dealing with anxiety

Asking for mental health help

It’s a difficult thing, asking for help.

Whether we don’t understanding something at work or need support with a physical task, I don’t think it’s something any of us like to do. I certainly don’t: I hate the idea of putting anybody out. And that’s just the everyday stuff. Asking for mental health help is harder by far.

But when so much is at stake – lives, in some cases – it’s probably time to start wondering: how can we get better and asking for the help so many of us need?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot this week. Mainly because of Timehop, an app which shows you an ‘on this day’ index of your social media, if you haven’t used it before. For me, Timehop induces 80% fuzzy nostalgia, and 10% horror at my own ignorance/lack of fashion sense.

The other 10% is reserved for the strange, heavy-stomached feeling I get when I realise that this time, three years ago, I was crashing towards a total breakdown. And, I hardly need to add, I had no idea how to deal with this fact. Timehop makes it quite clear that I was regularly fishing for help I didn’t know how to ask for, all while indulging in self-destructive behaviours and withdrawing from the world.

Which is sad to think about. I was eloquent, after all. I was expressive. And I’ve always been a chronic over-sharer. I should have been able to find the words I needed to say. In private, I could: I wrote a great deal at the time about how I was feeling. How I was experiencing a pain by turns sharp and dull, which left me with little appetite for the act of being alive.

But I couldn’t say this yet, not explicitly, not to the people around me, and certainly not to a Doctor. I had been dismissed by medical services (or at least felt like I had) too many times. And surely all my friends hated me by now, with all the misery I was wrapped in? So I withdrew into myself, essentially subtweeting my mental health problems out into the universe.

It’s so obvious, looking back. I was straining for someone to hear words I wasn’t explicitly saying. Fortunately, people did. (You might say I had help forced upon me, which sounds awful, but was exactly what I needed). Things got better. But not everyone is so lucky.

asking for mental health help
Note to self: moody Instagrams are not an effective way to ask for urgent mental health help.

So why don’t we ask for help?

Some of us are afraid of looking weak. Some of us don’t actually feel we have anyone we can ask. But mostly, I think, asking for help with your mental health is awkward. It’s embarrassing and exposing. And it usually means confronting something deep and raw within ourselves – most often, something we’re terrified of exposing to the light.

Worst of all, when we most need to ask for help, our self-esteem is likely at an all-time low. Which makes us all the more susceptible to that poisonous little voice – the one that whispers: you don’t deserve to be helped in the first place.

That’s utter bollocks, of course – everybody deserves help. Even if you feel you aren’t worthy of it. Even if, in the state of being unwell, you’ve done bad things. We’re not all good people all of the time, but everybody deserves to feel sound and strong in their mind. And often, that help can only come when we find a way to ask for it. It isn’t easy – but it almost always is the only way for things to get better.

I’ve compiled some resources below that might give you a starting point, if you need it. And I’ve got another post in the works about how to give help, which I’ll hopefully put out on World Mental Health Day this week. But in the meantime, I hope you can believe me when I say: you are worthy of the support you need, even when it feels like you aren’t.

Ways of asking for help with your mental health 

Asking for mental health help: friends and family

  • It’s the cruel trick of mental illness, to make you feel you’re an inconvenience to everyone around you. But, while you may not feel like it, your friends and family want to support you. And while not all of them will be equipped to do this, the likelihood is there is someone in your circle who can, from their own personal experience, give you at least some of the help you need.
  • Can’t speak about it? Write letters, if sitting down and speaking is too difficult. Or, share other media – even somebody else’s words. There are so many accounts of different mental health experiences, available in books and online or even Instagram. You can send these to your loved ones with the simple cover note: ‘this explains how I am feeling’.
  • Sometimes, look in unexpected places. There are people in my life I don’t actually know very well, but they’ve posted something online that suggests they have insight, and I’ve reached out to them on that basis. People have done this to me, too, and I am always delighted to offer any help at all.

Asking for mental health help: Medical help

  • Your Doctor is another obvious place to start, although this can be scary, especially given the brief ten-minute slot you’re likely to be given. In this time, it’s often hard to get your point across honestly – you might forget key bits, freeze up, burst into tears. So, if you think you’re going to struggle to express yourself, write down the key points of what you’re experiencing before you go in.
  • Yes, the Doctor is probably busy. But this doesn’t mean you have to rush in and out. Remember that.
  • Consider taking somebody with you. That might just be for emotional support, but it can also be practically helpful. It’s a sad fact that sometimes, in the NHS, you’ll get a better result if you have someone to fight your corner. But fighting is bloody hard when you’re feeling so fragile. Case in point: I got drastically better results when my lioness of a mother was with me.
  • If you pursue this route, the thorny issue of medication is likely to crop up. It’s a difficult one, and not for everybody. But it can be hugely helpful, and just like there’s no shame in asking for help, there’s no shame in taking medication for your mental health, either.

Asking for mental health help: Talking Therapies

  • Ask for help from a counsellor. A GP can give you a referral to see a counsellor, but you can also refer yourself directly to psychological therapies services. Bear in mind there is often a wait – but if your situation is urgent, i.e. you’re having suicidal thoughts, make this known.
  • In the UK, there is also a wide range of free services for specific issues, like relationship or bereavement counselling. Some, like Relate, even have live chat functions.
  • This is desperately unfair, and I wish it wasn’t true, but it is: private counselling is likely to be faster, more convenient, and more tailored to your needs. So, if you can afford it, it isn’t an indulgence. The BACP therapist director is a good place to start. This also helps to free up strained resources for people that can’t afford this option.
  • In a pinch, a helpline can do it. The NHS have a fairly conclusive list here.
  • I toyed with putting e-counselling in here, because I haven’t had it, so what do I know? But I do see it advertised more and more, so perhaps something to look into.

If anybody else has any wisdom to add to this list, I’d love to hear it. Let me know in the comments, and in the meantime, take care of yourself in the way you deserve to.

READ MORE FROM NICER THOUGHTS

 

dealing with anxiety

Suicide: the great mental health taboo

Globally, every 40 seconds, a person ends their life through suicide.

In the UK, 6,213 people killed themselves last year. The suicide rate for young women is at an all time high. Men are three times as likely to take their lives than women. Hanging is the most common method. More children are thinking about suicide than ever before.

Does this make you feel uncomfortable?

It makes me feel uncomfortable. Even as I write this, I keep looking away from the screen. Suicide is a thing we still don’t like to talk about, unless a celebrity takes their life. I understand why. It’s too uncomfortable and too loaded. It forces us to confront something too painful to bear.

I suppose if you’ve never been suicidal, or even close, it seems an unfathomable act. Perhaps that’s why it’s so hard to talk about. Although it might be something to do with the fact that ‘self-murder’ was only decriminalised 50 years ago, and the very act of suicide – even admitting to feeling suicidal – is bound up in shame.

Don’t get me wrong: we’ve come a long way on the mental health conversation front. Tell somebody you have anxiety or depression, and you’re more likely than ever before to receive a compassionate response, or even the empathy of shared experience.

But suicide is a different beast. Tell somebody you’re suicidal and watch the air freeze between you, like ice across a windowpane.

It’s the great mental health taboo. We do not know how to talk about it. Even I – somebody who literally runs a blog about mental health – feel myself dancing around the word. And I should really know better. I’ve been there, after all.

I was 22. On paper, I had everything going for me. I was young and high achieving, well-loved and financially secure. But I was also in the grips of a deep mental health crisis. I felt unreal, as if I were viewing the world through gauze. I had lost the ability to connect with the world around me. You probably wouldn’t have thought it to look at me. I have pictures of myself, graduating from my Masters, where I look positively suffused with joy. But most of the time I felt nothing at all, apart from the moments when I wept uncontrollably, until my chest hurt and I couldn’t breathe for gasping.

Everything that makes life worth living had slipped out of reach. Everything felt insurmountable. I was so tired. No wonder: it’s physically exhausting, to feel so very hopeless.

One day, the thought slipped into my head: I wish I could go to sleep tonight and not wake up. It didn’t go away. Over the next few weeks, I worried away at the thought; where could I do it, how could I do it? The idea followed me around; in the bath, as the tram approached the platform. What a relief it would be, not to feel at all.

The only thing that stayed my hand was the thought of my mum and sister, bereaved twice in 24 months. Not to mention the friends who relentlessly stuck to me. In the end, the people I loved dragged me back from the edge. They made me talk, breaking down mountains into hills I could imagine scaling.

Talking saved my life. But too many people don’t have anybody to talk with. In fact, too many people will never let their feelings slip at all. The thought, the urge, will remain unspoken. Until it’s acted upon. Until it’s too late.

We have to talk. It’s a hard conversation from all angles, I know. Admitting you are suicidal is exposing the rawest part of yourself. Talking about it still smarts now: I don’t want people to see me differently, to see me as unstable, when actually I’ve never been happier or more content. It feels like a dream I had a long time ago – one I can only remember because I wrote it down upon waking.

It’s hard for those left behind. Because it’s not an acceptable topic of conversation, people who have lost loved ones to suicide are forced to hide their grief, to blunt its awkward edges in conversation, for the sake of avoiding the discomfort of others.

And it’s hard to respond to. Sitting and looking into the eyes of somebody telling you they do not want to be here is painful and uncomfortable and heartbreakingly sad. ‘I hate to think of you feeling like that,’ people say, eyes shifting into the middle distance. ‘I can’t bear the thought.’

But what should we choose? The discomfort of the conversation or the event itself?

It’s difficult. But here’s some places to start: we have to start the conversation and keep having it, relentlessly, even when it hurts, until everybody who even has a whisper of that voice in their head feels like they can talk about it. We have to write explicit mental health provision into our workplace conversations and HR handbooks. We have to banish the word ‘commit’, with its implications of criminality. We have to educate ourselves on the signs of somebody having suicidal thoughts, and be brave enough to reach out when we see them. We have to listen.

We can’t save everyone. But we can sit down and talk, refusing to flinch, asking the difficult questions. It might make no difference. It might make all the difference in the world.

I’m publishing this the day before World Suicide Prevention Day. If you are worried that somebody you know is having suicidal thoughts, please reach out. There are some resources below, or if you want somebody to talk to, drop me a message. 

Resources

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Diary Extract: I might be okay, January 2015

DIARY: SRI LANKA, JANUARY 2015

Blowing your life to pieces can be done very quickly. Putting it back together is a slow process, with many steps. At first I can just about wake up, swallow tablets, get through the day. Go through the motions. Once a fortnight, I thrash out my thoughts in a counsellor’s office, sipping water between bouts of sobbing. I numb myself in the company of friends, mindless TV, long train journeys.

I’m like a ghost, drifting around my own home. But when I dare to leave, it’s the world that feels unreal, so I scuttle back to safety. I ache to be held and babied. Actually, I ache to give up all together. I would, too, but I have something to try for: a holiday with my mum. Counselling, tablets, endless love and cuddles have failed her: sunshine and a change of scenery are her next gambit.

This trip is a huge source of concern. I can barely leave my own flat, let alone go to Asia. But—because I feel I owe it to her—I decide I must seriously try.

I start with the mechanics. For two months, food has sat like cotton wool on my tongue. The bones in my spine are visible. Eat anything you like, the counsellor advises: don’t worry about it. So I don’t. For a fortnight, I eat nothing but toast and butter, iced buns dunked in Earl Grey, and French Onion soup. I seem to have bypassed hunger, and even thirst, but after a while my stomach remembers what it is to enjoy food.

Eventually, when my limbs start to feel like they belong to me, I force myself out into the crisp December mornings and walk-shuffle-drag myself along the roads. I am impressively unfit. My thighs are lead and I shake with exertion.

But each step lightens the weight in my chest. Even on Christmas—especially on Christmas, the worst of days for the grief-stricken—I throw on trainers and an offensively blue windcheater. For the first time in two years, things get a little better—or at least, they stop getting considerably worse.

A part of me is nervous to declare rock-bottom. Rock-bottom has, at current count, been reached on at least five occasions, only for me to stumble to impressively new lows. But maybe the last few months really have been it. Maybe lying in bed, debating a hot bath and a sharp knife, is as bad as it can get.

mental health sri lanka 2

Christmas passes, and the small, almost imperceptible improvements continue. By the time the trip rolls around, I am hopeful. It’s New Years Day, for one thing, which feels auspicious. Tabula rasa. On the plane, I worry myself gently about being far from home, losing my tablets, not enjoying this expensive trip and pissing my mum off. I mean, wanting to top yourself on safari seems really fucking ungrateful. I can’t talk to my counsellor about it all, so I settle for a large complimentary baileys, and in-flight entertainment.

As it happens, there’s no need for fear. Some places are irrevocably good for the soul, and this is one of them. It turns out going far away is exactly what I need. Days pass in a splendid blur of heat and mountains, foreign voices, spices, animals, magnificent sunrises. I hold strong. I have patched myself back together slowly, delicately, and in the warmth of the Sri Lankan sun my pieces begin to set, like a glazed clay pot baking in a kiln.

I enjoy the food, the people, the stark reminder that my grief and my illness is just a small thread in a global tapestry. It’s been months, perhaps even years, since I’ve felt anything like this pure and uncomplicated happiness. As the trip ends, I even begin to toy with the idea that I might be okay.

mental health sri lanak 4We’re on a morning safari. The sun’s on my face in an open-top jeep. A snuffling boar darts across the road. Elephants—disinterested, ancient-looking—linger by the road side. A sole leopard pads across an outcrop of rock to survey her Kingdom.

And there are a thousand flowers, spiders web, hollowed out trees. Casts of dappled sunlight on the rust-coloured track, and puddles that gleam like mirrors. Alone in the back of the car, above the roar of the jeep, I say the words out loud, as if to test them out: I am okay. I’m going to be okay. This life—this life, that can have such beauty in it—is one I want to live.

Hello, lovely readers! I’m taking a break next week as I’ll be on holiday with my Mum. This got me thinking about the last holiday we took together (January 2015). The above is a real extract from my diary/writing at the time, when I began writing about my mental health to try and piece together how I could recover. My Mum, in her infinite kindness and wisdom, was a huge part of my recovery, and now – as we head up for another trip together – I wanted to share something to let her know just what Sri Lanka meant to me. 

Barring the odd grammar fix, this is pretty much exactly 
what I wrote at the time (January, 2015). Leading up to Sri Lanka, I was at my lowest ebb. Now, two years on, I’m the happiest I’ve been in years and have my mental health well managed. It’s quite shocking to revisit this and realise how much has changed—and I hope someone, somewhere finds some hope in that. I’ll be sharing some more diary extracts in the future, so stay tuned.

Love Nic x

mental health travel