Let’s Talk About Mental Health

Mental health has been in the news quite a bit recently, with the Heads Together campaign by the Duke & Duchess of Cambridge and Price Harry.

I listened to Prince Harry’s frank conversation about his mental health with Bryony Gordon on her Mad World Podcast. It was inspirational and deeply moving. This is exactly what’s needed for the stigma of mental illness to end: people talking about it openly.

I’ve been fairly open about my own mental health issues. I suffer from PTSD, caused by childhood abuse. This causes anxiety, depression and panic attacks. I cope with this much more effectively than I used to. I spent pretty much all of my teenage years trying to hide everything I was feeling. When I realised that this coping technique wasn’t going to work long term, I had to face everything that had happened to me. I became very introverted, I spent most of my time at home alone for a couple of years. Even when I had my daughter, I’d force myself to take her to play groups only to sit in the corner and hope that nobody would try and approach me.

Moving to Cardiff was a big turning point. I tried making friends for the first time since high school. But I still needed help. I went to my GP, was prescribed anti depressants and put on a waiting list for counselling. The medication did help. The counselling was better, even if I did have to wait a whole year for it and even then only got six sessions. My counsellor suggested lots of books I could read. Books about other abuse survivors and how they cope with PTSD. I also read up on why people abuse, which was difficult but did help me realise that it was nothing to do with me and everything to do with my abuser’s issues. Late last year, I stopped taking medication (which was very difficult). These days, I still have bad days (and the odd bad week or even fortnight) but I’m better equipped to deal with it now.

Talking does help. Husband was the first person I confided in about the abuse. He was, simply put, brilliant. But talking to a professional was important too. We need to encourage people to seek help for mental health in the same way as we all would for any physical illness. With 1 in 4 adults suffering mental illness of some kind during their lives, we need to stop viewing this as a weakness or abnormality.

I’ve taken this into consideration in how I talk to my daughter and encourage her to talk to me. She knows it’s okay to say that she’s not okay. She knows that if she has any problems, little or big, she can talk to me and/or her Dad. Even if she’s done something wrong, it’s always better to talk about it than try to hide it.

As adults, we might think that children’s problems can’t be nearly as big or important as our own but we need to remember that what might look quite insignificant to us can be overwhelming for a child. We need to at least attempt to see it from their perspective.

I still struggle with how to discuss my own mental health with my daughter. She knows very little detail about my life before she was born. She asks questions that I don’t know how to answer. I want to set a good example of being open and honest about feelings but I know my issues are just far too complicated for her to understand, even aside from her being too young to be burdened with such things. It’s that tricky balancing act of protecting children while also introducing them to the real world and properly equipping them to live in it.

How have you approached the subject of mental health with your children? Have you suffered mental illness and, if so, how have you coped with it as a parent?

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Talking about childhood abuse

Trigger warning: This post won’t go into the details of abuse but will discuss telling family members and friends about the abuse. If this is going to affect you poorly, please don’t read on any further. I have included details of a couple of helplines at the end if they’re helpful to you.

If you suffered any kind of abuse as a child, talking about it is very important and I would encourage it very strongly. Telling my best friend was one of the best choices I ever made, even though it was also one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. But as soon as the words were out and he gave me a big hug, I felt a million times better. Also, in recent times, I’ve had much more positive reactions and attitudes from friends I’ve talked to about this.

But what nobody seems to prepare you for is how people might react negatively when you tell them that you were abused as a child. I’ve experienced three different reactions and I’d like to share this to help prepare anyone who is preparing themselves to talk to someone.

First reaction was when I told my best friend (incidentally, now husband). He knew something was wrong and asked. I could barely get the words out. As I said already, he gave me a big hug and  basically offered all of the support I needed. He’s listened to me talk about it as much as a I want and he came with me to the Police station when I decided I wanted to make a statement and press charges. At the same time, I don’t think he’s ever treated me differently because of it. He doesn’t tiptoe around difficult subjects or not be straight with me about everything.

Second reaction was when I told members of my family. If I’m honest, I expected them to be extremely angry with my abuser, my older brother. I expected it to be treated like what it is: a huge issue. Something that had wrecked my life for years and made me feel incredibly depressed. Instead, they wanted it forgotten and never spoken of again. They seemed far more concerned about what other people would think if this ever became public knowledge, that it would be some kind of scandal. I have no idea if they even believed me. Neither of my parents ever asked me how I felt about it or if I was OK. They seemed shocked and confused when I left home, giving the reason that I couldn’t live under the same roof as my brother anymore. Even now, this makes me feel so angry and some of my PTSD symptoms are actually more about this than about the abuse.

Third reaction was when I told other friends. They believed me and showed sympathy. Many offered to go and physically assault my abuser, which I obviously said no to – nobody should be getting arrested over this except him. But they started treating me differently. They’d avoid talking about sex or anything related to it. They’d avoid talking about their own families, especially any older brothers. Eventually, one of my closest female friends admitted that she just didn’t know how to be around me anymore. While I appreciated her honesty, I was so hurt that admitting that this horrible thing that had been done to me, that I couldn’t have stopped from happening, was the reason we couldn’t be friends anymore.

Although I didn’t experience it myself, I do know that others who have spoken out about the abuse they’d suffered were not believed by some. I can only imagine how terrible it would feel to summon up the huge amount of courage needed to finally tell someone that something so horrific had happened to you, only to be called a liar.

Ideally, you would be able to expect support and to be believed and treated like a normal human being (for that is what you are!) but, as abuse victims are all too aware, the world is far from ideal. People do not behave well or as you would hope all of the time. Although I didn’t, I would now recommend to others that you have the number for a support helpline at the ready so that, if the person you choose to talk to doesn’t have a positive, supportive reaction, you have someone to talk to who can help. Perhaps you should call one of these helplines, and I’ll list a few I know of at the bottom of this post, beforehand to help prepare you.

I’d like to finish on this note. Despite everything, I’m so glad I decided to speak out. Keeping that secret, I really do believe, might have ended my life if I’d kept it for much longer. It eats away at you. So, if you have suffered abuse, please tell someone, whether it’s a good friend that you really trust or a professional or a volunteer on the phone. It’ll be a first step towards life getting better and life won’t get better until you do it. Just be prepared for what the reaction could be.

Thank you for reading.

NAPAC (National Association for People Abused in Childhood) have two free helplines:

If you’re calling from a UK landline or a mobile provided by Virgin, Orange or 3, call 0800 085 3330

If you’re calling from a mobile provided by O2, Vodafone or T-mobile, call 0808 801 0331

Rape Crisis (England & Wales): 0808 802 9999