I’m resurrecting this blog post from 2013 to support the #NHSChangeDay 2015 #TimetoChange campaign.
It’s not easy having mental health problems, especially when you don’t feel you can tell anyone. It’s also difficult being an NHS employee with mental health problems. I come from a place of being an NHS mental health professional and manager with mental health problems. I hope this story might help others.
I wear my heart proudly on my sleeve. I used to think that made me weak, vulnerable, over-emotional, ‘flaky’. It’s something I’ve battled with for many years: a self-diagnosed flaw.
Yet I might just have turned a corner. That’s why I’m dipping into this new world of personal blogging. I’m learning to reframe my emotionality as a strength: it’s who I am and what makes me ‘me’. I’ve always been an emotional sort; I feel the physical pang of an emotion before my brain has chance to process the meaning. I am a deep thinker, an empathiser, an intuitive, a creative. I love nostalgia, good times and laughing. I’m terrified of loneliness, loss, failure and rejection. I don’t think I’m all that unusual- I’m just no longer afraid to tell it like it is. I hope, that through my blog, I can give one or two others the courage to wear their heart with pride- to be open about their mental health or understand a loved one or friend just a little bit better. This is what Helen Hutchings @TeaandTalking has done for me. If you don’t know about Helen, look her up on Twitter or read this newspaper article. Helen is my inspiration. More recently, Lisa Rodrigues @LisaSaysThis spoke out publicly about her battle with mental health problems whilst still holding down her high profile role as CEO of Sussex Partnership NHS Foundation Trust. I know just how hard it is to speak out, and I don’t have nearly as much resting on my shoulders as Lisa did. Lisa is now campaigning for #TimetoChange and is leading the NHS Change Day 2015 campaign.
Wearing my heart on my sleeve is my statement of intent as to how I go about living my life. It is primarily a form of communication about one’s internal and emotional world. It relies on being able to articulate and demonstrate feelings through words, gestures and behaviours. If we are brave enough to communicate our feelings and thoughts, we need to be received, heard, acknowledged, validated…accepted. This brings me to the theme of my maiden blog- unhearing: the intentional or unintentional act of not hearing or not wanting to hear the true meaning of what is being said.
Unhearing is my term for people, or systems, that chose not to listen, don’t want to hear, or pretend to hear whilst intentionally ignoring the message or sentiment. It can also be unintentional, a result of foregone or erroneous conclusions drawn from our own bias and misperceptions. This is a theme that is experienced all too often for those with mental health problems, their families and carers. Not only are our inner worlds and emotions some of the hardest things to articulate and share but they are also the hardest things for others to hear too. I want to share with you my experience of unhearing.
In 2006, I had a stint at medical school. I’ve always wanted to be a medic, but my later teenage years were blighted by mental health problems which left me short on the grades to get into med school as a first degree. Taking route B, I gained a place on a graduate entry programme to medical school. I was in my late 20s, newly married, excited and confident that I had a new career within my grasp. I was expecting to work hard, really hard, study to the small hours, get stressed out with exams and the sheer volume of information overload. I didn’t care- I was going to become a Doctor and fulfil my ambition. I wasn’t expecting what happened at the end of my first term: a sudden relapse into the deepest depths of depression and suicidality.
I have had a longstanding history of depression since my teens, so fluctuations in mood was nothing new to me; but what followed was a period of despair and desperation and chronic unhearing. I knew I was on a fast decline, but swept it aside, putting it down to being away from home and feeling anxious about forthcoming exams. I was becoming increasingly withdrawn, I had stopped eating and cried myself to sleep every night. Although I loved my studies, I berated myself for not working harder, faster and smarter: I saw myself as failing and in a split second of despair, did something in an attempt to end my suffering. I regained consciousness in A&E and was swiftly flooded by that all too familiar deep emotional pain, so intense, that I sobbed to the doctor who tending to me. After hearing my plight for help, he put his notes and pen down on the end of my bed. In that fraction of a second, I was convinced I’d been heard. I had hope that someone was trying to understand my suffering and that there was someone or something out there that would be able to help me. “You are a medical student…” he started, “…we’ve all done things in our past which we regret…”
What followed is a blur but I know for sure that I was unheard. I was transferred to a ward for the night- to recover and “pull myself together.” I had been told that my actions that night could potentially damage my career and that I was being “helped” by minimising the negative consequences on my future. In other words no further offer of help ensued, and I was discharged back into the wrath of my crisis, with nothing more to show than a 24 hour stay in hospital.
I would like to think that this experience was unique, but I am saddened to hear of more and more cases not all that dissimilar to mine. How often do people try their utmost to make themselves heard, tell it like it is, but still feel unheard? We don’t always have words for our pain and at the depths of our despair, it can be near on impossible to be articulate and specific about our innermost experiences. It’s like a baby crying. We can see and hear their upset, but it’s not always clear what they want. We have to use our intuition and instinct to make an educated guess that they need feeding, a cuddle, a clean nappy, a sleep.
The message of this blog is to challenge you to hear- I mean really hear those people who may need your help. Use your instinct, intuition, emotional intelligence- call it what you like, but if someone tries to tell you something, be there for them and listen. Don’t make assumptions but check out your understanding with them- feedback to them what you’ve heard and validate their experience. If we can all do this in our day to day lives, we create the right conditions to enable others to wear their heart on their sleeves. If we fail to do this then we become one of the unhearing who put up the barriers and feed the stigma against undisclosed emotional distress and mental health problems.
Helping someone with mental health problems and distress isn’t about helping them to neatly package it back into a box, and tightly re-sealing the lid. You might think that’s what they need and want, but in my experience, that is a short-term fix to enable them to limp on until the next crisis. I wish someone had let me keep my lid off for longer, long enough to get the treatment and support I needed. It makes me wonder whether putting the lid on someone’s suffering is more about the onlooker’s discomfort.
We don’t need to profess to be therapists, psychiatrists, healers or saviours. We just need to listen and hear. Time to Talk provides some great tips on how to talk to someone about their mental health and be there for them:
- Take the lead
- Avoid clichés
- Think about body language
- Ask how you can help
- Don’t just talk about mental health
- Don’t avoid the issue
- Give them time
- Find out more
It took me many years to feel heard- far too many years, but the best experience of being heard have come from my peers- other people with lived experience whether they be – healthcare professionals or not. I still don’t feel heard at times, but I’m getting better at re-stating myself, and making sure I’m not unheard. That’s why it is so important that we all take ownership for how we receive others- you could be in that privileged position of being the first person to hear them.
- You don’t have to be an expert to talk about mental health: Time to Change– it’s #timetotalk
- Samaritans: talk any time you like, in your own way, and off the record. You don’t have to be suicidal.
- A bit of history: where does “wearing you heart on your sleeve” originate from?
- NHS Change Day2015 #NHSChangeDay