Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Time to Talk

I sat in my car, dumbstruck, wondering whether to just continue on to work, or if there was suddenly some seismic shift in me since I set out for my assessment appointment that morning. I had been struggling with Mental Health issues which I thought were related to the stress of my job for the past year. My Manager was aware that I might be suffering from bouts of depression. This, though felt really different, somehow I didn't feel as free to talk about 'Complex Mental Health Issues' with my employer. Instinctively, I knew that a label was going to change everything. And this one had a lot of baggage attached - Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD).
Being a creature of habit, I continued on to work and debriefed my Manager, deciding that both she and I were the same people we were the day before. I also decided to trust in the good sense I respected in her as a colleague working with challenging people. I was right. Together we wondered about the label and what it actually meant in practical terms for my job and me as a person. It is hard to find a good Manager, but when you do, really appreciate them. So hurdle one was over, I had told my employer that not only did I have a Mental Health problem, but it was one that I really was only beginning to learn about.

Unfortunately, the procedures in place and the attitude of the Senior Managers in charge of my area were not as compassionate about my diagnosis as the person most responsible for my day to day work. Suddenly, from being supportive the shift in sickness procedures became a focus on whether or not I was a risk to my cases. This shows a shocking lack of understanding of mental illness in general and BPD in particular. Again and again, I was referred to Occupational Health with the same questions, was I safe to be left alone with violent offenders? What impact was I likely to have on my colleagues? Sounds ridiculous seeing it in black and white, given that I had worked happily and effectively for the same team for over five years. Amazing that suddenly, I was the risk to be assessed, rather be the assessor of risk which was one of my roles at the time. Finally, they decided that they needed to pay for a private Psychiatrist (somehow all the assessments and support being given to me by the NHS had become suspect as they were all emphasising that my risk to others was minimal!!) who fudged the issue by asking me my opinion!
In the end, a combination of this ongoing process every time I took a dip in mood and the worsening of my symptoms forced me to consider an offer of voluntary redundancy. I think this kind of treatment by employers goes on without challenge simply because the cost of standing up for yourself, along with dealing with your mental illness, is just too difficult to contemplate.

A diagnosis of mental illness is isolating. Suddenly, you're not sure who and what to tell. Every conversation becomes a risk. For me it has been painful at times to realise that some friendships which have lasted a long time, foundered when my problems had a definition and a way forward. Although there are problems with the diagnosis and the label, it opened up hope that I could overcome it with effective therapies. I've had various responses from 'Rubbish, you're just depressed'... (the fact that they can say, 'just' depressed alone, gives an idea of the misunderstanding out there of the impact of mental illness),to 'don't be ridiculous, you've got your own house, car, job'.... to 'but you're so normal!'. These responses show out and out ignorance of what mental illness is and who suffers from it.

More subtle were the responses which initially seemed supportive, but as time went on and they realised that not only was I seeing a CPN, monthly, seeing my GP monthly, but I was also expected to attend twice a week for treatment at my local Mental Health unit, they started to tell me that it was silly the amount of time being taken to 'help' me. After all I had managed for over thirty years without this level of intervention. I guess these reactions demonstrate how far I had managed to mask the worst of my symptoms from those around me. By the time I was diagnosed - no one in my life at the time was aware that I frequently self harmed and that on a daily basis, I thought about suicide. Frequently, I was so overwhelmed by negative emotion that I could not function outside a work situation. When that environment was removed from me, some of my symptoms were suddenly more evident to my friends.

There is a perception of Mental Health problems as being something to be afraid of. I have begun to speak in public recently about mental health stigma and have been shocked that prejudice is found in all sorts of people from all walks of life. One of the responses is, 'but you can't have a complex mental health problem, you are not a violent person', which shows the need for real education about real people with real mental health issues. The fact is that you are more likely to be the victim of violent crime when you have a mental illness, than you are to be a perpetrator. As with many taboo subjects, headlines and media mask the truth and facts are neglected in exchange for selling more advertising, papers and programmes. I have found that this 'them' and 'us' gulf is best closed by speaking openly to people - when I'm well enough. I have also developed an upfront attitude to explaining why and where I can't cope with certain situations - 'I'm sorry being around people today is just too painful for me.' I no longer do things out of deference to other people, I am learning that when I am struggling with my emotions I need to care for myself, in the same way that I would care for myself if I had 'flu. And instead of making something up I let them know that I am unwell, just as I would with 'flu. After all both my BPD and the times when I have 'flu just tell me that I am a human being.

It is amazing that Mental Health is a subject that seems to be shrouded in mystery, something that is only discussed in hushed tones in corners. We may laugh at the older generations like my parents who refer to mental health problems as 'having trouble with your nerves'. But I'm not sure that modern attitudes are actually any more enlightened. They may have terms like depression and anxiety, but understanding has not developed any further than, 'why don't you get out and about, some fresh air and try to feel better!' Unless people actually HEAR what those of us with Mental Health issues say about how we are affected, then their understanding cannot develop any further. And if we are not engaging them in the conversation, then certainly no one is going to feel comfortable bringing up the subject.

The main thing I've found as I've spoken to different groups locally is that there are so many people out there who think they are the only ones who are struggling with mental health problems. The more we can talk to one another about the facts and reality of our illnesses and conditions, the more people will feel less isolated. Also hopefully the more people get to know individuals behind the diagnosis, the more they can see, that actually it's not 'them' and 'us', but it's any one of us who can be affected by Mental Health issues.