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"Bringing mental illness into the open is only half the battle"

Guest blogger Tom reflects on his own experiences of anxiety and depression – and why he thinks research needs to be at the forefront of the mental health conversation.

I’ve experienced mental illness twice in my life. The first time was in my late teens, when I was diagnosed with clinical depression. The second was about 15 years later, in my mid-thirties, when I was diagnosed with severe anxiety and depression.

The first period of depression was due to a number of things happening in my life at the time:

1) I had failed A-levels and wasn’t going to University, unlike all my friends. I felt left behind.
2) My parents had split up and my father had left the country. I was left alone with little to no guidance at a crucial period of my life.
3) My mother turned to alcohol and I became co-dependent to her.
4) I compounded my misery in a cloud of marijuana smoke, which made my head a rather dark place to be.

The second period was almost like a re-enactment of the co-dependency from before. This time I was with an alcoholic girlfriend and years-old emotions, habits and negative ways of self-thinking came to the fore once again. I was also having a difficult time at work with demanding managers, who made my professional life full of anxiety.

I Googled psychiatric doctors in Dubai - where I was living at the time - and made an appointment. I was prescribed anti-depressants and put in touch with a therapist, who I spoke with regularly for a good 18 months. I kept this very close to my chest.

Publicly, with friends, I threw alcohol at the problem so I could ‘remain social’ and look ‘fine’.

I didn’t really tell my family as I was away and didn’t want to concern them. It took about a year or two until I admitted what had happened.

When I came back from Dubai, I was amazed by the huge groundswell in mental health awareness since I last lived in London 8 years before. Mental health charities were springing up, doing great things and securing massive support. Even the younger members of the Royal Family were getting involved, becoming vocal and sharing their own mental illness battles, which I thought was excellent. 

But because mental illness is currently so intangible to people who haven’t experienced it, I saw there were still a great deal of naysayers.

People who are uninformed, uneducated, or just ignorant believe it can be ‘fixed’ in one fell swoop. ‘Pull yourself together’, ‘get a grip’ or ‘stop thinking so negatively’ are archaic beliefs about mental illness. Cancer treatment can take years. Obesity can take years to reduce. Even a broken bone takes at least a month to heal!

Mental health awareness is just all so ‘new’. A few decades ago even cancer was never talked about publicly. ‘The big C’ was all very hush hush, even though cancer is a tangible, identifiable disease. You can’t look into someone’s brain with a microscope and say ‘ah-ha! There’s the depression/anxiety/suicidal thoughts/addictive personality! Let’s cut it out.’ 

Bringing mental illness into the open is only half the battle.

While there is a lot of good conversation about breaking the stigmas of mental illness (especially amongst men of my age group who are suicidal), I see mental health research not just as important but absolutely vital. None of those ‘bigger’ charities seemed to be focused on the research side of things. MQ is and that is what piqued me most – it’s looking to make a real, scientific change.

I support MQ because research is the missing part of the mental illness puzzle. It simply needs to happen.

From a personal perspective, the research that would interest me most would be understanding what chemical changes take place in the brain occur over the course of therapy - how does the brain react to the realisations and new understandings that therapy triggers in us? For example, when I learned what anxious predictions were, I was able to identify them, realise that they were just unhelpful thoughts and turn them off. Brain chemicals helped me activate that process. I would like to know which ones and how.

But there is such TINY Government spend on research in comparison with other illnesses and diseases. Without substantially more generous Government investment, which MQ’s latest report showed has remained flat for the last DECADE(!), it’s going to take far longer to truly transform how we understand and deal with mental illness.

Personally, this experience has taught me a great deal.

It’s taught me about myself, my character, how my mind works, how I can manage my mind, how I can manage my reaction to thoughts, how I can advise others who are going through tough times and how I feel how I think. For example, I know now that if I dwell on dark thoughts, I feel rubbish. I’ve learned my experience of the world is not about the world: it’s about me and how I choose to react, or not react, to it.

In professional environments, I am now more reserved and don’t strive as much for perfection as I once did. Relationships-wise, I am far less co-dependent and take my feelings and desires much more into consideration than before, when it was always very much about ‘trying to please’ the other person.

I’ve also realised that mental health is not something I ‘had’ only when I was mentally ill.

I’ve realised that mental health is the same as physical fitness - a fitness that can be either utterly crap and non-existent, to a fitness that is being consistently evolved through self-awareness, learning and ultimately letting go of bad thinking habits. We all have mental health and it can be trained, honed and improved.

Having survived the dark times, I like to help others fighting their own demons in whatever way I can. I’ve found that sharing my story is a good way of doing that - hence why you’re reading this.

Last updated: 9 July 2019

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