I thought I Understood Mental Health, Until January.

The whole thing is so ironic, I can’t help but laugh about it now. The professed key to me gaining back control of my life sent me down a vicious spiral, which if not reversed, could have ended it. To unravel that riddle for you: in early December I was put on new anti-convulsant medication for my epilepsy, the high dosage of which sent me into a deep depression and left me suicidal. I feel rather ridiculous and over-dramatic even typing that – my nickname is Perky for goodness sake…

I am not here to relay to you my every thought and feeling during this time – it is the weekend after all – but this dramatic shift in my behaviour and mentality taught me some valuable lessons. I, like so many of us, have had my fair share of second hand experience with depression and suicide. I have seen loved ones suffer and/or lose their battle. I have endured my own periods of sadness as a form of inevitable collateral damage. But I, like so many relatives and friends, am not a depressive. At least, not usually. If there has been any silver lining to my most recent debacle, it’s that I now get it. I thought I did before, but I didn’t.

Firstly, it is only with hindsight that I can write this. At the time I was too tired to take to the keyboard; that’s presuming I had anything to say. I was also far too immersed in a thick fog of nothingness to have anything to say. So consumed by my paranoid delusions and sense of nothing that I could’t comprehend for a long while that there was anything worthy of discussion. Nothing was wrong, other than with me, of course. Everything was wrong with me.

Many of you who know me will also probably be reading this thinking “really? I never noticed anything was up!” (or maybe you did, but I’m guessing you didn’t jump to this extreme). But it was. I also learnt this year then that it’s really quite easy to pretend nothing’s wrong. To show up just enough to make people think that you’re just “really busy at the moment”, when really you’re avoiding 8/10 plans only to find yourself in bed for the fourth day in a row, feeling lonely. As I’ve seen with people close to me who are on that downward spiral, this method works until the day it doesn’t. People then tend to wonder, I used to wonder, where the burn-out came from. What changed? Why, suddenly, can’t they get their sh*t together and stick to a plan? Selfish, lazy, self-indulgent. That’s what comes to mind all too easily. Turns out, they’d had a whole load of sh*t to get together every time they got out of bed for quite a bit longer than any of us realised. And if we’re honest, we didn’t really want to be made aware of the situation while they could still pretend everything was OK.

Upon reflection therefore, the most important insight I gained was rather oxymoronic: that the behaviour displayed during a time of mental illness is 100% out of the sufferer’s control (no, they can’t just ‘snap out of it’), but also: it’s not permanent, and in some cases it’s even avoidable. Things can be done to prevent affliction, and help those who do suffer conquer their battle. The problem is, the grand narrative still dictates that it is the sufferer’s fault, and little seems to be being done to help manage this quite probably manageable problem (easier said than done, I’m aware).

I’m no doctor but I’m also not oblivious to the fact that mental illness, just like obesity for example, is clearly on the rise. And just like obesity, mental-health problems may be (partly at least) a symptom of modern life. I am not talking about a complacency society in our times of relatively high standards of living. I am talking about: the added pressures that come with social media, and the 24/7 connection provided by technology; our obsession with material goods as an indicator of success; the chemicals that we pump into our bodies with the food we eat, and/or indeed the medication we take. The list goes on.

If you look at the status-quo, however, it appears we have no clue what we’re doing. While we’re definitely talking about our ‘feelings’ more, and that cannot be underestimated, we’re certainly not making any discernible effort to modernise the infrastructure of our society to match its changes. For instance, food stores (supermarkets, take-aways, restaurants) have pledged no commitment to make the customer aware of the hormones and chemicals that many of their products contain; nor are they under any pressure to do so. Furthermore, advertising companies know exactly how to make us want more, and are relentless in their campaign to move the goal-posts of success and fulfilment. And Instead of preserving the carefree innocence of childhood – an increasingly precious phase of life – primary schools spend their time preparing for exams, starting with KS1 tests, which children sit aged 7. To put that into perspective, in Germany children have only just started school at 7. These are examples of the many facets of modern life that are largely out of the individual’s control, yet have a colossal impact on our well-being. Logically then, altering sectors such as: food production, advertising, pharmaceuticals and education to act consciously, in a way that is supportive of our mental well-being, is a necessary tool of prevention. Sadly it appears that money-making and league tables still matter more.

Of course not all mental illness is preventable, and for those who suffer it is rarely due to their lifestyle choices. However, astonishingly, while mental health problems account for around 23% of disease in the UK, it only takes up 11% of the NHS budget.*  If we all agree that the situation is much like being hit by a car or having cancer, which the NHS deals with so effectively and admirably, surely the treatment of those who fall mentally ill should be covered proportionately by the budget.

Am I wrong? If not, then where is the evidence of any such alterations? So much for the commitment by politicians to concentrate on solving Britain’s mental health crisis, the policy which shaped many of the campaigns in the 2015 general election.

My experience seems so alien now, so distant and long ago that I am able to discuss it openly, even joke about it. But I’m excruciatingly aware that for many others those thoughts and feelings are a daily battle – and that’s no laughing matter. While I don’t begin to suggest that everyone should chemically induce their own mental instability, I do make a plea for a shift in attitude. A more active approach. One that is enlightened to the genuine suffering of those with a mental illness and one that provokes change. Just like obesity and other pervading social problems, such change must be top-down if it’s to prove effective. Hence as well as educating and looking after ourselves, we must put adequate pressure on the government and big companies to invoke the necessary changes to their methods of employment.

This is a problem far bigger and more systemic than someone’s inability to ‘pull themselves together’, and it sadly cannot be solved simply by ‘talking about it’. I’ll put my hands up and say that, until this year, I myself didn’t fully understand that.

*Figures as of 2015; sourced: https://www.kingsfund.org.uk/projects/verdict/has-government-put-mental-health-equal-footing-physical-health

I thought I Understood Mental Health, Until January.