Friday, 27 September 2013

The 'Mental Patient' scandal - my thoughts

I've been slightly delayed in writing a post about the latest news to grip the mental health world, partially because I've needed a couple of days to fully absorb what it was that I wanted to say on the topic (also partially because of the stresses and strains of being a Fresher, and coming down with an awful virus which has taken it out of me this week!)

For those of you who have been living under a rock for the past few days, there was internet and public outrage at the discovery that supermarket chain 'Asda' had launched a Halloween costume entitled 'Mental Patient'. It was later released that other large chains 'Tesco' and 'Amazon' had brandished similar costumes, entitling them 'Psycho Ward', and so on.

The costume itself (Asda), for anyone who hasn't see it, displays a blood splattered straitjacket with ragged edges and featured a mask and a fake meat-cleaver.

The description entitles '"Everyone will be running away from you in fear in this mental patient fancy dress costume... it's a terrifying Halloween option."

The word spread on Twitter like wildfire and many tweeters, including myself and a variety of celebrity ambassadors, such as Stan Collymore, and Denise Welch, tweeted Asda disgusted and appalled at the classic ancient stereotypes of those with mental health problems, being reused in the 21st century, an age where all campaigners like myself are trying to do is to remove the stigma.

What annoys me the most about this whole story, you may ask? For me, it wasn't the costume itself. I've never been a Halloween person but I do understand that I lot of people like to dress up as zombies and witches and whatever appeals to them. What isn't okay, is the immediate linking of a scary, murdering, just-escaped-from-the-asylum serial killer to a sufferer of mental health problems, or a 'mental patient'. Asdas decision to sell this costume clearly demonstrates the stigma that is still clearly apparent and shows just how much more work needs to be done.

One of the worst things, for me, about suffering from a mental health problem, is the stigma that it immediately carries alongside it. And I attempt to challenge this stigma at all costs by being as open and honest as possible about my illness. Mostly to educate. Mostly to show people that I'm a normal person. Mostly to show others that I for the most part, function, I'm in a long-term relationship, I am studying for a degree, I have a job and I try and live my life. I don't, go around brandishing axes and murder weapons willy nilly and never have I once, throughout my struggle with mental health problems for almost 10 years, inflicted harm on anyone.

People still have such an ancient impression of those with mental health problems, the sort of terrifying images you see on films such as 'Psycho' and 'Shutter Island', the image of the 'lunatic' and 'madhouse' asylums of the 18th and 19th centuries, with bars surrounding the buildings heightened to prevent escape and continuous restraint of patients, patients who were seen to be dangers to themselves and the general public. Today, in the 21st century, although general mental health care and hospitals have improved greatly, there is so much more to mental health then the classic 'psychosis' and 'manic schizophrenia' stereotypes that are so often thought of at the mentioning of 'mental health'. Does someone with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder or Body Dysmorphic Disorder go around inflicting needless harm onto others? No. Neither do people with psychosis, and schizophrenia. Or depression. Or anorexia. Or PTSD. The truth is, we are normal people. And what makes us feel like we are singled out and outcast from the rest of society is the stigma and assumptions that our labels we carry with us mean that we are automatically a threat to society.

Some people took to Twitter to say that we were all just 'over-reacting', that it was 'just a costume', and 'just a joke'. These people have clearly never experienced mental health discrimination or know what it is like to have those around you show complete ignorance and disrespect towards you just because of a label that you possess. One person said that if we stopped making such a song and dance about it, then the no-one would know about it and all this negative attention wouldn't be focused on us so much. If we didn't do what was right and made this public outcry, it would make it seem that somehow it is acceptable for retailers to sell these obviously offensive and disgusting costumes. It then makes it okay for people to see us as the violent knife-wielding psychos that people want to believe. Either that or people just refuse to believe that mental health problems exist in the first place, draw a veil over it and remain ignorant. That isn't acceptable and I don't want to keep growing up in a world where it is made acceptable.

A lot of people have made this point already and I am just going to re-iterate it, if it were offensive costume of a physical illness, such as a cancer patient, someone with a learning disability or other terminal illness, it would not have been okay. And rightly so. Yet, we all have our mental health too and in today's society, where 1 in 4 people struggle in and out on a daily basis with mental health problems (myself and ASDA workers included), surely it's important that we reiterate the fact that this form of discrimination is NOT okay, mental health is an important as physical health and it is nothing to be feared or ashamed of?

I must say as a regular Twitter user I am proud in a way of the multitude of positive responses which in turn lead to the costume being taken down and ASDA donating a total of £25,000 to Mind as an apology. We fought, we fought hard and we showed them that they were wrong. And we succeeded. All we need to do now is keep fighting. Keep campaigning. And never to give up on that fight. I'm joining the Time to Change Youth Panel next month and for me, there's never been a better time to do so and what has occurred this week has given me that strength I need to try as hard as I can to make a difference.

Since the news of these costumes were made public, many tweeters have also been using the hashtag
#mentalpatient to proudly display their own 'mental patient' costumes. Surprisingly to ASDA, Tesco and Amazon, these images do not contain weaponry or blood in sight. Shocking really. Just following the hashtag shows that a mostly positive response has emerged from an issue so utterly ignorant and it really is refreshing to see. I'm proud of you all!

I celebrated my 21st birthday last weekend. Here is my 'mental patient' costume that I wore to my birthday party. Does my fake-tan, make-up or pricy dress deter from the fact that I have a mental health problem in anyway? Of course not. Because mental health problems do not discriminate. If it can happen to me, it can happen to anyone. I look around crowded lecture halls at University and know that at least 1 in 4 people in that room, including myself, is fighting some sort of internal mental battle. You'd be surprised at the amount of people there are.

We can only appear scary and terrifying to you all if you make it that way. If you, the stigmatisers (if that is in fact a word, if not, it is now), allow it to be possible. So perhaps if you're one of the people criticising the campaigners for 'making a big deal of nothing', get your head out of the gutter and realise just how severe mental health problems are and how much the discrimination affects us each and everyday.

We're not quite there yet, unfortunately. But we will be, one day. Quitting to fight for what I believe in is never the answer.

Sunday, 15 September 2013

Third time lucky?

Tomorrow, the week beginning the 16th of September is a HUGE week for me. A week filled with change and newly aquired adaptions to daily life.

Tomorrow I begin my induction week at University, for I guess what you could essentially suggest as the third time. I'll be studying English Literature, a subject so dear to my heart and one I have held passions for since a young child, learning to read and write earlier than my peers, being that 'Matilda' esque child who used the library as my form of escapism. This together with the more recent events of success in my exams, GCSE's and A-level, combined with my use of Literature as my anti-depressant during the worse periods of the last few years. My English Literature teachers over the years have served as inspirations and motivations to recover from depression, to succeed like they had and to try and recover so I, too, could reimburse my passion for Literature into somebody else. (they know who they are) All in all, Literature feels like the subject I was born to study, my crutch, it makes sense to me, and this time round it means much more to me than ever before.

I know what a lot of people are thinking. They're expecting me to fail again. And quite honestly, I guess I don't blame them. In a sense, I guess at least 60% of me expects me to fail again, too. I'm used to it now. Starting what I can never finish. And I hate to be one of those people who blames everything on their mental health problem BUT a lot of the reason why my previous stints at University and schooling have failed are to do with my mental health and the complexities surrounding that. Don't get me wrong, I hated myself for it too. Never mind the disappointment I received undoubtedly from my parents, my boyfriend, and those closest to me. The moment I took that plunge and moved back out of University was one of the worst feelings of failure I could ever have had. That awful question 'so what are you going to do with your life now?' was asked at least once by most people I knew and it drove me even more into insanity. When the Open University failed to succeed for me too, I'd given up hope. Perhaps I just wasn't destined to go to University and get my degree.

It was my most recent therapist, Heather, who persuaded me to give University one final try. So I applied. Telling nobody. I received my first offer in two days, and I stuck with that offer. It feels right now and I'm even more determined than ever.

I love my education. I love education in general and I'm so passionate about learning. Depression and anxiety have stopped me from learning in the past and I can't afford to let it no longer. That's not to say that these illnesses are not still a part of my life, but most recently I've taken positive steps to try and better my situation in preparation for this degree. I've started some new anti-depressants, I've sought a little more therapy, and I'm going to try and use different treatments such as art therapy and cognitive behavioural therapy in an attempt to free my mind from this plague of insanity. Now more than ever.

It's my 21st birthday on the 21st as well, a huge milestone that many years ago I never thought I would make. September, full of challenges and ways to step out of my comfort zone. And it's going to be SO hard. I'm not saying I'll succeed but my God I need this more than anything right now. I need recovery.
I really wish I knew the answers sometimes. I wish I knew how to wave that magic wand and make these thoughts disappear. But then, I guess there would be nothing to fight for, and what would be the use in that? We all have wings. People like me tend to leave theirs clipped and torn for too long, remaining still and motionless. Stuck, I like to refer to it as. Will I ever learn to fly the nest, spread my wings and explore and discover that feeling of recovery? Who knows. But I'll have a bloody good bash at it. Change, change change. A terrifying word that could bring the world of good. But if I never learn to fly, how can I get over these fears and explore this change? Will I always reach the brick wall, these obstacles of prevention, or will I break down the barriers and conquer?

Time will only tell. I'll fight as much as I can for the best result possible. And that's the best I can do, for now.

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

World Suicide Prevention Day

Today is World Suicide Prevention Day.

It's a day to think of those who have lost their lives to suicide, to those who have lost loved ones to suicide, to those who are currently struggling with suicidal ideation, and a day to talk more openly about the issue of suicide, a topic more commonly faced as one of 'taboo' or 'shame'.

Of course, this shouldn't just happen today. This form of openness should occur all year round. But if today I can share some facts and figures and truths regarding suicide with you all and educate at least one person about the reality of suicide, then this day is a worthy one.

News stories regarding the topic of suicide tend to say similar things when news of attempts or deaths come to light. That 'there were no signs', 'no notes' and nothing was given away to indicate that suicide was an option. When people discover that I have depression, and I too, have struggled with suicidal ideation and attempts, I get a similar sort of response. 'but you're always so happy and smiley!' 'you've got nothing to be depressed about!', and so on. The truth is that many people deal with their depression in different ways, and I deal with mine by painting my mask on, making myself look presentable and appearing perfect for the general public when I go to work. I then proceed to let my thoughts fester when I'm home alone, when they've all built up on me during the day and that's when I struggle. Everyone is different. Asking why somebody wants to take their own life will not help them, because quite honestly the majority of the time, they've reached a stage where they don't even know anymore. I know I didn't. Depression had wavered a huge cloud over what I actually wanted and what I didn't. I couldn't think. Functioning was too hard. I was, and sometimes still am full of so much self-hated that to me, there would really be no point in being alive anymore. And yet people still look at me and tell me I don't look like a depression/suicide sufferer. 

And this is why suicide needs to be talked about. And I'm not saying it's easy. Even writing this post, I'm struggling to find the words to express what I'm trying to say, and as someone who loves writing this blog, that's usually difficult for me. We're still living in a society where suicide is not only treated as a taboo topic, but when discussed, is treated as a joke and something to laugh at. Young people are using social networking websites such as to bully innocent depressed teenagers into suicide, telling them to 'go kill themselves' as if it's such a natural and normal thing. I hear people express suicide as a feeling of anger or frustration, expressions such as 'oh I might as well go and slit my wrists/kill myself now' being a normal and almost laughable phrase by some. Rob Brydon, an English comedian, was recently criticised heavily for poking fun at Stephen Fry's 2012 suicide attempt, describing him as "the nation's favourite dinner guest with charm up to the gills, what a shame he can't be left alone with vodka and some pills". Why do people think that this is still acceptable? What part of suicide exactly do people think is funny? It destroys lives, far many more lives than one would even imagine. 

Suicide is also classed as selfish. People argue that those who are suicidal should be grateful for what they've got. That they should appreciate their family, and friends. That they should stop and think before they cause imminent destruction to the lives of those who find them dead, the ones that run them over when they run out infront of that car, and that train driver who just couldn't stop in time. And whilst I am aware of the pain and devastation that suicide causes to a loved one, I understand all too well that internal struggle, depression, which feels all too overwhelming, so much to the point where you can't even think of those around you. I use my boyfriend as my strength to recover now but during my first overdose back in November 2010, I was so consumed by my illness I didn't have the strength to think about him or my family. I genuinely thought everyone wanted me dead. That's not me being selfish. That's my illness being selfish and taking my sense of self, my identity, away from me. That's not my fault.
A few statistics for you:
  • 1 million people across the world die from suicide each year. That totals up to one suicide every 40 seconds. Think about it.
  • It is estimated that approximately 5% of people attempt suicide at least once in their lifetime.
  • More people die from suicide each year than murder and war - combined.
  • 100,000 adolescents die from suicide each year, with it being the biggest cause of death amongst 15-19 year olds.
Still think it's a joke now?

I've talked people out of suicide. I've been talked out of suicide. I've suffered from extreme suicidal ideation. I've been close to death. And even I, can barely describe in words that element of desperation and despair that so many of depression sufferers carry with them. Nothing can describe the feeling where you honestly feel that you'd be better off dead. That the only way out of the internal nightmare, is death.
People who are suicidal could be the happiest people in the world and have 'everything going for them'. They could have huge families, friends, a job, a long-term relationship, a degree, they could be married, have children, they could be millionaires. They could be black, white, asian, gay straight, bisexual, Christian, Muslim, or blue with pink spots for all we know. The truth is that depression does not discriminate. It didn't discriminate against me, the girl who supposedly had everything going for her, being young, in a long-term relationship, getting decent grades with a nice family. If it can happen to me it can happen to anyone. A smile on the outside doesn't always mean a smile on the inside. Which is why we need to take time to show our care and support. Asking someone how they are could be that small step in prompting a suicidal person to open up and talk. And if they do, don't be scared. You may not understand, but sometimes, just being there, just being that source of strength for someone is the most valuable thing. 

If you're reading this and currently struggling with suicidal thoughts, there is always help and support available  There is a person, out there willing to listen to you and your needs. I am one of them. There are helplines. There are support forums. There are friends, and family for that shoulder to cry on and there are professionals, psychiatrists, mental health teams, nurses and doctors. I promise you that you're not alone and that there are people out there to help. There's no magical cure for depression, but starting that conversation and opening up to somebody could be the first step on a long journey towards recovery. It may be the hardest step you'll ever make but it is 100% worth it. 

Please call Samaritans: 08457 90 90 90 OR email to start that conversation if you are experiencing these thoughts, or there are a variety of other organisations such as Mind, DepressionAlliance, Papyrus, Grassroots, SANE and CALM to check out.