Today, Monday 10th October, is World Mental Health Day. A day that we dedicate to reminding ourselves and each other that mental health issues exist. That mental health issues are nothing to be ashamed of, and that talking is the key to resolving these issues. That mental health is surrounded by a huge stigma, and it shouldn’t be.
Mental health is a topic that hits very close to home for me. In the past ten years I have battled tirelessly with the daily effects of generalised anxiety, as well as having some extreme bouts of depression – some of which led to hospitalisation, and suicide attempts. Even now, at a point in my life when I pride myself on being ‘mostly okay’, I have off days. Days where the thought of going outside to face the world makes me physically sick with fear. Days where I’m mean to myself, and self-deprecating, and I blame myself. Days where I can’t talk to people, because I have no ‘real’ reason to be crying my eyes out, but I am, and I don’t want to explain the hollow feeling that made me this way. Perhaps I’m predisposed to these illnesses, or perhaps they were brought on by neglect in my own childhood, or trauma in my adolescence. The ‘why’ shouldn’t matter really. We wouldn’t ask somebody why their child has Down’s Syndrome, or why their grandmother has arthritis. I’ve never heard the question, why do you have cancer.
This year in particular, World Mental Health day touches a particularly raw nerve for me: my daughter. I know from my own experiences of trauma that they did contribute significantly to the times when I was depressed. I’m not saying that’s what caused my illness, but it didn’t help. So my concern, this year, as we try to raise awareness of mental health issues and the stigma that surrounds them, lies with my beautiful, confident and outgoing five year old daughter. The one who never seems upset, despite having been brutally sexually abused for months at the hands of her then-stepfather. The one who is the most popular kid in her class and still gladly chats to anyone who will listen. The one who most likely, when she is in her teens or her early twenties, will suffer some kind of mental health problems. You see, for young children who don’t understand the implications of abuse, it can take several years before their ultimate reaction to it surfaces.
Of course, I already have help in place for my daughter. She has accessed play therapy and we have worked endlessly with the school and local authority to make sure that she always has support available, be it now or in five years time. I know that when she reaches fourteen and has questions about boys (or girls, or whatever) things might start to surface, and she may need to access therapy services. I know that it will be devastating for me as a parent, having to see her go through that horror again, but that I will stand by her side and listen to whatever she needs to tell me about how she is feeling.
However, I also know that there is a massive and disgusting stigma around mental health issues, and that kids can be very cruel. Having dealt with my own issues throughout high school and college, I have adjusted to the fact that some people don’t ‘get’ mental illness. Some people simply don’t believe in it (and to those people, I don’t believe you have flu, so get back to work!) and some people mock it. I, like many people who suffer with poor mental health, have learned to deal with these ignorant people. Here’s the thing: we shouldn’t have to. Mental illness should be recognised and treated with the same understanding and dignity as any other illness.
So this year, for World Mental Health Day, I’m asking you to please, please, educate yourself, and more importantly, educate your children. Teach them compassion, and understanding. Teach them not to judge people, and not to buy into the stigma, and not to use hurtful words like ‘crazy’ or ‘schizo’. Teach them that talking is good, and that it’s okay to feel whatever they are feeling. By doing this you can join the movement that hopes to end the stigma. By ending the stigma, we can make sure that my daughter and other children who have suffered trauma can access support when they need it, without fear of being judged or belittled by their peers. Isn’t that the least they deserve?
Mental health is just as important as physical health. Mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of, and neither is talking about it. It’s time to talk. It’s okay to not be okay.