World Mental Health Day is upon us again.
So, I thought that as I spent my evening yesterday in London celebrating 10 years of the Time To Change campaign, I would talk a little bit about how much working for this organisation has changed my life. I joined Time To Change around 3 or 4 years ago after seeing that they were recruiting Champions for their Children and Young People’s team; as you all know young people’s mental health is my particular passion. I didn’t really know quite what this would entail other than that it would involve speaking about my experiences, which was honestly terrifying. When I was younger I wouldn’t say I was particularly open about my mental health to anyone and everyone, but equally I wasn’t entirely secretive. However, as the years passed and I got older, I became more aware of the injustices those with mental illness experience in all areas of life, and I started to lose my voice. Gradually the stigma I was experiencing started to add up, and I felt more and more ashamed.
Sadly, working in mental health care did nothing to relieve these feelings; it actually made them worse. I was struggling with anorexia for many years whilst working in the mental health sector, and the attitudes I observed towards eating disorders from professionals were heart breaking, causing me to retreat further into myself. Although the idea of actually opening up and talking about my experiences was terrifying, that was ultimately what pushed me to do it. Nobody should have to feel afraid or ashamed, and if my talking about my difficulties could make somebody else feel able to too, it felt like the right thing to do.
So I suddenly found myself telling my life story to a room full of strangers, some of whom would go on to become dear friends. I can remember being genuinely terrified, not necessarily of sharing as we were all in the same boat, but of feeling very exposed. In hindsight, I honestly feel as though my life changed from that moment. For a while it felt as though I was living a double life. I started visiting schools to share my story in front of big groups of teachers and students (which was nerve wracking to begin with), but still felt unable to open up to people in my life. Eventually, something began to shift. The feedback that we received after each and every session was so rewarding, and I started to unlearn all the shame I had picked up over the last few years.
I can vividly remember the first time I went public on social media with my mental health. It was during Eating Disorders Awareness Week, and I shared a blog post I had written anonymously for the Time To Change website (there’s a link for this under my ‘Guest Blogs’ tab). It was so anxiety provoking; I was particularly concerned about how my colleagues might react because I always have an underlying anxiety that my career will be negatively impacted by my mental health. However, I was so overwhelmed by the positive responses from everybody. It confirmed to me that I was doing the right thing, and I’ve never looked back!
Yesterday evening Jeremy Hunt attended the event to give a speech in his capacity as Health Secretary, and to meet with some of us to talk a little about the campaign. It was a great opportunity to share what we do and why it has been so important to us, although as a nurse it was very conflicting for me to have a civilised sit down conversation with somebody who makes decisions that so negatively affect myself, my colleagues and my patients. However, I was happy to put that to one side and use the opportunity to share my story and try to educate him about the different ways mental illness affects people and why the campaign is so important.
It was wonderful to have a chance to celebrate yesterday with some of the people I started this journey with, and the rest of the team from Time To Change. They do such incredible work, and to be a part of it is such a privilege. It’s probably the thing I am most proud of in my life; I will talk to anyone and everyone about it! It’s certainly changed my life, and I know other people share this experience.
So I guess my overall message is that we must, must, MUST keep talking about mental health; we must continue to fight for equality until the day we don’t need to fight anymore. Stigma kills. Discrimination kills. People suffer in silence because they are afraid and ashamed – this is just not acceptable in 2017. Whilst it was a privilege and a pleasure to reflect upon all the incredible work we, and other organisations, have put into trying to achieve equality, we must also take this time to recognise how much further we have to go as a society to truly accomplish this.
Please, keep talking about mental health; not just during this World Mental Health Day, but tomorrow, and the next day, and the next, until we finally live in a world when people no longer feel ashamed of who they are.