Time to Change Campaign
Today is Time to Talk Day 2016, part of the UK’s Time to Change campaign to end mental health discrimination and to raise awareness about mental illness. Most people are not aware that 1 in 4 people will experience mental illness each year, and the main reason for this lack of awareness is the stigma that is attached to mental illness, making people reluctant to admit they are struggling. They might be afraid that it will impact on their job, or their relationships, and for new mothers suffering from perinatal mood and anxiety disorders (PMAD) the possibility that their infant might be taken away from them. I have been away from blogging for a while, but this event felt like a significant reason to start talking again.
My Personal Journey
I know from personal experience about the stigma around mental illness. Some years ago when I succumbed to depression, I was working in academia, and didn’t tell anyone for months. I continued to go to work every day except the day I spent as a day patient at a psychiatric hospital. I was fortunate enough to have private insurance and started receiving top quality care within a week of the first phone call after my breakdown. The other outpatients at the psychiatric hospital were all on long term sick leave, but I kept up the façade that I was fine. No one at work knew how ill I was. I was working on a fixed term contract and felt I couldn’t take time off or the research would not get done in time. I put the work before my own wellbeing, and I paid the price. However, things got worse before they got better when I was rapidly weaned from the antidepressant I had been taking and was started on a new antidepressant cocktail, and my condition deteriorated. I finally talked with the occupational health doctor at the university who told me to take some time off, and I protested even in my blubbering state. I had conference presentations to prepare for upcoming events and that work needed to be completed. It wasn’t easy, but I did manage to get them done. The only other person at the university who knew my true condition was the HR manager for our Faculty.
To Tell or Not To Tell
However, it became increasingly difficult to keep up the front of okay-ness. At the hospital, whether or not to tell our employers was often a topic of conversation. Some thought it was important to do and others wouldn’t dare, and I had aligned with the second group. Of course, if we had broken a leg or something of that nature, there would be no problem being open and getting time off. But a broken mind is another matter altogether, and most people don’t understand why you don’t just get your act together and snap out of it. The psychiatrists also had different opinions on the matter, and mine was not one to suggest sharing the information. When I finally met four months later with my local research supervisor (the principal investigator was at Glasgow University) and the HR manager, my colleague wasn’t sure what was expected of him or what to do, and his discomfort was palpable. When we discussed telling the principal investigator (PI), he said not to tell him, because “he doesn’t want to know what’s not working.” That certainly put me in my place. Someone at last knew the burden I was carrying, but it still needed to be kept a secret from the PI who wouldn’t be capable of understanding. Even after I had recovered, the subject was never raised over the remaining months of my contract.
The following year, when I was working on another short term (6 month) contract in a different Faculty, I had a relapse, and when I asked my psychiatrist whether I should tell my superiors, she advised against it. That was problematic, because I wasn’t functioning well, and those I was working with for the second half of the contract just thought I was incompetent at what I was trying to do. This only made my sense of failure and helplessness worse. I can remember, after being asked to analyse and summarise something that I had shared with my team, staring blankly at the computer screen and realising that I couldn’t. My mental capacity was severely restricted, and I became a persona non grata, exacerbating my sense of isolation. I confessed the truth to the head of our department at a meeting the last week of my contract. There wasn’t much compassion, despite this centre being a national leader in research on primary care treatment of depression. The stigma was deeply embedded in the response I received.
Professional Becomes Patient
This wasn’t meant to be a confessional of the mental illness that I have experienced. One very useful feature of my becoming a ‘patient’ was how it deepened my comprehension as a mental health practitioner. During the first group therapy session I attended, I was aware that we were all in this together, and the fact that I was a psychotherapist didn’t make me any better than anyone else in the group. It was a levelling and humbling experience. Until I felt what it was like to lose the capacity to think clearly, to stop being able to function, or to do the simplest of things, I couldn’t really grasp what the depth of despair feels like and how it wreaks havoc with our minds and lives. Having been there, done that, I believe I’m a much better therapist now. Perhaps that is the silver lining in my own mental illness journey.
Perinatal Mental Health and THRIVE
These days I am a practicing psychotherapist and hypnotherapist, and I work locally with clients and through Skype and the telephone. My specialty is perinatal mental illness, because in addition to my qualifications as a psychologist (BA Psychology, MA Applied Psychology) and clinical trainings, I am also a birth and postnatal professional with over 35 years of experience as an educator, doula and counsellor. These two hats coalesce when I’m helping women and couples who are going through perinatal mood and anxiety disorders. Through the activism that I’m engaged with as a member of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Conception to Age 2 – The First 1001 Days, I am fighting for the improvement of mental health services for new parents and for the optimal development of babies. I am also working with a colleague on the development of a new prenatal education programme on Parental Wellbeing, Perinatal Mental Health and Strong Relationships. It’s called THRIVE, and we are excited to be piloting the programme in Sheffield in the coming months.
My Time to Talk about Mental Health is done. If you would like more information about my therapy services, you can contact me through my website: www.dianespeier.com. And let’s keep talking about mental health so that we don’t have to keep the dirty little secret to ourselves, and can reach out for help when we need it. Because the sooner we get help, the fast we recover.