Every year in May, Mental Health Awareness Week throws into action and our newspaper headlines and social media feeds become inundated with stories of inspiring people who have fought through the battle and the unfortunate many still fighting. Posters designed by MIND and the Mental Health Foundation proudly showcase on street billboards, bringing the subject of mental illness to the forefront of our minds. It is October now, some months past the time where we’re all actively raising awareness and donating to the appropriate charities, but I’m bringing mental health back into the limelight – and why?
Because there’s never a good time to forget about the people who live their lives in its shadows.
Today’s article is focused entirely around Claire* – a 32-year-old woman from Bristol, who works in Accounts and Credit Control. When I met Claire for the first time a few weeks back, she welcomed me with an arms-opened hug and a smile that echoed with radiance. She is a beautiful woman, with kind eyes and an infectious sound to her laughter. While we spoke over sipping hot drinks in a quiet town coffee shop, Claire spoke openly and freely and seemed like one of the most positive people I’ve had the pleasure of company with in a long time; but as our meeting drew on and the shop got busy, I could see her demeanour change and as she cautiously took in our new surroundings, it was evident she was feeling anxious.
But Claire is no stranger to Anxiety, having battled with a condition that is still ever-present to her since her early teens. This week I caught up with her again to speak to her about mental health and how she feels it has affected her lifestyle. “I believe it will never go, it’s just a case of controlling it,” she tells me, determined that her condition does not define her. “My life will never be free of the problems I have, but when I have a good day, I just think myself very lucky.”
Claire’s problems with mental health date back to her being a young teenager – a difficult and fragile time for most, but even more so for Claire who discovered she was suffering with Anorexia, a condition which the National Institute of Health and Clinical Excellence suggest that 1.6 million people within the UK suffer from. A visit to her family doctor confirmed that she was not just ‘simply off her food’, but instead was experiencing the symptoms of her first battle with the mind. Claire was swiftly referred to a dietician and a counsellor who both saw her on the road to recovery but then tragic events meant that she went on to lose her step-father.
“After the passing of my stepdad, things just became the norm,” she says. “I moved home with my partner after living with my Mum and then things caught up with me. I was diagnosed with Depression, that had taken longer to come out because I didn’t grieve properly when I should have done and I ended up not working.” Claire was prescribed antidepressants at this point but an intolerance to them meant that she didn’t take them and she tried to get better without them. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the end of her problems.
As the pressures of work, every day life struggles and the stress that sometimes comes with relationships, by the age of 22, Claire had started to feel anxious. “The doctors thought I had depression again, but I wasn’t convinced so they ran tests and found it out to be Anxiety. At this point, they tried medication again but it didn’t work.” Claire goes on to tell me that as the years accumulate, things like heartbreak only serve to make the Anxiety worse and although help comes now in ways that don’t include medication, Claire doesn’t really believe the services available to mental health patients is effective enough.
“More recently, the Doctor has put me through to have CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) at the hospital which is great but it only runs for a maximum of 12 sessions.” These sessions include missed appointments due to sickness and ill-health. “It takes longer than this to manage Anxiety issues and I have been advised I will need to go back after six months of therapy and re-apply as the treatment I am having will not last.” Claire believes the issue stems from the fact that there are not enough Therapists within the NHS to deal with the extensive patient waiting list, therefore leaving those who are suffering like herself, to go back and rely on the support of their Doctors when things get bad again. Doctors, Claire says, have been very patient with her over the years.
According to the Mental Health Foundation, Anxiety is one of the most prevalent mental health problems in the UK and elsewhere and is still under-reported, under-diagnosed and under-treated. While 2.6% of the population experience depression and 4.7% have anxiety problems, as many as 9.7% suffer mixed depression and anxiety, making it the most prevalent mental health problem in the population as a whole, while Generalised Anxiety Disorder affects between 2–5% of the population, yet accounts for as much as 30% of the mental health problems seen by GPs.
So is Claire right? Could the NHS be doing more to help those who’ve suffered the backlash of the body’s most powerful resource?
She feels that a lot of improvement needs to go underway the National Health System if we want to change the statistics we’re facing today. “I feel that Doctors and Therapists need to allow more time for people. I understand that they have timeframes to comply with, but this just isn’t enough when someone isn’t well. I am lucky enough to be able to go private once my CBT finishes, as it is not enough time to allow me to get well, or to feel that I can cope with trying to lead a normal life.” But she states a valid point: what about those suffering who simply do not have the funds and means to access private treatment?
I took the time to ask Claire for her opinion on whether she feels the general public could be taking a more positive action to help those who are experiencing the pitfalls of mental health. She begins by telling me that seeing mental health discussed at schools would be a good introduction to the system. On speaking of the general public, she asks for just one thing: “Be patient. Panic attacks and other symptoms can happen when you least expect it so don’t stare or laugh. It isn’t funny for the person that this is happening to.” She also offers words of wisdom to those who don’t fully understand. “If you are not aware of mental health and the problems it causes for the person and those around them, my best advice is to read about it. There are so many places that can provide advice and support that will help the individual and yourself.”
So, with mental health clearly still an issue that’s very much on the rise amongst the British population, are we fast becoming a nation of mind-unhealthy citizens? And with the NHS failing to meet the mark to offer the appropriate help and support to those struggling to find the light, is it now down to us – the general public – to reach out and offer our understanding? We have little power to change the often devastating effects of a mind claimed by mental health but we can at least raise awareness, inspire and support.
Claire leaves our interview with some sound advice to those still living in the shadows of mental health problems: “Don’t give up. It can be the hardest thing – trust me, I know – but please persist. If you spend every day at the surgery but feel better speaking for that ten minutes you have sometimes, it can mean a case of life or death. Do whatever you need and feel you have to do in order to get well. Speak to your friends and family, even if it is just one you can rely on. Don’t feel like you are on your own, you may feel like it but you aren’t. Trust that you will get better and be able to cope a little more. Be patient, waiting for appointments can take time. Finally… do something that you can enjoy or keeps you occupied so you don’t have to think. Reading, exercise, word searches, baking. You will feel better for this.”
But of all the wisdom Claire has shared with me through speaking so courageously about her own struggles so I can write them here today, one thing she said stood out, profound with the kind of honesty we all need to accept to make a difference:
“It isn’t about hiding away anymore, it’s about being faced with the truth and the fact that no one is perfect, just because it’s mental health it doesn’t mean you’re a fruit-loop, just someone who finds certain things hard to deal with.”