“Thank you for talking, you are so brave”
I talk about my mental health very openly. In fact if you’re reading this blog you may well have seen me give a talk, workshop or presentation or even on television talking about some issue or concept in mental health; usually weaving in some of my own experiences. I probably look like a natural, as though i’ve been an open book my whole life.
All in all it has taken me 19 years to get to this point. I’ve been ill or at least symptomatic since the age of six. It took me eight years to get a diagnosis, another five until I started opening up and another two until I really made my peace with my experiences.
For the last six years, since the age of 19 I have had the incredible pleasure and honour of being involved with the mental health charity YoungMinds. Before then I was so far in the mental health closet you could saw I was in Narnia. They not only helped me find my voice but helped me to nurture it and form a narrative around my experiences.
The effect has been profound. During my school years I was completely unable to speak in front of groups of people and used to feign sickness for weeks to avoid the annual public speaking contest. The thought alone of standing up there with nothing but a sheet of notes to shield me caused incredible levels of nausea and anxiety leaving me all but paralysed. I certainly never, ever expected to stand in front of hundreds. In fact I doubt my teachers would recognise me now.
At this point I cannot comprehend what my life would have been like without these monumental changes but I do know I would have had a poorer life. I have spoken on record to such diverse organisations and people as the BBC, MTV, Royal Societies, politicians (including a PM) and many more and gained so much by letting go of my fears.
After every talk I give, people approach me. Some will put their hands up during Q&A sessions and speak openly in front of the group, many though will take me to one side after and quietly speak.
Without fail, at every single speech people do two things:
One in Four? More like four in four
1) They open up about their own run-ins with mental ill health.
Sometimes it is their own experience, something they have never disclosed before. Often it is about a friend or family member and they come to me in sadness or desperation. I have developed an uncanny ability to work out, during a talk, who will approach me afterwards.
This has taught me one simple thing; we are all affected by mental health and illness. We talk about the 1 in 4 statistic but that doesn’t sit well for me. We ALL have mental health just like we all have physically health; we sit on different points of the same spectrum. Which suggests to me that mental illness affects 4 in 4 of us..but only 1 in 4 will admit it. And perhaps even that statistic is too high.
2) “You are so brave” I’m not so sure
Secondly, I am told, almost like clockwork that I am “brave”
Now before I start unpicking this one let me say; I get it and I appreciate the sentiment. But it makes me sad.
I think what people see is a very young looking girl (more 15 than 25) standing up and opening up in a really honest way. Yes I am those things but I am much more. I have been standing up and telling my story repeatedly for six years and at this point I feel no fear, no misapprehension about what I do.
I am lucky because I do not need to be brave any more. Just myself.
It is brave to stand up and say something for the first time, to give words to wooly concepts and feelings. It is brave to stand up when you don’t know what the reaction to your words will be.
But what I have learnt, much to my early surprise, is that opening up about mental illness does not automatically mean opening yourself up to criticism and abuse. In fact 99% of the reaction I get is overwhelmingly positive and empathetic. So in fact all I am opening myself up to are compliments and smiles-that suddenly doesn’t seem too brave does it?
I am seen as brave for standing up and speaking when others don’t. And that is a damn shame. If you had my experiences you would see being open is a wonderful gift to be shared. Like I said in my blog about running up against anti-psychiatry Scientologists:
If I won’t stand up, someone who has been ill for a lifetime, used services for a decade and has worked for the NHS and mental health charities, how can I expect anyone else too?
I don’t want to be seen as brave but as a role model. I don’t want to be the only person on a podium or the token service user. I want us to stand up together, regardless of whether we are students, doctors, psychiatrists or siblings and talk.
I know it’s not very British but it shouldn’t be seen as brave either.