Our new writer, Alyssa Shepherd, tells us about coming to terms with her illness and how long this took her. It was 1, 825 days after she was diagnosed with PTSD that she decided to get treatment for it, and the depression and anxiety that had developed since. There was only one reason she did not get help beforehand - the STIGMA around mental illness.
When I was 19, I was diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), from an event which happened when I was 16. Almost two years later, at the end of my third year of university, my PTSD had manifested itself further into moderate depression and anxiety; at which point I began a course of treatment and therapy over my 3-month-long summer holiday. It took almost five, long years of grappling with my deteriorating mental health to finally seek the treatment I so desperately needed, and to begin to see some light breaking through the expanse of darkness which had subsumed my world for so long. Whilst I am proud that I have made leaps and bounds in the last three months in managing my depression and anxiety through psychotherapy, the fact that I struggled for almost a grand total of 1,825 days to finally reach out for help is something I find very upsetting. When I take a step back to think about this, there really is only one word that springs to mind: stigma.
At age 16, shortly after the traumatic event, I noticed a change in my personality and natural state of being, but was too scared to admit it to myself – never mind to others. Nightmares and flashbacks plagued my conscious and subconscious mind, filling my head with overwhelming feelings of guilt. I increasingly felt isolated from my peers, began to doubt my self-worth, and suffered from anxiety attacks. Social situations that I used to look forward to soon became the most dreaded events of my calendar for fear of being judged, being a burden to my friends and not being able to interact the same way everyone around me appeared to be doing. When I made the huge move to university, my injured mental capacity simply couldn’t cope with such an adjustment, and I began to laugh less, to cry more and the outgoing, confident personality I had embodied for years began to fade. These are all common symptoms displayed by those who suffer from PTSD. I suspected this, but convinced myself that it couldn’t be happening to me. ‘Only military service personnel suffer from PTSD’, I told myself. ‘If I am depressed, it means I’m weak – how will I cope?’ ‘People will think I’m just being melodramatic and exaggerating’. ‘I will be a burden to others’. ‘What do I have to be depressed about?’. These were not thoughts which had appeared in my mental reasoning spontaneously; these were products of the low value which society has attached to mental disorders throughout history, and stigmas which still persist today.
All too often, those who suffer from mental health issues are too frightened and ashamed to admit that they are struggling to cope with, and manage, their illness. This fear of prejudice and judgement that the stigmas attached to mental disorders have fostered is stopping people from reaching out to receive help – be that in the form of psychotherapy, prescription medication or even something as simple as an open conversation over a cup of coffee with a friend. Although mental health has become very prominent in the media over the last year, most especially with Heads Together, the mental health initiative spearheaded by The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry, determined to change the conversation on mental illness through fundraising, the stigma surrounding mental health still remains a fundamental problem fed by negative connotations, experiences and rhetoric. The existence of stigma means that those of us who suffer from mental health disorders are challenged on two fronts. Firstly, we grapple with the symptoms and difficulties which result from our disorders. Secondly, we are challenged by the typecasts and prejudice fostered by misconceptions about mental health. Both of these fronts then blend into a potent mixture which promote feelings of low self-worth, isolation and an overwhelming sense of shame, ultimately robbing those who struggle with mental health of the opportunities to lead a good quality of life.
How do we identify stigma? Quite easily, is the answer I would propose. Stigma exists in the trivialising of mental illness, for example, in kickboxer and former Big Brother contestant Andrew Tate’s recent tweet that ‘Depression isn’t real. You feel sad, you move on. You’ll always be depressed if your life is depressing. Change it…’. Stigma materialises in the absence of personal and social lessons at secondary school level covering the vast variety of existing mental illnesses. Stigma exists in someone turning a blind eye to their family member or a friend’s unusual behavior, which could be a blatant cry for help, because opening up a conversation about mental health makes that person feel ‘awkward and uncomfortable’. A further example would be your GP telling you ‘to go for a walk’ – as if the shame, the emptiness and the inability to even get out of bed in the morning could be shaken off by a walk around the block. Stigma is making people feel that depression, anxiety, PTSD, anorexia nervosa, bipolar disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder and many more mental disorders are uncommon when, in reality, one in four people in the United Kingdom suffer from mental illness. Stigma makes we who struggle with mental health feel that we are the exception, when in reality, we are the rule. Everybody has the capacity to feel depressed. Open conversation, education and active intervention are what is necessary to take place for people to realize this – only then will the shame fade, and, those who need it, feel comfortable and confident enough to reach out for the help they so desperately crave and need.
It took me 1, 825 days of silence to defy the stigma surrounding mental health. It makes me sad that I suffered in silence and alone for so many years to deal with my PTSD due to the shame and fear fostered by the stereotypes and prejudices which society has attached to mental illness. However, I am equally proud that when I bump into friends and family and they ask me: ‘so, what did you get up to over the summer?’ – I can tell them exactly what I did with no shame or fear – ‘No, I didn’t have a job or an internship. I was receiving treatment for my mental health’ - because I am now living a better quality of life, thanks to this treatment. I laugh more, I cry less, and the outgoing, confident personality that I had lost for five years, is now starting to reappear. I’ve missed her.