren’t alone as our society might want them to think.
Those negative thoughts don’t make you broken. They mean you are human.
I get that it’s not easy. It bloody isn’t. But when you speak to another human being, see someone act oddly, communicate with someone else… remember that they have their own experiences.
“I make friends with all my demons
They depend on me to feed them
They follow me around”
— Enemies, Icon for Hire —
Humans are Made to Feel
It’s so demoralising to be trying your best to hold the nation’s wellbeing together while our services are cut, our politicians lie, and we have to maintain professional boundaries rather than show our human experience.
So take this as your reminder that ‘we’ as practitioners are affected too. That the stigma is still out there. That holding yourself together is hard, but holding yourself and multiple others together is harder.
There is a quote I keep with me when I am struggling:
“I know my life is better when I work from the assumption that everyone is doing the best they can.” — Brené Brown, Dare to Lead.
I am asking you to take that quote with you.
Those who work in healthcare are holding the wellbeing of the population, mental and physical, together. Doing that for a decade as the money and thanks are drained out of us, is hard. Doing that in a global health crisis is beyond hard. Holding together humankind as human beings themselves are forced to face who they are outside of their jobs, their hobbies, their friends… it can be a dark place to be.
This is one reason I haven’t spoken up in the past. On many occasions, I’ve kept quiet.
It’s also why we need to talk about all of it.
- We need to learn to accept our emotional experiences.
- We need to talk about those thoughts we have when things feel hopeless.
- We need to see discrimination against mental health like we do with physical health.
- We need to recognise that when your healthcare workers are burning out at both ends, everyone is going to suffer.
The album I’ve quoted throughout is Amorphous, which means “not clearly defined” or “non-crystalline.”
I can think of no better term for mental health. It isn’t clear, doesn’t fit into set tick-boxes, and damn well isn’t shiny, always drawing attention to itself. In fact, it often hides under other disguises.
We need to change our approach to mental health, to emotional expression, and to suicide. This article is my first step towards changing it.
Because without change, there IS no hope.
Hell, there’s no fury like me
Don’t mess with her majesty
Well-behaved women rarely make
— Sticks and Stones, Icon For Hire —
- If this article has triggered something hard for you, please contact the Samaritans or your GP. For International Support Lines, click here. Please know that there IS hope for the future, including for you. I swear it.
- If you want to know more about how I teach guided self-help principles to people who feel that pull to reinvent (who are not currently in a mental health crisis), sign up to my newsletter to keep in touch.
- If this article has sparked something in you, please listen to it.
-Talk to someone about their wellbeing.
-Read up on how you can support friends and family.
-Ask your loved ones those hard questions.
-Point them in the direction of professional support.
-Know that if you have those thoughts, there is hope and there is help. Honest.
- Most importantly, please listen to other humans when they are expressing themselves.
- Icon for Hire’s album Amorphous is available now. I was a backer on their Kickstarter, hence accessing the album just before public release, and this article sparked from listening to their lyrics.
Thank you for reading ❤