Mental Illness Doesn’t Discriminate, So Why Do We?

I was at an appointment the other day. The staff were aware of my mental health problems, and they asked me what I do in my free time. I said at the moment I am working and at university. She looked shocked. She then said “unpaid work, though?” because obviously us crazy folk cannot hold down a paid job. I mean, what kind of fool would pay me to work?

It annoys me. Number one unpaid work is a brilliant thing to do for experience, and for giving something. Number two, why would you assume my job is unpaid?

I was then further annoyed when she said I needed to come back on Monday to see their consultant. I told her I had work, and couldn’t make it. She looked at me and said “well, you have to have see the consultant” and then booked me an appointment any way. I was stood there thinking ‘yup, please ignore me, my words mean nothing’.

I honestly do not think that if I was ten years older, and not in for something mental health related, she wouldn’t have ignored me. But hey, I am crazy so my job cannot be that important, right?!

We think that we have progressed with our attitudes towards mental illness, and my gut reaction is to say some progress has definitely been made. I mean, we do not lock everyone away in asylums anymore, people are not oblivious to mental illness, and people know what depression is. Mental health is talked about more. Being homosexual is no longer a sign of insanity, and we do not drill into peoples brains hoping it will ‘fix’ them like we did in 1935.

My research in my undergraduate degree proved that making a definitive conclusion is not that easy. Some things have improved, some things have not. Do you know what schizoaffective disorder is? What about obsessive compulsive personality disorder? Unless you have an interest in mental illness, or personal experience, probably not. Even spellcheck does not think ‘schizoaffective’ is a word.

While general attitudes have become better, I would argue it is something we are fine about as long as we do not have to come face-to-face with it, and for a lot of people mental illness is something that affects others, not themselves. Did you know that only 46.9% of disabled people are in employment? Which is a gap 33.1% higher compared to people without a disability. The disability employment gap is one of the most significant inequalities today.

In 2015 the Conservative Party stated that to half the gap they would need to change policies, practices and public attitudes.

Not all disabled people can work, fact. That is why there is no goal to get rid of the gap completely. But some can, and some want to. It is easy for people to respond to this huge gap by saying that disabled people do not want to work, that they want to live off benefits, and all of that other rubbish that realistically applies to a very small percentage of those with disabilities, and actually also to a larger number of people without

I do not personally have much of an issue with the term disability. I would agree that I do have a disability, and that it can be extremely disabling. But it can also be worked with if I am surrounded by people who are willing to be understanding, and to provide me the right environment to minimise the impact my disability has on my ability to work, and to succeed.

Starting my recent internship has made me aware of the difficulty I would definitely have to work full-time, while juggling my medical appointments. I can see why this could be unattractive for an employer, and even for me; even if I managed to find an employer who was happy for me to take time off work for appointments, it would mean that my disability would still be impacting my ability to work full-time, and receive full pay. But this is the thing. I would not think about that; that is something I have to live with, but being discriminated against, is not.

I would be overwhelmed by the amazing support of my workplace to enable me to work. I would arrange my appointments as best I could to avoid interruption. I would stay late at work if I could, or arrive early. I would give everything I could and more, and being able to have my necessary appointments would actually boost my productivity at work, compared to if I was having to delay them, hide them, or become stressed at managing them.

The thing is, people can discriminate against people with mental illness, but mental illness is never going to discriminate against you. You might have a negative attitude towards those with a mental health problem, but they are still going to come into your life. It is going to affect your colleagues, employees, friends or family, whether you like it or not. Whether you think it is something that happens in your life or not.

More scarily perhaps, is that one day it might be you. You could be the top dog in a major company who does not take particularly take an interest in disability in the workplace. You might be a bit irritated that your PA, Janice, has to take two hours off on a Wednesday afternoon because she has a one hour appointment with her community psychiatric nurse, plus has to travel to and from the clinic. You will forget Janice stayed at work for an extra hour on three days last week. You will forget Janice doesn’t take lunch breaks, and always emails back at weekends. You will forget that since Janice started her role, she has made your day-to-day life easier, and taken on many extra roles that you never expected her to take.

You will be reluctant to hire the best applicant for your new events manager because she disclosed that she has physical health problems that will mean she has to take some time off work once per month to travel to a hospital out of the local area. You will think that you need someone who does not have these needs, and that they are not suitable for your company, just like the principal that once said to my support worker that students with severe mental health problems are not going to achieve A-Levels, so why support them in trying to do so?

And then fast forward, it is 2027. You have been getting very stressed at work. Janice left, and her replacement is struggling. Your wife has been working away a lot, your kids have left home, and it is like you never see neither them or your wife any more; she admitted a few months back that she is not happy in your marriage. Your mother has Alzheimer’s (which is a mental illness too, but for some reason that doesn’t count) and she is deteriorating. Last time you saw her she did not know who you were. You have begun thinking a lot about your childhood growing up, and how she used to be. You keep remembering things you had forgotten; maybe your childhood was not as rosy as you had convinced yourself. You remember your father being very violent to your mother, and having to witness that. Bit by bit it is coming back to you, like a tap that no matter how hard you tighten it, it just will not stop dripping.

You feel low. You know you do. You say low, because you do not want to say depressed. Men do not get depressed, not strong men like you. Not top of the company men. Not men who earn £100, 00o per annum. Not men who are well educated, and whose parents were too. You tell yourself you will ‘snap out of it’ soon. Maybe you just need to work harder. Only weak people take a step back, take a break. But it is getting worse, and you end up going to see your GP. I mean, he will just say you are fine.

Well, apparently not. Apparently you have signs of depression, but mental illness is not something you will ever experience, right? He must be wrong.

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When silence replaces emotions

When I was in trouble as a child my mother, like most mothers, used to use my middle name, “Natalie Jane come down those stairs right now.” I like my middle name now, and I always have but I’m not sure I’d be so keen  if it was coming from my mothers mouth again. As a child I read a lot of books by Enid Blyton, and one of my favourites was ‘Naughty Amelia Jane’. I remember secretly liking that her middle name was the same as mine. I guess being naughty has its appeal, and because we shared the same name I thought we were practically twins. 

When I was younger I was also in trouble.  A LOT. So much so that I ought to have been named ‘Natalie Trouble Wilson.’ I was particularly bad at never ever getting away with things. I remember always arguing with my sister, and even if she was in the wrong, my big mouth would get me into trouble. All my parents would hear would be me screaming, first at my sister, and then at them. Whilst my sister on the other hand was one of those ‘butter wouldn’t melt’ types.

The people in my life who I’m not so close to, or those who I’ve just met, see me as the quiet one. Just recently a lecturer said “you are so quiet.” I was laughing inside because if my Mum heard someone saying that she would think it was hilarious. The truth however, of what I am really like, is somewhat similar to how I am with getting things done. People always think I am super chilled back. I sort everything out last minute. But I’m not actually chilled out at all. Inside I am a panicky mess, but I get so panicky that I avoid doing whatever the thing is. I’m the same with being a perfectionist. I’m so worried about doing something wrong, that very often I end up not doing it at all.

I am loud. Very loud. But very often I am quiet. It’s not because I am a ‘quiet person’, but because of a whole range of fears, and over my life I have basically trained myself to be silent to the point that now it’s not even a choice I make. I remember as a child I would frequently be told off for being loud, for talking too much. I was blamed for my sisters lack of speech, and her speech problems which she had therapy for. I wanted so badly to be quieter, more like her.

My loudness, my constant chattering and asking questions seemed to cause nothing but problems. I’d be questioning everything. I wanted to know the why’s and how’s of everything, and let’s face it, that’s pretty annoying to live with. It led to arguments between me and a member of my family, which led to violence and slammed doors, cars leaving drives, and the disappearance of a parent for days at a time. So I started setting myself rules about when I could talk, and how long for. It seemed like a fabulous solution. There was a particular situation that is very clear in my mind. I was sat with my father watching the formula one racing. I kept asking question after question, after question. My father kept turning the TV louder, and louder, and louder, ignoring me. Every time I spoke he would turn it up that little bit louder. In the end we had an explosive argument that I will never forget.

Not speaking seemed like the solution. If I was silent, there would be no arguments, no violence, no disappearing bodies out of the door. Except I couldn’t do it. I’d tell myself ‘no talking for the next 20 minutes’ but before I knew it my mouth was open and words were spilling out; ‘Why does that car have red bull on it?’, ‘Why do they change the tyres?’.

Every time I failed to keep quiet, it was like the part of myself that was full of self-hatred grew bigger, and bigger.

One of the biggest things that I have, and am, learning is that the things I hated about myself, are the things that many of the people around me love about me. My parent(s) weren’t able to cope with me, but that does not mean that I was the problem. Just today my sister told me that one of the nurses who work at the hospital she’s in said that she liked me and that I seem like I’d be a good laugh.

It’s just weird to think that I’ve spent so long hating myself for things I never needed to hate myself for. That I’ve seen who I am as being fundamentally wrong or bad, when that was never the case. It’s hard to undo that, no matter how much I know it’s not true, because for so long that was my reality.

Baby steps.

 

 

 

 

I had a small (big) “what am I doing with my life?” crisis. Such fun.

I feel like getting back into the whole studying mindset should be difficult, but I’m not going to lie, I find it rather easy. I mean not the work, but motivating myself into it. I just love what I am doing, and where I hope my future is going.

I am looking into doing a masters by research, and I’ve been asked if I need to do it for my future career, to which the answer is no, not at all. But it’ll help, and for some crazy reason I am just passionate about studying, and research. I know who my first and second supervisors would hypothetically be (I’ve spoken to both) and I have a very rough idea of my topic, and I’m working on how I will research it. I want to look at the representation of mental health services in the media, and then research into how health PR/NHS Communication teams can respond to this to improve public perception. Something like that any way.

I’ve spoken to the principal lecturer for one half of my course, and we discussed the isolation of it being self-directed, and getting a job seems like the way forward with that. I could possibly look to stay here over the summer. I’ll definitely be self-motivated to do the work so that is not an issue for me. I am worried I am not capable of doing this. I’m worried that people will hear my idea and be like “is this girl even good enough for undergrad?” because I’ve looked at other peoples masters at my university, and they all sound really complex, and mine doesn’t.

I’m also struggling with being ok about getting a 2:1. A first is unlikely.

I’ve had a few days of freaking the hell out. Do I want to do an MA? Which MA? Which university? What topic? How would I fund it? Would I prefer to go straight into work? Oh god, maybe I should do social work? I want to make a difference. But can I do that without working with patients? Can I do that in my free time, really trying to kick off my new blog?

When I spoke to my lecturer he made me calm the hell down. He said I seem to have a pretty clear idea of what I want. Keep social work in the back of my mind. Do my NHS communications placement, see how it goes. I feel so much clearer. I mean I am pretty sure I answered my own questions and worries but there really is something about talking it out. An MA will take 6 months. 6 months is nothing. And maybe I need just that little bit more time to figure myself out. Since the start of Summer I’ve totally taken myself away from the constant self-destructive, chaotic mess of a lifestyle I was leading, but I did have a two week “blip” about two weeks ago, and this just isn’t compatible with my career. I can’t have a couple of weeks off every couple of months while I see how quick I can destroy myself before being re-motivated to get on with my life. I just can’t. I need to make sure I maintain the improvements I’ve made over summer for life.

I have also decided to spend most of Christmas at university. The first week I am going to volunteer with a homeless charity because it’s something I really want to do, and have done for a good few years. I mean it’s rare I feel so passionate about something that isn’t health related! This is new! And I can’t think of a better way of spending my holidays than giving gifts to the homeless, helping with a baking day, film day, going on a Christmas walk and helping at a pop-up shop.

I’ll go home late on the 23rd of December, then come back on the 27th or 28th, volunteer a bit more, and then I’ll fingers crossed do my work experience.

I feel like I don’t have my life together, but maybe I’m being too hard on myself.

The singular cause of obesity does not exist

The way this country (the world?) appears to be tackling obesity is frankly ridiculous. I am sick to death of hearing news stories and wondering what the hell people are thinking. The NHS offered a relative of mine three months free subscription to go to weight watchers instead of a dietitian. Needless to say she chose the dietitian. She’s not just looking for how to lose weight, she wants to understand more about nutrition to be healthy. Healthy, contrary to what it seems people think, does not relate directly to weight. It means a whole range of things, and it means people of a normal weight can be “unhealthy” too. Of course, I imagine that sending groups of people to weight watchers is much cheaper, but is it really going to make people healthier and deal with the problem?

I do not see how a money making company like weight watchers can be a part of the solution. Groups of people meeting up, competing to see who can be the biggest loser of the week, talking about their “lapse” this week because they ate a slice of cake (and obviously a slice of cake is responsible for everything and it’s practically the end of the world and you’re going to have to try better next week).

If I hear someone saying ANY particular food item is bad, I swear to god they’re going to regret it because I will rant at them. I don’t think people really get it. No food is bad. Chocolate is not bad. Fat does NOT make you fat, and single food choices are not responsible for obesity.

All foods have different benefits. We talk about calories like the less we consume, the better it is (and the better we are) but calories are ENERGY. We need energy to survive. Calories are not the problem, too many of them are. Calories are the only thing responsible for any weight gain or loss, yes that is true, which means that high fat foods, or sugary drinks are NOT the problem. What is the problem is consuming too many high calorie foods daily.

2000 calories of chocolate will have the same impact on weight as 2000 calories of apples. The problem is, chocolate is more calorie dense so it’s much easier to consume 2000 calories of it. This means we need to look at what we are eating and make sure our portion sizes are reasonable, and that we are eating a balanced diet. A balanced diet means you can eat all types of food, in the right amounts.

Stores banning certain drinks, like Ribena and Capri-Sun at Tesco is not going to help combat obesity. It’s taking away customer choice, it means those who already have a balanced diet, and enjoy the sugary version of ribena from time to time, can no longer have that choice. It means those who have an unbalanced diet and struggle with their weight, are going to be stopped from having that particular product in their diet, but it’s not going to stop the fact they need education and help with eating a balanced diet. What are we going to do? Ban every single less nutritious or higher calorie food out there?

It’s not “bad” to eat foods that don’t have 25 vitamins in. It’s ok to sometimes eat food because you enjoy it. It’s also ok to eat food higher in calories. It’s eating less nutritious, higher calorie food constantly that is the issue. We label foods as “good” or “bad” and we feel guilty, bad as a person and become very self-critical or even critical of others over it. I am sick of hearing people judge themselves or others based on this. And there are countless arguments. Nuts, we are told, are “good” for us and yet they are very high in calories, so when are we going to demonize and ban them too?

We are looking for who is to blame, or what is to blame. We blame something new every day. It’s sugar, it’s fat, it’s lack of exercise, it’s genes.. the list goes on and on. We want to blame one thing, so we can have a quick fix. The reality is there are multiple reasons people are obese. If we are being realistic, it’s consuming more calories than our bodies require to fulfil our needs (i.e. our bodies demands and exercise). People who are consuming too many calories, need to reduce their calorie intake. BUT they need to also understand more about nutrition. That some higher calorie foods are ok, and it’s balancing it out.

Why people are consuming more than they require? There’s a heap of reasons. Lack of education, lack of exercise decreasing their requirements or over estimating them, depression, eating disorders, and well…because many of the foods that need to be a part of a balanced diet are cheap, convenient and bloody delicious. We need to help people to see that there are other alternatives to consume alongside the foods they are choosing to eat, and that they can still eat the foods they enjoy as a part of their diet.

Shaming obese people, taking away freedom of choice, and sending out incorrect messages about what can help is only going to make it worse. We should be giving the truth. Obesity is increasing, alarmingly. But what is also increasing alarmingly is restrictive eating disorders. These messages being sent out affect people who are suffering with eating disorders; they hear they shouldn’t eat certain things, that their being encouraged to eat by their treatment teams. They are faced with calorie information as well as fat content on everything they eat, and every menu they see. Red for bad, red for high fat, red for high calorie, when this may be what they need. It’s what they need, and yet the big red sign stops them.

We are individuals. We have individual needs. We have individual reasons for what contributes to our weight issues and we cannot blanket over things like we are. We cannot deal with this by banning or blaming one singular thing or food group.

It might make reducing obesity seem easier and cheaper, but it’s not going to work.

You don’t always bounce straight back.

I think there is this illusion that if you hit rock bottom, that will be your breaking point, that it will be the start of recovery or the massive change you make in your life to get where you want to be. JK Rowling once said “And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.”

For a long time I’ve loved that quote, but looking at it now it feels like it paints rock bottom as some solid place that exists, where things cannot get any worse, and that in order to get any better, you’ve got to hit rock bottom first. You hear people say it all of the time. “It’s not until they hit rock bottom that they’ll want to get help, they’ve got to hit rock bottom first.”

I’m not so convinced any more.

Where is rock bottom? How do you know when you’ve hit that solid place? I don’t think it exists. I don’t think there is such a place, or at least, I reckon rock bottom is wherever you choose to make it. It’s wherever you are when you choose to make a change, when you choose recovery because no a mental illness is not a choice, but recovery is.

Sure I’ve had moments that I could call rock bottom, but there isn’t one singular one, and I do not believe you have to get to that point before you can change. It’s an illusion. Your head will tell you that if you get bad “enough”, then you can get better. Your head will tell you that if you just lose a little more weight, take one more overdose or hurt yourself bad enough, then you are allowed to get help, allowed to get better. But it’s a lie because it is never enough.

One of the most important parts of recovery is being able to face the fact that your mental illness causes thoughts inside of your head that are not true, that your disorder is based on nothing but lies, and that is hard. It turns your world upside down when you realise that everything you base your self-image, self-esteem and beliefs about the word from is all lies. None of it’s real. You’re destroying yourself for reasons that don’t even really exist anywhere outside of your brain.

It’s hard to remember that, believe it, for long enough to make a real change.

Aside from whether rock bottom exists, how does it go when you decide to make a change? Do you just bounce back? Do you hit this magical rock bottom and wake up thinking “right, this stops today” and never look back? Is it that easy? Is it as simple as deciding to get better, and getting better?

I did something this weekend that led to me being hospitalised for a couple of days. Before I did it I thought it would either a) allow me to escape everything forever, or b) it would make me feel better afterwards. I thought it would be my rock bottom.

It wasn’t. I’m not bouncing back. I’m not feeling anywhere close to how I thought I would. I feel alone, numb and detached and I am most definitely not bouncing back anywhere. I am, however, fighting. Piccoli Passi. Baby steps. I am reaching out to the people I can, and trying to accept that I cannot turn to my family because they don’t have the capability to deal with finding this out. It’s lonely, really, and I think that is one of the hardest parts.

I can’t simply decide to get better, and wake up tomorrow fixed. But there are small decisions in every day that I can make, that will get me there in the end, like considering a year out again, making myself a snack when I can, spending time with people and being honest with those I trust. Though ‘there’ may not be where I expect, these small changes will help. Some days I’ll make the wrong choices, some days I’ll lose sight of the fact it’s even a choice at all, but it’s about moving towards a place where you take more right choices than wrong, where you may not win some battles but you will win the war.

There really is no magical breaking point that you just so happen to stumble across. There is no magical wand. There is no snapping out of it. But there is a choice, and if you make the choice to survive and fight, and keep hopeful that it will not always be this way, then things will improve in time. It won’t always be as bad as it is right now. It might go backwards sometimes, but some days you’ll smile. Some days you’ll go for a nice walk in the sunshine, feel the breeze against your skin and look out across the water realising how luck you are to have this moment, even if you’re still hurting deep inside, even if you still cry yourself to sleep. Some days you’ll enjoy the little things, you’ll feel loved, you’ll love others, and you’ll be relieved to breathe and be calm.

Maybe there is no rock bottom, no ideal time to change and no way to bounce straight back. But there are moments that will take your breath away, moments that will make you feel calm and happy, and moments where you are ok with being right here.

Headclutcher no more.

A few months ago I received an email with a charity looking for people to be photographed in a new set of images for the media. I didn’t take part due to the fact the image could be used any where, on anything, associated with any diagnosis or issue. This week they released the photographs (available from Newscast) as part of the ‘Get The Picture’ campaign.

I’m not sure what I think to it as an issue, but I can’t argue against solid evidence. Time to Change collected data from nearly 2,000 people and found that 80% stated headclutcher images do not show how it really feels and that images of suicide can be triggering.

I am mixed. On the one hand, sometimes having a mental health problem is headclutching. It is exhaustion and desperation. However, the point raised that this is not always what having a mental health problem is like, sways me a little towards this being a necessary, and positive change. What is really great to see is people recognising what is a problem, and addressing it.

Images, as well all know, say a thousand words. Journalists, editors, and other agencies need to be careful with this. A picture probably gets slammed on without much thought of the implications at time, but the way this can impact upon public attitudes and perceptions is probably fairly significant.

The new photographs definitely portray a more positive picture of mental illness. Though I can’t help but think sometimes mental illness isn’t positive. Sometimes it isn’t a conversation with someone else. Sometimes it is being alone, and struggling, and I would hope the various forms of media using these images will take into consider what is more appropriate based on the article itself.