How would you caption this picture? You would possibly think of something like, ‘happy, proud father with baby son’.
This photo was taken a week before Christmas 2014: my son’s first Christmas and supposedly a happy time. It would therefore surprise you that when this picture was taken, I was riddled with anxiety and the cloud of depression was soon to make my life overcast and dark. Indeed, three days after this photo was taken, I had what I would now, with the 20/20 vision of hindsight, consider a breakdown.
Six months previous to this photo, my son was born. It was a wonderful, life affirming moment – I will never forget holding him in my arms for the first time, although I had suffered a panic attack when the birth took a difficult turn when the thought I could lose my wife and child entered my head. This was soon papered over, yet some trauma remained under the surface. Being a new father was a wonderful experience, although the interrupted sleep really took its toll on me: I found it difficult to function and think clearly day to day, gradually making me more and more anxious and confused. I tried to hold things together, but inevitably it all came crashing down one morning in late December 2014.
Hindsight is remarkable, as when I look beyond this breakdown and further into my past, I can see that I have lived and suffered with an anxiety disorder throughout most of my life. Indeed, one of my earliest memories has the shadow of anxiety hanging over it: 3 years old and petrified being left at nursery. When it is acute, it becomes crippling and dominates my life. This begs the question: why did I not seek help sooner? Well, I had a nagging suspicion that I had a mental health issue but I didn't want to admit to it. The truth is that I, an individual with mental health problems, had stigma about my own mental health issues. It was this self-stigma, this worry about what others would think of me, this concern about me as a man showing weakness, that prevented me from getting help sooner. My self-stigma meant that I suffered in silence for a long time. Something paradoxical about my attitude back then is I didn’t have stigma towards other people with mental health problems, it was just about my own. I now joke that my attitude to mental health back then was like two contrasting personalities. When talking to friends who were having a tough time, I was like Gandhi: gentle and saying understanding and reassuring words of comfort. When it came to my own suffering, I was like Hitler: aggressive and abrasively telling myself I was pathetic and weak, and that I needed to hide this from people.
How do we break this stigma? - We talk openly about mental health.
Self-stigma doesn’t arise on its own; it is cultivated in the soil of wider society and the actual stigma that exists day to day. For example, in a recent survey into Welsh attitudes toward mental health, 46% of respondents felt that people who have experienced depression shouldn’t be allowed to teach in primary schools. Attitudes must change, and it is quite apparent there is still a stigma surrounding mental health - how do we break this stigma?
We talk openly about mental health.
I now find it strange that many feel uncomfortable to say something like, "you know what, I feel quite anxious and I can't really put my finger on why that is". what a shame that is. If we all let go of this attitude and be more comfortable talking about it, we would create an environment where people suffering could feel comfortable seeking help sooner, before it gets to a crisis point. And it feels good to talk openly about it. I had to take some time off work due to my breakdown. When I returned to work, colleagues asked how I was; I replied, “Ah, you know – a bit of anxiety and depression, but things are getting better now”. It was liberating to tell it like it is. I have been very fortunate to have supportive friends, colleagues, managers. I have accessed the counselling service offered my employer, Cardiff Metropolitan University, which is first class and helped me no end. I’m pleased to write that I am now well down the road toward good mental health, although I wobble occasionally. It feels like the clouds have broken and sun’s rays are peeking back into my life.
My hope is that through openly sharing my experience, it in some small way helps eradicate stigma; a small step. For anyone reading this, realising that a loved one or indeed themselves are suffering, yet locked in the cage of self-stigma: there is no shame in seeking help.
If you would like to write a blog post about your experiences of stigma or related issues, email firstname.lastname@example.org