Wednesday, 8 February 2017

Time to Talk About Our Mental Health

Thursday 2nd February 2017 was Time to Talk Day.

Time to Talk Day is organised by Time to Change.  Time to Change is an initiative led by two mental health charities, MIND and Rethink Mental Illness. Time to Change describes itself as 'a growing movement of people changing how we all think and act about mental health'.

I welcome Time to Talk Day. In fact, I welcome all conversations about mental health. I'm very proud to be associated with any effort to encourage men and women to talk openly about their mental health. Time to Change tells us that one in four of us will experience a mental health problem every year. I'm surprised the figure isn't higher. Our modern lives are stressful. How many of us are sufficiently equipped to look after our own mental health properly?

The Stigma

I was diagnosed with depressive illness in 1990 when I was aged 19. This was around the same time as the first obvious symptoms of my multiple sclerosis appeared. I tend to think of my depressive illness and my MS as two sides of the same coin. They interact with one another. Sometimes both are present, sometimes both are absent. While I can't 'control' either of them, there is much I can do to manage life with them.

Mental illness is misunderstood and I believe this is because is still widely feared. We all like to feel that we're in control and feeling out of control, even for a few minutes, is frightening. Because of this stigma, many people delay getting treatment because asking for treatment can feel like 'giving in'.

Julie aged 19
Me aged 19

Getting Help is Not Giving in

I've mentored a lot of young women. Issues to do with mental health, be it depression, eating disorders or stress often come up in our conversations. It saddens me that schools do not do more to help young people to manage their mental health successfully. Leader of the Green Party, Caroline Lucas MP, is currently trying to get support for a bill to make personal, social, health and economic education compulsory in schools. You can read about it here (and you will note that Peterborough's Conservative MP Stewart Jackson tried to disrupt the progress of the Bill in Parliament).

If you experience feelings or moods that make you feel angry with yourself, make you want to be by yourself where ordinarily you would not, or make you want to do things that could harm you, that first big step to getting help - telling someone - can be extremely difficult. So I want to say something really important about that: admitting that you need some help with your mental health is not sign of weakness, it's a sign of enormous strength.

Many people never seek the support that would help them because they are afraid of the label. To you I say 'own it'. While there is nothing at all amusing about the symptoms of mental illness, and while the consequences of mental illness can have devastating effects on people's lives, when you are able to start to take control of your mental health you may find a great amount of support and friendship that you never imagined was there. Mental illness is common. Talking about it is not.

Therapy or Medication?

If there's a stigma around admitting that you may have a mental health problem then there's an even bigger stigma around taking medication. On so many occasions I have heard people talking about medication as if it's a crutch or as if taking medication is somehow giving in. I could't disagree more. In my opinion, the right medication enables people with mental health problems to start to take control again. Not taking medication when you are depressed is like not taking a paracetamol when you've got a headache. You'll survive, but you'll be in greater discomfort that you would if you took the medication. I've taken an tricyclic anti-depressant pill every night before I got to bed for the past TWENTY-SIX YEARS! It's not a crutch. I'm not addicted to it. I take it because it helps me. I'm reviewed every few months and the GP and I decide whether I should keep taking it. I do very well on it and if I feel I should stop taking it then I will. Other than this, I don't give it a second thought. It's just part of how I manage my mental health.

I'm also a huge fan of therapy. In particular, cognitive behavioural therapy. Like many women who experience depression, I'm a clever, complex, thoughtful so-and-so and I really enjoy the challenges of therapy. To date, I've worked with eight therapists across my life. Half have been not quite right for me, half have been brilliant and have helped me to change my life for the better. This is important: if you feel that the therapist you are seeing isn't right for you stop seeing them and try someone else. It's really important that you work with someone you can trust as this is a partnership. If you don't like the person or feel they don't 'get' you, switch. This isn't failure, it's common sense.

Other Ways to Help Yourself

Another approach that I find really helps is mindfulness meditation. I've written about this in an earlier post that you can read here. I know that other people speak highly of 'alternative therapies' such as hypnotherapy, aromatherapy, massage therapy, yoga etc. I've had some hypnotherapy and this was okay, but on the whole I'm not really into the 'touchy-feely, weirdy-beardy' stuff. Perhaps I just don't have the patience for it! But each to their own. What matters is that you find something that helps you and then do that thing for life, if necessary.

Getting Started

If you've never sought help for a mental health problem, the best starting place is your GP. You're entitled to a free course of counselling on the NHS and I highly recommend this to begin with. Talk with the counsellor about the various therapies available and explore what will work for you, including medication that your GP can provide.

If you don't want to speak to your GP about it then you can talk to a counsellor privately. Private sessions tend to cost in the region of £30-£40 per hour. You can find a therapist near you on the British Association for Counselling and Therapy website.

Jail is Not the Right Place for People who are Mentally Ill

I care about the mental health of other women and I care that other women are helped to find the treatment they need to live lives that are free of the miserable aspects of mental illness. So I was very distressed to hear that a Deputy District Judge in Peterborough has sent to prison a young Peterborough woman who has repeatedly caused disruption to traffic at times when her mental health has been in crisis.

I don't know the lady in question and I don't know all the details of her situation. However, I do know that prison is not the right place for people who are depressed. In response to articles in the Peterborough Telegraph, my colleagues Fiona Radic, Roger Proudfoot and I wrote the following article which was published in the newspaper on 19th January 2017 and reproduced below for your interest.

It really is time to talk about mental illness. When our mental health is not managed well it can lead to problems but the answer to these problems is never jail. I know I have been fortunate. I find it easy to talk about mental health. Many people don't find this easy and instead of getting help find themselves in great trauma. If this is you, I hope you will find the strength to talk to someone who can help. I struggled a lot with my mental health in my late teens, but I got help and I got better. For me, getting better and staying better is a lifelong pursuit, and that's absolutely fine. I wish for everyone with mental health problems the strength to reach out and hope very much that your strength will be rewarded with access to services that will help you to manage a condition that should have no stigma and isn't your fault.

Deputy District Judge Noble’s recent decision to jail a young woman with depression named Philippa Fallowfield was met with disbelief by Peterborough residents. Philippa’s crime has been to cause disruption to traffic repeatedly by threatening to take her own life. The most recent occasion occurred on a bridge over the A47, the incident causing the police to close the road temporarily, delaying motorists’ journeys home.

The judge says he felt obliged to jail a woman who was in desperate need because: “I have to have regard for hundreds of motorists who were severely inconvenienced by her actions.” His decision highlights several critical problems in Peterborough, the most obvious being how motorists are awarded absolute priority. Philippa breached a previous judicial order, so the judge had to do something. But Judge Noble jails her, apparently believing that the inconvenienced driving community somehow deserves this, or requires it of him. We don’t want any person disrupting traffic due to depression to be jailed. We’d like Philippa to be released now.

Most drivers are decent folk who would stop for someone who clearly needed help. This must be what they did that day. This delay was long, but delays on the A47 happen every day. In this case the risk of a fatal outcome for Philippa was high, but caring people helped avert it. So why jail Philippa when the best possible result was achieved by the large number of people, including local emergency services and all those drivers who stopped, to help make sure that someone’s life was protected? If Philippa had been discharged from effective mental health care she would not have ended up back in court. Peterborough does not have an effective mental health system. That isn’t Philippa’s fault.

What men and women who experience severe depression need are the things you would find in a properly functioning hospital. A nurse, probably medication, time, secure spaces, counselling and therapy, companionship, advice, training, reflection, perspective. Things more akin to needle and thread than to the sledgehammer of a prison sentence. There simply is no rational explanation for jailing Philippa.

Peterborough is a hot spot of vulnerability. The cure is usually other people: people who can and must help and support one another. People who have befriended a lot of people experiencing depression know the extent to which Philippa is not alone. But it is impossible to understand that you are in excellent company while you are severely depressed. Just as it is impossible to comprehend the law or do its bidding. These realisations come only once people are able to emerge from a crisis.

Our wish for Philippa is that recovery and this realisation come soon. Maybe it will come for her in prison, the right thing even if in completely the wrong place. Yes, she is unhappy and probably quite unwell. But she is absolutely not the problem.

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