Mental health has always been in my background. These days I’m hard pressed to think of a friend who hasn’t been affected by it.
As a teenager I had mild depression. Whether from therapy, medication, or a change in circumstances, it gradually improved. However something else lingered. A niggling problem that I couldn’t talk about.
OCD is all too often the butt of TV jokes. The Monica from Friends who cleans obsessively or needs everything just so. My fears and compulsions didn’t fit the stereotypes, but they did take over my life. Over time it became increasingly difficult to go to bed, travel, stay with friends, even go to the pub. At its worst, I spent three hours stuck in the bathroom at work, unable to move, crying, and desperately hoping no one would notice, whilst longing for someone else to take the wheel.
For years I thought I should be able to fix things myself. Not doing so felt like weakness.
Then something switched.
Two years ago I had enough. I googled my local surgery and found a GP who was interested in mental health. I wrote a letter setting out what was happening and how it was affecting my life. And I asked her for help.
It had taken me about 13 years to go back to a doctor. After jumping through a few hoops, I eventually started face-to-face sessions with a wonderful, patient, non-judgmental therapist. A year later, I’ve left London and started a career break – something terrifying and ballsy and wonderful that I’d wanted to do for ages. I’m still not ‘fixed’, but I am hopeful.
What made a great difference to me is knowing I’m not alone.
Around the same time I started therapy, one day I happened across a blog on the intranet at work. It punched me in the core. I started welling up. I forwarded it to my boss, in whom I’d confided a little.
The blog proved that there was someone else with the same problem as me.
While mental health gets much more positive coverage now than when I was a teenager, there are still some issues which it’s hard to share. Knowing someone else was going through the same specific problems as me taught me that I was unwell, not weak. Having read my colleague’s story, I got involved in our mental health network.
One of the best things we did was get trained in Mental Health First Aid.
The course equips ordinary people to be the first line of response for colleagues who may be suffering. We’re not medics – a large part of the role is encouraging others to seek help – but we are normal people who can be there to listen and keep an eye out for each other. In my experience, that makes a world of difference.
I like to think that my experience has made me more aware, and hopefully a bit more sensitive, to what others may be going through. To my surprise, it’s also given me an unexpected strength. I am that bit more fearless.
Last spring I came out to my colleagues, sharing my own story. With it came a rush of relief. I felt bolder.
A few months later I was travelling home from the youth resource centre in Vanjur, a village outside Vellore, India, where I was a team leader with Restless Development. That day our team had been celebrating World Mental Health Day. As I walked home, I reflected on how lucky I was to be in a position where I can try to have some effect, however small, on an issue I care about deeply.
I still feel that. It was my mental health problems, and those of friends around me, that made me care. And it was the fellowship of my colleagues – through our First Aid training, becoming Time to Change champions, and supporting one another – that gave me the confidence to use my own experience for good.
A year ago I was part of a team at work promoting Time to Change. The campaign aims to tackle stigma, and summarises it like this:
“Around 1 in 4 people will experience a mental health problem this year yet the shame and silence can be as bad as the mental health problem itself. Your attitude to mental health could change someone’s life.”
Now, as we have come again to Time to Talk Day, I’d like to renew my pledge to do my best to listen, and to be kind, to anyone suffering with their mental health.
Harriet is a returned ICS volunteer, who wrote this blog as part of her Action At Home stage.