Tuesday, 18 February 2020

Why we need to support, not demonise people with mental health issues

Mental health and social media is in the news at the moment for the most tragic of reasons. Mental health is a medical issue. It is something that will affect us all in some way during our lives. Sadly some still see it is a subject that can be weaponised or used to hurt people. I saw an example of this last week. As a few readers will know, I've been the target of a local twitter troll for a period of several years. My response has been to simply block all of his accounts and ignore the nonsense he writes (a course of action I thoroughly recommend). Occasionally, friends spot something that the Troll has tweeted and alert me, when the comments go beyond the pale. Last week I had one such message. They sent a screen shot of the offending tweet and informed me that it had been reported to Twitter. As it has now been removed and hopefully the miscreant has received a slapped wrist, I think it is worth discussing his comments, especially  in the light of Caroline Flack's suicide amid a social media storm.

The comment sneeringly claimed that I was seeing the doctor for mental health issues. It was clearly meant as a damaging and hurtful putdown and to undermine my credibility. My first reaction was to ignore the comment. Virtually no one follows the account (apart from spambots and follow back accounts run to harvest data) and as such it has no influence over anything and is locally perceived as a complete joke. But there was one aspect of the tweet which did bother me and on reflection I felt did deserve some analysis and comment. For the record I am not seeing the doctor for mental health issues. Before writing this blog, I took the precaution of asking Mrs T (The wife, not the former Prime Minister) whether she thought any aspect of my behaviour warrented a trip to the doctor. Clare is a sensible soul and gave a sensible answer, informing me that I should ignore comments on social media and that as far as she was concerned I had no issues. However, if I did have such issues, should anyone have the right to demonise me and belittle me for it?

Whilst I beleive I am in robust mental health now, it was not always so. As a teenager, between the age of 12-13, I did have such issues and was treated by specialist for depression. I spent several months on medication and was in a very dark place. I have recently been writing a book about my life. At the time, I completely refused to open up or discuss my issues. I would get violent and angry, or sullen and withdrawn when anyone tried to get me to open up. I now realise that I was suffering a form of post traumatic stress disorder, following my mother having cancer in 1970. At the time, it was expected that she would pass away. I had to see her in hospital, shrunken and pale, wasting away, with drips in her arm. I was seven years old. I was teased that "mum was going to die and I was going to become an orphan". I retreated into a fantasy world. A friend of mine, who I have known since I was four and used to live up the road and attend my primary school told me, not knowing why, that everyone used to joke I was "lost in space".  I have no recollection of this, but I'd knock on his mums door and demand they put the telly onto Lost in Space and other similar shows that fascinated me, but no one else was interested in. His mum, a lovely, compassionate Irish lady, clearly understood something was wrong and indulged this, bringing me tea and buscuits. My friend confided that they all just thought I was a bit weird. For me, the clouds lifted at the age of 14 with the discovery of punk rock and an identity. Suddenly it was OK to be a bit weird. My friend, who had not enjoyed sharing Lost in Space, became a firm friend as we'd go to gigs together and listen to the latest punk rock releases. I have since concluded that whilst I could keep the lid on my feelings as a child, the hormonal changes of puberty meant the pent up feelings overwhelmed me, hence the breakdown at age 12-13. I have sought to wonder whether many other children who have to deal with such trauma experience similar feelings at the onset of puberty.

It is only now that I realise just how low I was, and fortunately I've not been there since. Whilst it was an awful period, I am now pleased that it has given me an insight into the human psyche. In my 20's I became fascinated with the subject of psychology. I even considered doing an Open University degree on the subject. I read many books on the subject. I realised that I wasn't really interested in formal study. I hadn't discovered the joys of blogging then (mostly as the internet and blogging hadn't really been invented), so it was just an interest. I am someone who goes through phases of obsessive interest in subjects. Once I have had my fill, the knowledge is filed and I move on to the next subject. As with many of these obsessions, the knowledge acquired has come in extremely useful. Both in friendships and as an employer, understanding mental health issues and treating people affected with compassion has been a great asset. I'm not a qualified professional, I don't give medical advice which would be irresponsible. I have, however been able to provide support and assistance. I've always said to friends that I will be there for them, 24 x 7 if they are in crisis. As an example, a good friend of mine confided to me several years ago that he was contemplating suicide. This was the most serious challenge. I asked if he was serious about it. His response was that he was considering it as an option to solve his problems, but not as an immediate action. As we discussed it, I pointed out the effect this would have on his close family and friends and that many people would be devastated. He told me that he felt no one really liked him and that no one would miss him. I told him that it would break my heart if he did it and that I valued his friendship, listing many times when he'd supported me. He looked quite shocked and told me that this was a surprise. I don't want to go into too many details, but he is still around and now back on his feet. He still has mental health issues, but these are tempered by the realisation that people love him and he has value.

When I read of the demise of Caroline Flack, as I do whenever I hear of such a tragedy, I think of the appalling waste and the appalling loss. I have to be honest and say I'd never heard of her before she passed away, but the impact this has had shows many felt a connection. The sad thing is that she probably didn't realise. My own experience aged 13 was that you push people away and close down. People say "I'm fine" when they are not. They say "No" when asked if something is bothering them. Finding the right thing to say is almost impossible. My only advice is to take the time and make the effort. Don't think you can solve the problem, but you can be a part of the solution, just with support and kindness. I'm lucky that I often draw on music for inspiration in dark times. It is a connection with most of my friends. Finding such connections is one way through, but if the issues are serious, then get professional help.

If you are experiencing issues, there is advice from the NHS here - https://www.nhs.uk/using-the-nhs/nhs-services/mental-health-services/how-to-access-mental-health-services/

If you need support in dealing with any issues related to mental health or are concerned about a friend, here is a list of various available services

As the Time to Change website says

The reality is that mental health can affect anyone. Statistically, 1 in 4 of us will experience a mental health problem in any given year. That’s why our work is so important. No one should have to fear being treated differently because of a mental health problem.

We must end the demonisation of people and the lazy slandering of those affected. If you see such abuse online, please report it. This is one area where zero tolerance is the only acceptable response.

This video from the Open University may be of some assistance

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