Tag Archives: mental wellbeing

Woman looking out the window calmly

Should we be normalising mental illness?

Awareness around mental illness is certainly getting better, reducing stigma and discrimination is important but are we doing the general population a disservice?

1 in 4 mental health awareness. 4 silhouettes, 3 are blue and 1 is has words such as “there’s too much to do” and “why does it always happen to me?”

The figure is 1 in 4 people will suffer with a mental illness at some point in their lives. There are also statistics out there about how many anti-depressants are prescribed each year or the number of sick days mental illness costs companies. Some say “mental illness is on the rise”, perhaps due to the state of our economy, social media or life stresses from other sources.

But, perhaps we need to stop and think. Not coping is different from mental illness.

Talking recently to someone working in Child and Adolscent Mental Health, she said she is seeing a rise in children being referred to her service but this is not due to a rise in mental illness, she is seeing a rise in children not coping and a decrease in resilience.

This seems to be the same across all sector of the population.

The phrase “panic attack” has become synonymous with feeling anxious. Now, I do not want to diminish anyone’s anxiety but if you’re stood in a queue in the supermarket “having a panic attack” but you “kept it in” – you did not have a panic attack. You may have experienced extreme anxiety, and I’m not saying that is ok, you may need to learn some techniques to manage feeling anxious but please do not use a medical phrase for a normal emotion.

An outline head and shoulders with thought bubbles saying, “worry”, “anxiety”, “fear”, “tension” and “panic”.

The language around mental illness is diffciult because they’re standard English words. You can feel depressed without being diagnosed with depression, you can feel paranoid without suffering panaroia (a symptom of mental illness), you can feel anxious without having a diagnosis of anxiety. By raising awareness, we’re making all these words more accessible and they’re falling into common use. But bandying medical words around in common parlance diminishes their meaning in the context of illness.

If you suffer severe fluctuations in emotions that feel uncomfortable, please do talk to someone, you are allowed support, I do not want to take that away from you. After all, apparently Socrates said “The unexamined life is not worth living”. You do not have to be ill to access support, explore yourself and your life and to develop better coping strategies. Nor do you need to justify your struggles by using medical terminology.

I started training to be a counsellor because I want to help people diagnosed with mental illness but the more I learn, the more I see how incredibly helpful it can be for people who’re struggling with life’s ups and downs. It’s ok to seek counselling or other support when things just don’t feel right.

Words on a rainy back ground, “it is perfectly okay to admit you’re not okay”

It’s great that people are getting more comfortable in talking about their emotions but we need to be able to differentiate between people who’re struggling and people who’re ill. It’s ok to say “I’m having a bit of a tough time” or “I’m not feeling so great today” – the #hashtag #itsoknottobeok is falling into common use and this is helpful for everyone’s mental and emotional wellbeing.

If you’d sprained your ankle, you wouldn’t say you’d fractured it, put it in a cast and use crutches would you? A sprained ankle needs appropriate support. If I had a sprained ankle but I acted as though it was broken and treated it as such, i.e. immobilised it etc, it would get worse, not better.

By normalising mental illness and by normalising the language, we risk normal struggles being treated as illness. Since recovering from mental illness, I’m not immune from normal life struggles but I’m acutely aware they are just that.

By raising awareness of mental illness, we need to be careful we don’t label all emotional struggles as “illness”. We need to make sure we’re also raising awareness of the differences between illness and not coping.

Quote “The unexamined life is not worth living” accredited to Socrates. On a black and White Sea scape background
Pencil drawing of eye tearing

Is it ok to cry?

Recently, work stress got too much for someone I know and they broke down in tears but instead of blurting out everything they were upset about, through their tears they were saying things like “don’t tell anyone”, “don’t let anyone see me” and “I was in the army, this isn’t like me”.

I found it very sad that instead of letting herself express her emotion naturally, as she needed to, she was desperate to cover it up and pretend it wasn’t happening. As it turned out – someone did see and to cut a long story short, the biggest stressor was removed and issue was resolved. I’m not saying that crying was the only way to solve the problem, it would have been better if her rational requests for more support and time had been heard but since they hadn’t, if she’d hidden her tears at home or in the toilet (as so many are), she would still be in the same ridiculously stressful situation with unrealistic expectations being placed upon her.

Close up of eye with tears

When working as a doctor I would frequently feel overwhelmed and would have to dash to the toilet to compose myself. I would take a few deep breaths and prepare myself to face the patients again – this was a holding pattern – nothing was being resolved. I hid it for as long as I could but one time when I broke down in front of a colleague, it was such a relief when she insisted I talk to her about how stressed I felt. She couldn’t solve my problems, I was ill and needed professional support, but it was really helpful knowing she was knew what I was going through and she was there for me when I needed her.

No one should have to resort to crying at work to resolve a stressful situation but just as laughter is a way to express joy, happiness, confusion or embarrassment, tears are a way of expressing sadness and pain.

Tears are the words the heart can’t say

When I feel especially passionate about something, often, I will get chocked up. I get frustrated, feeling concerned that my tears my detract from my words. But in truth, it’ll be the fact that I’m stopping myself from tearing that will detract from my words. If I let myself express my passion using my words and my tears, perhaps the power of my passion would be communicated.

As well as emotions, we also tear up in response to compassion, morality, sympathy and physical pain – these are automatic responses. Our eyes also tear in response to irritants such as smoke, pollen or onions, this is to protect the eye.

I’d not do this subject justice if I didn’t comment on the male:female divide – females cry 3-4 times more often than males. In the story I relayed above, why was it relavent that she’d been in the army? My question is rhetorical, I know exactly what she meant. My point is, why is it considered “strong and manly” to be able to not cry? As I explained in this post about men expressing their emotions, it’s human to express emotions. It’s unhelpful and unhealthy to keep emotions locked away.

I think we’ve got a long way to go but I’m just trying to say we should not be afraid of tears. As a side note, physically, tears are healthy for our eyes, they keep them lubricated, protected from irritants and have antimicrobial properties. Tears contain stress hormones and some studies have shown that this can be a helpful way for them to leave the body.

I’m not saying “go on everyone, have a good cry”. The support we receive when we cry is important. A good cry can feel cathartic but if we cry and don’t receive support, we can be left feeling shame. Perhaps we all just need to have a little more understanding and acceptance of crying, it is just a natural way to express an emotion.

Illness and wellness are not binary

Illness – a disease or period of sickness affecting the body or mind.

Wellness -a state of being in good health, especially as an actively pursued goal.

I was ill with anorexia and depression for many years. I spent a long time in recovery, making steps towards wellness, it was a tough journey but I got to the point where I felt I could say I was recovered a couple of years go.

A stable mood, a stable weight, a life focused on the future rather than having to focus on managing my mental health and many other markers of freedom have been reached.

But I still have to do a lot to manage my mental health. To maintain my mood I need to manage my weekly and daily routine so that I manage my energy levels, get enough rest and carefully consider how much stress is acceptable and what activities I can manage. I practice mindfulness as it helps me stay in the here and now rather than panicking about the future or dwelling in the past.

To stop myself spiralling into anorexia, I have to eat regularly but avoid rituals or strict habits. Over eating and under eating are ok but I must always be on the watch for the “anorexic voice” – it’s easily triggered by today’s diet culture chatter and irresponsible social media postings.

I am no longer “ill” and I “actively pursue” wellness.

I have heard some people say they are chronically ill because they will be on medication for the rest of their lives. I have tried coming off my medication, tapered gradually, but my symptoms returned. I have had to come to terms with the fact that I will probably be on medication for the rest of my life – but I don’t consider that to be the definition of illness.

Someone who has high blood pressure usually manages their blood pressure with lifestyle and medication in order to keep their blood pressure within normal limits. Someone who has diabetes uses lifestyle, medication and/or insulin to keep their blood sugars within normal ranges. Equally, I use lifestyle and medication to manage my mental health.

Even though I continue to need to manage my mental health I don’t think considering myself as an ill person is helpful. For some people, holding onto an identity as an ill person can have a negative impact on self esteem and ability to develop and grow as a person. But if I consider myself well and/or recovered, there’s the risk I might take my eye off the ball and not give my health the attention it needs.

So if I am neither ill nor well, what am I?!

Maybe I don’t need a label for what I am!

Sometimes I am more well than others – I have to work hard to stay well, that does not mean I am ill. I do not have to let this define me. I’m learning, despite what some people will have you think, not fitting into a category isn’t a bad thing!