TW: Discussion of mental health conditions, self harm ideation and other elements of mental illness.
If you’ve been following me for some time, you’ll know that talking about mental health is something that I’m passionate about discussing. It’s often taboo, hushed, brushed under the rug or outright shamed. Maybe it’s called ‘attention seeking’ when you finally melt down or ‘being dramatic’ when you express your needs. Maybe you just think you’re tired, or it’s a bad day, or it’s a bad week, and maybe it spirals from there. Maybe you finally realise that you need something else to help you get away from that bad day or week.
Many people (troublingly) turn to alcohol – because “it helps me relax” – or drugs – “because they add to the fun”. One study found that people diagnosed with a mental illness (like depression, anxiety or bipolar disorder) consume 69 percent of the nation’s alcohol and 84 percent of the nation’s cocaine; I don’t have to tell you that that is a lot. The same study found that substance abuse and mental illness is bi-directional, meaning that people who abuse substances are more likely to suffer from depression, and vice versa. You can read the rest of the study here.
Why then, are we more likely to turn to substances like alcohol or drugs, rather than a medical professional, psychologist or trying medication that helps, rather than hinders, our mental health? It’s likely that stigma plays a huge part. People are less likely to comment upon a bottle of wine than a box or anti-depressants, or smoking weed compared to anti-psychotics. It’s often easier to get a table in a pub (even with the current COVID restrictions) than to get referred to a psychiatrist. It’s the combination of ease of access to and lack of attention paid to substances that mean many of us will turn to them before we start admitting to ourselves that we might need help.
In one given week, 8 out of 100 people are diagnosed with anxiety and depression in the UK. 4 in 100 are diagnosed with PTSD. 1 in 5 people have suicidal thoughts. We’re not alone in our feelings, but we are taught to hide them, to conceal our feelings, our dark times and our needs. Taking medication, going to speak to a counsellor, therapist, psychologist or courses like Cognitive Behavioural Therapy are all things that we very often won’t admit to.
When I was first diagnosed with depression and anxiety (with obsessive compulsive tendencies) at 17, I thought it was terrible. I cried telling a friend, because I didn’t know what it meant for my future. I tried to take my medication, but the first one had more adverse effects than positives. I often forgot to take it, or took them whilst drinking alcohol, which stops them from working at all, causing a deeper depression (plus a wicked hangover). The year after that, I was given anti-psychotics to help with the side effects of my anxiety. I spent about a year being zoned out, putting on weight, and swinging quickly between highs and lows of mood. Coming off of them caused one of my worst medical withdrawals, with vomiting, nausea, shaking and paranoia. I was on a different medication for a few years, before it started to become ineffective again, meaning that I had to take blood pressure medication to try and reverse the physical effects of my anxiety and panic attacks. I’ve been to NHS mood management courses, spoken to psychologists, psychotherapists and had counselling.
Why am I telling you this? It seems rather doom and gloom. Because right now I have changed (yet again) to another medication. I’m not ‘cured’ but I am doing much much better. I’m working hard on myself. Living with anxiety and depression isn’t a case of popping a pill and feeling euphoric. It’s more like having a couple of lead weights cut from your feet so you can walk forward on your own path. On that path, you find the right diet, the right lifestyle with the right people, the right kind of movement that your body can enjoy (right now, I like weight lifting). It can very often be the help you need to function as a regular human being ought to be able to function. Taking care of yourself shouldn’t be and isn’t a shameful thing to do.
What you should be wary of is that it won’t always be right first time. It won’t always be the same reaction that you have that your friend/dad/cousin’s neighbour had. There will always be people who are anti-medication, anti-psychiatry and anti-diagnosis. To them, I will quote the glorious Billy Joel: ‘I don’t care what you say anymore this is my life / Go ahead with your own life leave me alone’.
A blog post is no substitute for professional advice. If what you’re feeling isn’t right, book an appointment with your GP to discuss your options for mental health care. If you’re struggling with drugs, alcohol or have questions on mental health, accredited resources like NHS (where there is an anxiety and depression self evaluation quiz), FRANK, Mind and Alcohol Change UK are the best places to start. If you feel your mental health becomes an urgent risk to your personal safety, please head to your local Accident and Emergency department or call 999 (or your country emergency code). You’re not alone.