June 15, 2020, 5:33 p.m.

Why I believe it’s important to talk about mental health (written for Time to Change’s StoryCamp 2020)

The TV was blaring in the living room but the noise paled into the background when I suddenly heard the distressed screams of my mum as she was forcibly carried downstairs by paramedics concerned by her behaviour. They had been called earlier by one of our neighbours who was worried about her welfare, probably because she was acting on a strange hallucination and/ or delusion of some sort about Chinese black society members coming to our house to poison her….. I can’t remember exactly; I was only 10 or 11 at the time. Confused and worried, I had gone upstairs with them to try to calm and comfort her but they prised me away and told me to go downstairs and let them deal with the situation. Then the front door closed and I was all alone. Numb and struggling to process the shock and overwhelm of it all. How it happened so quickly. The noise from the TV turned into incomprehensible chatter. I can’t remember what programme I was watching, only that the content was cheery – it might even have been Ant & Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway – because it contrasted sharply with my downbeat mood. She had had relapses before but it was worse this time. I didn’t know, maybe was too young to understand, what had just happened. All I knew was that the world seemed a very scary and unstable place.

Around 7 years later, when I was doing my A-levels, I had panic attacks for the first time. During my time at university, I occasionally turned to the counselling service - including when she was sectioned again in the second year of my degree – sharing my anxiety and insecurities in a way that I felt unable to do with my mum, for fear of adding pressure and potentially triggering further relapses. Ever since, I’ve struggled with anxiety and its physical manifestations, due in part, I believe, to suppressing negative emotions and vulnerability in dealing with her relapses and having been labelled ‘too sensitive’ in my childhood. Personally, I feel if we could all feel more comfortable opening up about our mental health, it might help prevent things from escalating and turning into deep-rooted psychological issues.

Now the world seems like a scary and unstable place to many of us, in the midst of a global pandemic on a scale that hasn’t been seen before in our lifetimes, it’s become even more important than ever to talk about our mental health. With the isolation forced by lockdowns across the globe, reduced therapy access and many of the things we’d usually do to make ourselves feel better off-limits (like meeting up with friends or making a trip to the local cinema or theatre), we’ve effectively had to manage our mental health on our own. To navigate these unchartered waters without being able to send an ‘SOS’ call for help. Many of us were struggling to stay afloat even before we were all plunged into this brave new world, which brings with it fresh pressures and challenges, and where starting an email with the sentence ‘I hope you’re keeping well’ has effectively become a euphemism for ‘I hope you’re still alive’.

Life is in a constant state of flux. We need to be our own lifeline and empower ourselves through sharing our experiences in order to have a chance of making it to shore. We need to find people in the same boats, whose support we can count on as we make this turbulent journey separately yet together, helping each other through the common obstacles we will encounter. We need to realise that kindness is what makes the world go round.

I remember a conversation I had with someone who I frequently saw around campus, as I was a regular attendee at the skills workshops she would often welcome students to. She was friendly and would ask me how I was (and genuinely care about the response) whenever we bumped into each other. On this particular day, I had been studying in the library and went for a walk outside. She was sitting on a bench in the library grounds, also taking a break. We greeted each other and she asked how I was. I responded that I was fine (which I was) and decided to sit next to her as I reciprocated the question. She also said she was fine and asked how my day had been. Earlier that morning, I had been to my GP who asked if I wanted to try antidepressants for the first time to treat my anxiety and the hair pulling that it physically manifested as. I was a bit wary, seeing artificially messing with my brain’s biochemistry as a last resort and also conscious of the possibility of entering into a cycle of dependency on them, but I thought there would be no harm in trying them as a temporary measure that would be reviewed. Ordinarily, and being a rather private person, I wouldn’t have disclosed details of this trip to the GP and would have given a generic response instead. Frankly, it made me feel a bit uncomfortable and vulnerable but I somehow gave an honest response and told her the reason. It was at this point that she revealed that she also had trichotillomania. I suddenly felt a burden lifted, like I wasn’t crazy any more. I felt validated. We both divulged that we thought we were the only ones to suffer from this. I wasn’t even aware that it was an actual condition with a name; to me, it was just an expression of my anxiety. This single conversation made us feel more connected to each other.

Sharing experiences like these can deepen relationships with those around us. It is only by sharing that we can find new, more compassionate ways of relating to one another and to people we might otherwise have felt unable to relate to. Talking about our struggles is vital for reducing stigma and promoting better collective mental health – after all, no person is an island. More importantly, it reinforces our collective humanity and normalises our responses to events or situations which would adversely affect the mental health of a lot of people. It makes us human.….and to be human is to live the essence of life to the full. That is, to be truly alive.

(As an aside for anyone who can relate to the experience of dealing with someone experiencing psychosis, I thought I would add the following. As I’ve grown up and even now, I’ve always found it and continue to find it hard to distinguish between fact and fiction whenever my mum talks about her perceptions and beliefs, even in a relatively sane state (that doesn’t require hospitalisation). Some things seem so far-fetched that they don’t make sense, especially when she talks about people breaking into the ‘unsafe’ house to steal her clothes and spirits moving around the house. She says she can’t see them and can only identify their presence through extraneous sounds, like the fridge door opening (but not her opening it), yet she knows they are the spirits of Chinese children. I can’t understand the logic and how she comes to these conclusions. Perhaps she’s connecting her beliefs of persecution with her extra sensitive perception (or even auditory hallucination?) but I simply don’t know what to believe sometimes. It makes me question my own sanity because I don’t want to dismiss everything she says on the basis that she has a mental illness. I don’t want to be a source of the same stigma I try to reduce in other people when the subject is broached.)

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