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?