Coming Out About Mental Health

I started this blog because I didn’t know what else to do. I had no idea where to go to for help about my daughter who seemed to be intent on starving herself to death. I was frightened and lonely and I thought someone out there might have answers.

Somehow, along the way, it became more than that. I raged about NHS services, about attitudes and body fascism, I ranted about sexism and about the stigma against those who have mental health problems. And along the way, I felt the need to talk about my own struggles with eating disorders and a lifelong battle with depression, whilst appearing in real life as a confident, extrovert, funny woman. Well, some of the time.

The thing is, you can’t talk the talk about stigma, while pretending I am just great. Honestly, I’m fine. Last year ago, a great friend of mine had to write a letter to a large group of people, saying thanks for support in a post from which he was stepping down. He couldn’t give a speech, because he’d been on sick leave for some months. With depression or stress related illness. And he wrote in his speech about having realised he wasn’t as strong as he thought, that mental ill health had a huge impact on him. I remember thinking how much strength this must have taken to be so open.

I am in a senior role. Admitting depression isn’t done. But in the other hand, it affects one on four – which would mean of the twelve equivalent post holders at my level, on average, three of us would suffer. Except perhaps those who suffer from depression don’t achieve promotion, and those that do keep quiet, perpetuating the stigma. So, today, I am at work. In a meeting, with good people, many of whom I know, with MPs from our region and we are discussing the NHS and Social Care and the need for integration. We are exploring what good primary care would look like and how physical and mental health could become more joined up. I think about this. Many of those speaking are talking about principles and ideas, and I think about this some more. I put my hand up to speak and I think about what I might say. I wait for my turn and I think some more. And then the Chair asks me to contribute.

I take a deep breath. I begin by saying how reluctant I am to contribute to policy debate because of the role I hold. But I am not speaking about my role. I am speaking as the mother of three children, one of whom is autistic and one of whom has needed mental health services. But I am also speaking as someone who has suffered mental health issues in that I have had lifelong bouts of depression, just as huge numbers of people do. I describe the problems in accessing services and this is as a person who knows how public services work, whereas for others they are an incomprehensible maze. I talk about blogging anonymously on mental health issues and the privilege of debating with others about these and hearing what support people need and often don’t get. Of course, I am political, I argue that buying and selling healthcare will always have a huge transactional cost and that we need to focus on provision. That we need to engender a sense of entitlement to decent care and support, not just for the articulate and educated and have a system that people understand, and that it is immoral to have a system where if you receive no help from your GP or A&E, your next step might be calling Samaritans, camping outside your MPs office or roaming the streets, calling out for help from passers by as some of those with mental health issues do, while the rest of us shrink away and hurry on.

I am quiet eventually. But as I stop, I then hear the voice that says “What the hell were you thinking?”. The same voice that C uses when I tell him later. He stares at me and asks why I have made myself so vulnerable to attack from others. And I know that he’s partly right, but I also know that if I really, really mean we should challenge stigma, then I need to be serious about this, even of it means me, coming clean that I suffer from depression – and that everything else you think about me, whether I am good at my job, whether I am politically committed, whether I make good decisions or give good advice, whether I know how to achieve change or to set a strategic direction – that all of that might still be true and that I still suffer from depression. In peaks and troughs, but it is unlikely to ever go away.

I may have made the biggest career mistake of my life. I really don’t know. No one was unkind and no one attacked me, but something tells me it will come back to bite me. But challenging the status quo, opposing stigma and overturning stereotypes means standing up and telling the truth. About others, about our loved ones and about ourselves. Today, I am not on the side of Spartacus. I am Spartacus. And if I am not prepared to admit that, then how can I expect others to be brave?

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11 responses to “Coming Out About Mental Health

  1. Wow – that was incredibly brave. Thankyou for speaking out and writing about it. Even if they didn’t acknowledge it, I’ll bet some of your colleagues were grateful to you for speaking about your struggles with depression. It is only by us being brave in the contexts we are in that change begins to happen X

  2. Well done for speaking out. You were very brave. Walking the walk is vital if we are to change attitudes towards people with mental health issues. Too many people think that mental illness means a person is incapable of living a full life and being a “normal” colleague, partner, parent, friend. Of course, it doesn’t, in fact it probably enables a greater insight and understanding of the problems of those around us. But it does mean that life may be harder for us than for people without mental ill health. Well done for your strength and courage in helping to break down the barriers. You are both a great mum and terrific role model to your children.

  3. I greatly admire you and wish you well. I really hope this doesn’t come back to bite you. What you did was very brave.

    Is speaking out about personal mental health issues wise? Experience tells me ‘yes’ and ‘no’. Sharing personal experiences with like-minded people and/or people who have also experienced mental health difficulties, or have family with mental illness is OK. These people empathise and are supportive. But sharing such experiences with people in positions of power is not OK. One of my biggest regrets was to elaborate on my mental health difficulties (anxiety, depression, anorexia nervosa) to people in a position of power.

    There are laws against discrimination on the grounds of mental health; for example when people are applying for jobs. But it’s easy for employers to work around these laws. If two people interview equally well and have comparable attributes, but one of them has a history of mental illness, who is more likely to get the job? At the end of the day, an employer wants a person who they can feel confident won’t need time off sick.

    My experiences have made me VERY, VERY wary about sharing personal mental health issues. I would love to see stigma and prejudice disappear, and I do hope that this will happen in mental health, just as it has done in race, sexuality and gender (to a certain degree), but meanwhile I keep schtum to the majority.

  4. I believe that you are absolutely right. You have opened yourself up to the risk of judgement and consequence
    But it’s only the courageous purest intent risk takers that move the wheel of change. I truly believe you will recognize the magnitude of your courage when many too afraid to share before your contribution, stand up and whether its privately or publicly acknowledge their truths, you may represent many more people than you would ever know if you didn’t bravely speak.
    I will tell you that I have learned that sharing my struggles with mental illness had brought me more hope, support and strength than consequence of ignorance and or prejudice.
    I stand beside you and applaud. Thank you.
    You are the future of change

  5. You are incredibely brave and yes it may come back and bite you but you can stand with your head held high as you have had the courage to be honest – who knows who else in the room also has a dx of depression but has been too scared to speak. I understand having had bouts of depression during the past and now work with people who experience mental health problems. I applaud your words and actions today and stand beside you also. I too am Spartacus!!!

  6. BRAVA Onemoremum! Thank you for being a courageous ambassador of mental health in the world! We need more folks who are as brave and committed as you are who are in positions of power. For empowering message on vulnerability/courage I recommend TED Talks by Brene Brown: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iCvmsMzlF7o

    Even though I’m in the USA I’m thrilled to hear you speak up. This is a world wide issue and it must be tackled city by city by people who are willing to take the risk and speak up for change.

    I also have friends in the UK and have heard horrible tales of watching their children with eating disorders be turned away due to not being “ill enough” or because the staff simply does not understand these complex life threatening illnesses.

    Given that we are headed toward a NHS here in the USA I hope your words reach those who are working out our new NHS…I don’t think they have a clue how absolutely horrific it can be for families to sit and wait for weeks and months to see a competent provider.

    Thank you and I hope that you will receive more support than you ever imagined. You are changing lives.
    Becky Henry
    Hope Network, LLC
    Minnesota, USA

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