I’ve struggled with depression and anxiety, on and off, in varying degrees, for most of my adolescent and all of my adult life. In May 2014, while working at Feminist Times, I edited their Mental Health Week – a week of content focused on why mental health is a feminist issue. Sadly the Feminist Times archive is no longer available, but I remain immensely proud of the content I wrote, commissioned and edited during that week.
When I went freelance, not long afterwards, I made mental health a much greater focus of my work. However, I’ve continued not to write much about my own issues. Like most things, mental health is much easier to write about in the third person.
Then, at the start of this year, I set myself a monthly blogging challenge, one of the aims of which was to be more open, authentic and vulnerable about my own mental health problems. Little did I know then that they were about to explode quite so catastrophically, or I might not have thought it was such a good idea!
When I was discharged from hospital on 1 February, one of the sections of my discharge notes really bothered me:
Cervical spine fracture – C7. Priority: High
L Radius fracture. Priority: Medium
L1 vertebral fracture. Priority: Medium
Mood alterted. Priority: Low
Insomnia. Priority: Low
Of course, my body was pretty badly smashed up in the car crash. But when you’ve treated someone’s physical injuries as “trauma”, clinical phrases like “mood altered” seem grossly inadequate to describe the psychological repercussions. An altered mood is what happens when I get out of bed feeling chirpy and then burn my toast. Admittedly, I’ve not yet found the right words to suitably describe how I do feel, but “emotional trauma” would probably seem like the most accurate choice to anyone other than an actual robot.
And then there’s the priority: low. The better I get physically, the more painfully true this feels. The talking therapies waiting list I’m on feels endless, and my GP can’t do much more than chasing them and prescribing more pills. I feel totally isolated.
In the three years since Feminist Times’ Mental Health Week, I’ve seen enormous changes in the public conversation around mental health. As Hannah Ewen pointed out in a recent Vice article, it’s become as trendy a topic for online content as feminism. But while I firmly believe that tackling stigma is hugely, urgently important in the fight for better mental health, what is all that worth when its level of priority, in healthcare and in our own lives, remains so low?
I love the NHS, and it breaks my heart to see it so hideously and chronically underfunded by the current government, but mental healthcare services are in a devastating position. And while it’s amazing to see everyone from Ruby Wax to Prince Harry speaking out about their struggles, sometimes a cup of tea and a heart-to-heart isn’t enough. Especially when you can’t afford to pay for expensive private therapists. Getting effective, professional and affordable support, when you need it, remains a constant struggle for too many people living with mental health problems. Talking about mental health is great, but we need to prioritise treatment too.
I’m not the first person to make the point that greater investment in mental healthcare is urgent, and I won’t be the last. But I’m also conscious that it’s not just in healthcare settings that mental health remains a low priority. I’ve been writing about mental health regularly for three years, but I know that I struggle to make mental health a priority in my own life.
In the last 14 weeks, I’ve based my ability to return to ‘normality’ almost solely on my physical recovery. I’ve put totally unnecessary pressure on myself to keep working for the sake of “keeping busy” and “taking my mind off things” even though I know, personally and professionally, that’s not how it works. Self-care, though wonderful in principle, is so hard to prioritise when you just don’t feel worthy of being cared for.
Next week is Mental Health Awareness Week and, as I wrote in last week’s post, the theme this year is “surviving or thriving?” I’m writing a couple of lovely pieces, for various different outlets, on all the positive and wonderful ways that people with mental health problems have learned to thrive with their conditions. But I also know that surviving a day at a time is the reality for many more people, and that’s ok too.
It’s not ok how hard we have to struggle to get help. But it’s ok to not be ok. Plenty of people have told me that since I left hospital, and it’s finally starting to sink in. So my pledge for MHAW this year is simple: to make mental health a much higher priority in my own life, and let thriving follow in its own sweet time.