It is vastly important for me to be involved in Find Get Give, pushing for better mental health and wellbeing services for young people in England and across the world. I would like to write about why this is such an important issue to me, to tell you about my own personal experience, with a view to challenge stigma, misconceptions and issues of blame surrounding mental health.
I guess what I would really like to put out there is the fact that it is okay to not be okay. It is perfectly acceptable to be ill – it is not a failing within a single one of us to say that mentally, things have been, or could be, better for us than they are today. Mental health is exactly what it says on the tin – health. Just like our physical health, it needs care and consideration.
“An eating disorder is not about vanity”
At 16 I developed an eating disorder following a particularly stressful life event. The disorder would cast a shadow over my life for the next 4 years. So firstly, let’s dispel a few myths – an eating disorder is not about vanity, it isn’t really about weight as much as is understood by the general public, and as it is often presented in the media. An eating disorder is a very complex mental health condition that affects a sufferer’s day to day life considerably, physically, socially and psychologically. It is often used as a coping mechanism, bound up with self-esteem, negative thoughts, anxiety and depression.
Eating disorders are incredibly isolating by nature. They gain strength and momentum because they are kept under wraps. I now consider myself to be almost fully recovered after 2 years in and out of treatment. The other night I lay awake in bed. My memory was jogged to a specific moment when my thoughts and eating became disordered. I remembered how it hurt, how deeply alone I felt, and how I was sure I would never be able to tell anyone. I recall being 20 years old, and thinking I may never get out of this draining, painful situation, because I was still scared. Scared of what people would think and say.
“Language and behaviour like this is reflective of a general ignorance regarding mental health and a lack of training given to professionals”
It fills me with sadness now to think that a 16 year old me was so ill-informed regarding my own mental wellbeing. I was never adequately educated in what good mental health looked like, where to go if I had a problem,(Seek help/advice or search for a services here) or ever told ‘it’s okay to not be okay’. It also did not help that this seemed to be the case in society in general – certainly not just my own personal case. Almost everyone, including myself, did not understand that what I was going through was an illness that needed treatment. Language in school was particularly charged too, which didn’t help. I’m aware it still seems to be a problem that individuals are referred to as their disorder, with phrases such as ‘he’s so bipolar’ and ‘she’s a schizo’ being bandied about on a daily basis. I also recall a teacher during my time at sixth form making a particularly unhelpful comment regarding another student’s body. As someone who struggled with body image and eating, the memory of his voice echoing through my head has never left me. Language and behaviour like this is reflective of a general ignorance regarding mental health and a lack of training given to professionals working with young people. It is indicative of just how pervasive the stigma can be. It was common place. It contributes to the idea that mental illness is something bigger, more dramatic, worse than it actually is, and anyone who is experiencing mental illness should be given a wide birth.
I am certain that had schools, community groups, peers and parents championed and focused psychological well-being the way they did with physical well-being, a greater understanding would have existed both within myself, and within my circle of support. It would have meant that I wouldn’t have been so scared of being misunderstood, blamed, stigmatised, and ultimately made to feel even worse than I already did. It was like fighting two battles in one – one against the challenges I was facing day in day out, which were emotionally, physically and mentally draining enough… and another against how others may view and react to what was going on inside my head, how it was effecting my behaviour, my relationships, and cutting me off from sources of help.
In a sense, it was the stigma here that was one of the key factors for maintaining my eating disorder for such a long period of time. When I eventually came to university and gained more and more knowledge about mental health, and when it reached unbearable extremes in which I was putting myself in danger, I decided it was time to seek help. After talking to a very good friend and then my GP, I started treatment. This first part was the hardest barrier I had to conquer. After that I slowly began to realise that keeping my disorder quiet wasn’t going to make it go away, if anything, it just made it stronger.
“I began enjoying things I hadn’t enjoyed for years, the disordered voice in my head quietened until it was barely audible, and I am confident that it won’t be long until it disappears entirely.”
As my therapy progressed and I began to understand more and more how I could help myself, gaining tools and skills for coping I hadn’t learned anywhere else, I felt more and more able to talk about how I was feeling. A great strength in me developed. I began enjoying things I hadn’t enjoyed for years, the disordered voice in my head quietened until it was barely audible, and I am confident that it won’t be long until it disappears entirely. The progress was slow, but it was more than worth the wait. The fog that was once so suffocating slowly began to dissipate… it felt like coming back to reality, remembering how to enjoy life. It feels like learning to seize every day again, and seize opportunities that I had stopped engaging with entirely because I was so involved and consumed by the disorder. It was like watercolours once again dancing across the canvas of my life, and it felt, and still feels, brilliant.
I feel incredibly strongly that being able to talk about mental health was vital to my recovery, and is for many others. Not only because it allows us to seek out the help and treatment that we need, but also to challenge the misconceptions. To challenge the idea that someone who is mentally unwell is ‘crazy’, ‘mad’, ‘unstable’ or ‘dangerous’. To challenge this stigma that feeds so much self-loathing, negativity towards the self, and plays a major role in the maintenance of such illnesses.
Breaking down this stigma allows individuals to separate themselves from their disorder, to see themselves as not to blame, as not existing as only a walking talking mental health condition. It reminds us we are all just people who need to look after our psychological health as well as our physical health, that we are entitled to help with the issues we are facing.
As each day I improve, I am immensely proud to say that I became involved with Brighton and Hove’s mental health project, Right Here recently (search them here). Even a year ago my confidence was in its depths. The idea of going to meetings with people I had never met, of pushing myself to try things, of grabbing life by the horns seemed an impossibility. I want for every young person to grow up in a world where understanding and talking about both our mental and physical well-being is the norm. I believe educating from the bottom up is vital so that as a society, we all understand what it means to be looking after our psychological well-being, we feel more able to talk when we have a problem, instead of being driven into a deep dark cave filled with stigma, shame and misconceptions. I am so happy to be part of a charity that aims to inform and educate – I see the team and the work they are doing with young people as huge, beaming rays of light breaking through that darkness, working for better mental health for everyone.
#endstimganow #educate #understand #mend #flourish
Connie Free is 22, lives in Brighton and volunteers for Right Here which is a Brighton and Hove mental health service for 13-25 year olds. One of Connies favourite quotes is: “It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.” ― Audre Lorde, Our Dead Behind Us: Poems