Saturday, 30 March 2013

Challenging The Stigma




I've been motivated to write this to do my bit to try to tackle the stigma attached to mental health problems. Part of me is uncomfortable writing about something so personal but I feel it could help change people's attitudes and help people who are struggling to realise that they're not alone. I'm a completely normal, happy and successful person who has been through some very dark, difficult times and come out the other side a stronger, more rounded person. Here's my story...

In between finishing my A Levels and starting university I went through a breakdown, which I can now describe as my breakthrough, since I found out who I was and made the difficult transition from boy to man.

It all started when I was encouraged by my adventurous older brother to go travelling and decided to go to Mexico on my own for a few weeks. Unfortunately when I was out there I became very isolated and started having, what I didn’t realise at the time, were panic attacks. I flew home because I thought I was seriously physically ill, finding it really hard to breathe much of the time.

I assumed all would get back to normal on my return but things got much worse. I became deeply depressed and anxious and life became a real struggle. I was forever thinking of my fragile mental state and had to cancel holidays and became restricted to my home town. I became dependent on my mum for support. I remember sitting on the bench outside the GPs' in Thame telling my mum that for the first time I could understand why people kill themselves and that if I never got better I feared that suicide would be my only way out. However throughout all of this, I clung onto a hope that I would come through my depression and anxiety and realise my ambition of not only going to university that September but having a career in broadcast journalism. The challenge was that I had to be patient and do everything possible to overcome my mental health problem. I was determined to go to Sheffield University, despite my doctor's concern that I wouldn’t be able to cope. I addressed these challenges by being proactive – arranging counselling sessions in Sheffield before I started in the city, doing exercise, eating healthily and embracing student life by taking up opportunities at the Students’ Union such as presenting on the University radio station.

Over my four years at Sheffield University, I gradually came off anti-depressants, finished counselling and broke free from the dark cloud which followed me.

After an incredible amount of effort, I got over the depression and anxiety and proved to myself that I could cope with the challenging life I desired by getting a First in my degree, being elected as a sabbatical officer at the Students’ Union and then completing a masters in broadcast journalism at Cardiff University. I am five years into a varied and fulfilling career in broadcast journalism.

This was my life changing experience and I learnt an incredible amount about myself. On the very rare occasions when I start to feel that, as Churchill said, the black dog is barking, I am able to employ the techniques I have developed that work for me so I can overcome the feelings of anxiety. These include talking to loved ones, listening to books by Dr Claire Weekes, doing exercise and praying (I know my Christian faith has helped me a lot through the difficult times). I am now able to relate to others who are going through mental health problems and hopefully help them.

People who have mental health problems can get through the other side but part of their recovery depends on being able to talk about their problem - this is why we must tackle the stigma. Support is available on the Mind, No Panic and Samaritans websites for people who are suffering with mental health problems.

You can support the campaign to challenge the mental health stigma on the Time To Change website.

If you're a journalist, click here to read the Samaritans' guide on how to report responsibly on suicide.