Mental Health Awareness Week: Breaking the Stigma of Downplaying Your Mental Health Issue

Next time you put the breakfast news on, I can almost guarantee you will hear a story surrounding mental health. We are very lucky these days that mental health awareness is showing up more and more in the press, on social media and in campaigns globally, but there is still lots of work to be done. In honour of Mental Health Awareness Week, I wanted to share a bit about my experience with anxiety and depression and why I deeply regretted remaining silent for so long. I'd recommend you make yourself a cuppa before settling down to read this post, and thank you so much for those who stick it out to the end.

In my mind, there are two big stigmas that surround mental health. One, that it is all in one's own head and therefore should not be taken as seriously as a physical illness. Two...that, as an individual drawing comparisons to others' circumstances, you simply can't be suffering as badly as the next person, therefore your problems are a result of your own silliness and do not need, nor deserve attention. It is the latter that I want to talk about today.

I think my experience with anxiety manifested way back in primary school. I skipped and hopped between friendship groups, eventually sidling out in tears when the friendship fizzled out and I took too many things to heart. As a child, I'm not sure my inner battles truly became apparent until I hit my teens. Teenagers are put under an awful lot of stress, being pushed to and fro in different directions, all in the name of developing a successful career and achieving excellent grades. On top of this, we were battered and bruised in broken friendships, changing-room bullies and unrequited love. From eighteen, you're expected to be an adult. You thought much of the things you experienced at school were dead and gone, but it soon transpired that you were wrong. Earning money to pay bills, workplace bullying and relationship struggles are rife. True enough, these things are only natural and I do believe you go through them for a reason. That said, the mental strain that people of all ages are put under is phenomenal. We can potentially struggle day in, day out, and yet nobody, not even ourselves, would bat an eyelid. This is our normality.

When I started Sixth Form, I began to notice something about the way I was feeling. I had been suffering from IBS for several years before but had never been able to determine why (if you're clued up on IBS, you will know how frustrating this is). On top of the IBS, which seemed to have worsened over time, I would feel dizzy, nauseous and numb, but I could never really work out what was going on. It was only when I started dating that I began to learn what could be the matter. Whilst its a sensitive topic, my boyfriend and his family have always been open-minded and supportive of mental health issues and raising awareness. The first few times I stayed over at his house, I would get ready for bed, or wake in the morning...and be sick. For me, it was completely mortifying. For them, it was no surprise. I distinctly remember my boyfriend's mum making me a chamomile tea to settle my stomach, telling me that she knew how I felt. I had learned about stress, anxiety and depression in psychology classes at school, but I think this was the first time I really discovered that my 'nervy tendencies' actually had a name.

From then on, I read more about anxiety and watched more videos online about it. I found the videos informational, but not particularly helpful. I had hyperventilated whilst crying hysterically in my room before, but I convinced myself that these couldn't be a 'real' panic attack. After all, I'd never experienced one in public. I determined, on this basis only, that I didn't suffer from anxiety and panic attacks. In the years to come, I did continue to suffer from the hysterical upset and feeling of being trapped when in distress and did also experience panic in public. With help, I had come to learn that these were indeed occasional panic attacks, noticing that the frequency would fluctuate. When I worked in retail, we used to say that it would be quiet in the shop for a good while, before anyone came in. And when they did, others followed them in all at once. That was the pattern my panic attacks would take. While Panic Disorder is very real between people, it was only a small part of the anxiety I was suffering. My 'anxious thoughts' were with me all the time. I would be second guessing, wondering if I'd upset someone with something I had said...and then there was the numbness and pain in my hands and jaw, which steadily got more frequent. I went to the doctor about it after one big attack of numbness, when I felt faint, ran to the loo and my hands went like talons, my arms deathly white from the forearm down. It was a terrifying moment, especially for my parents and my sister, who were all trying desperately to no avail to unfurl my hands until it subsided naturally with the help of a pint of water tipped to my lips. I went for a check-up, but everything was normal. And still, it was two or so more months before I finally went to speak to somebody about my mental health.

My mood was progressively worsening, particularly after graduating university. I had a good degree that I was proud of, but no idea where I wanted to work and no confidence to apply anyway. At one point, I suffered a panic attack whilst the phone was ringing. It was a callback from an employer who wanted to offer me an interview. I didn't answer it, and I couldn't. I was so ashamed of myself. I had a chance to prove myself there, to get on the first rung of what could have been a successful climb up the career ladder and I had simply thrown it away. I went back to the doctor. It was not an appointment I like to recall often. I broke down in there, completely at loss, no hope, no belief, no nothing. Remember me saying how I had done a little bit of reading in the past? I always avoided the section on depression. There's no way I'm that bad, I told myself. I had friends suffering from it at the time and completely disregarded it in my own context. I felt, absent-mindedly, that it would be disrespectful to them, to label myself 'depressed'. Frankly, I didn't even want to accept the term myself.

Back in the doctor's office, I was guided through the GAD test, although based upon my 'explosive' entry to the room, in which I stumbled dizzily through the door and dissolved into tears on the desk, I'm not sure it was entirely necessary... It was an outpour of emotions that had been simmering away in silence for five years. I was also asked about my overall outlook on life and knew I was being tested for depression. I answered the questions truthfully though because the truth was all I could give. My GP explained that I was 'more anxiety than depression' but that it was very common for the two to go hand-in-hand. She then gave me a frightening statistic; I can't recall the exact number, but well over half of the appointments made at the surgery were mental health-related. This is in an oversubscribed doctors' surgery, in a densely populated town.

Although my diagnosis was difficult to come to terms with, in the immediate aftermath, I did feel a weight lifting from my chest: I had the confirmation I needed, I could accept it and move on. Upon my own experience and reading about others, I realised that there is another stigma to mental health. Whilst we should count our blessings and be grateful for the things we have, we should never downplay our own mental health issues by comparing ours to those of somebody else. We are all individuals. If I had realised this sooner, I would not have kept telling myself that I would "be okay in the morning", and that "the doctor wouldn't listen to me anyway". I wouldn't have waited so long to speak up.

With that, I urge anybody, whatever your circumstances, occupation or status, to see a GP if you are struggling with a long period of low mood or associated physical symptoms. If you find you are experiencing more bad days than good, talk to your doctor, a trusted family member or friend. There is always somebody out there that is willing to listen.

For more information, advice and support, I would recommend you take a look at Anxiety UK, of which I am a paying member. They supply various resources, access to counselling sessions and provide a real community spirit to ensure nobody is made to feel alone in their fight with a mental illness. If you sign up as a member, you will be sent issues of the Anxious Times magazine and gain a years' free subscription to Headspace, which is an online, guided meditation service. I am hoping to talk more about Headspace and how it has been helping me in a future post*.

Thank you again for reaching the end of this post. I hope it helped you, or somebody you know, to come to terms with something that needs to be dealt with, and that it has given you guidance that no mental health issue is ever worth ignoring. I appreciate that perhaps this post wasn't like my usual lifestyle and well-being content, but it is something very important to me and if I have helped just one person, I will be very happy.

*Aside from possessing a paying membership, I am in no way affiliated with Anxiety UK or Headspace. All opinions are my own and I was not asked to feature either organisation in this post. I am simply an advocate for the work they do and would recommend you take a look and see how they could help you.