Understanding Mental Health Problems Is Hard, But Vital

As a society we’ve made a lot of progress in terms of mental health. There is more understanding, less stigma and generally we’re all talking about mental health issues more. All of this is obviously a great thing. But in the month since Mental Health Awareness Week, I can’t shake the feeling that we’ve still got a long way to go. The suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain recently just go to show that mental health problems do not discriminate. It also showed that people’s capacity for compassion is enormous.

This being said I feel like if you haven’t suffered from mental health problems it can be nearly impossible to fully appreciate what it’s like, and therefore very difficult to develop solutions and be a really effective ally. While I wouldn’t want anyone to undergo the challenges that I – and many others – face, without knowing what it’s like it can be difficult to have a constructive conversation. So, as someone who is often wracked by anxiety, very low mood and a desire to self harm I want to share my experience to try and help people understand what it’s like to live with these issues. Hopefully this might help people to ‘get it’ a bit more and feel more confident in offering support to someone close to them who might be going through the same.

Let me try to explain how it feels. Suffering from anxiety doesn’t mean that I’m consumed by worry and self-doubt all the time, but for me it’s a feeling that’s always there in the back of my mind. It chips away at everything I do, every interaction I have, every decision I make, literally everything. Imagine having someone tell you that you’re getting it wrong all the time. The energy that it takes to ignore this and carry on is enormous. So when I can’t ignore it anymore, my anxiety fully kicks in and becomes a proper showstopper of an issue. When this happens I feel a huge physical and emotional tension. Often I can be literally curled up in a corner, hiding from a world that I truly believe is judging me negatively. Imagine feeling panicked and upset, while all the muscles in your body are cramping up at the same time. It is debilitating and scary. It’s also very embarrassing, which only adds to the anxiety.

The same goes for when I suffer from what I call an extreme low mood. I guess some people would call this depression or a depressive episode. When my low mood hits, I’m not just feeling sad. I am feeling numb, dead to the world, worthless. I have no energy or ability to move, to speak to people, to do anything. Everything seems pointless. My mind is just telling me that if I feel this crap then there is literally no point in doing anything. Yes, going for a walk or talking to someone helps but getting to that point is honestly one of the hardest things in the world.

Fortunately for me, I have managed to stop self-harming – although I still bear the scars as little raised reminders of past actions. However, the urge to self-harm when times are hard is still there. Self-harm is a tough one to get your head around. Logically it doesn’t make any sense to physically harm one’s self when emotionally distraught and I can’t speak for anyone else, but I can tell you why I used to do it. For me it was both an act of control when I felt helpless and a way of punishing myself for feelings that I was ashamed to be going through. There was an adrenaline rush too, which in the immediate aftermath was rewarding, although this was soon overcome by the horror, shame and panic of what I had done. The knowledge that no good comes from hurting myself and the memory of the pain it caused others when they found out is just about enough to stop me doing it again, but it’s a battle.

I can only speak from personal experience, and I don’t claim that what I have been through is the same for everyone. My mental health problems are probably towards the less severe end of the spectrum, but even so they can stop me in my tracks and make carrying on with life seem impossible. I feel that if we all understood a bit more about the actual feelings people have when they are suffering with mental health problems it would allow us to have better conversations as a society about how to address these issues.

If you have someone in your life who’s suffering from mental health issues then I hope that you understand more about what it’s like. I know that it can be a nightmare to try and support a loved one who is suffering, so here are some tips from me. They might not work for everyone, but they’ve proven useful for me. If you’re supporting someone who is having a terrible time, know it’s not your job to solve the issue. You can’t. Just be there and share the pain, it is invaluable to know you have an ally. Encouraging someone to explain how they feel can really help them, but be patient. And sometimes it’s okay to gently take control and edge them towards going for a walk or having a shower. For me, these little things help to restore normality and take me out of the painful situation.

It’s hard to truly comprehend an alien experience. I don’t want to make anyone feel bad – just to try and help people to feel that it’s okay to feel shit sometimes, and for others to feel a bit more empowered to be an ally when the time comes. I hope this helps.