Recent writing: benzodiazepines, the ‘sex recession’, and early menopause

November’s features for Grazia, The Pool, and BBC Three covered a pretty interesting range of subjects: anxiety, addiction, sex, millennials, periods, fertility, and the menopause.

‘I’d Treat Myself With Diazepam In The Way People Treat Themselves To A Glass Of Wine After A Stressful Day’ – for Grazia:

Lena Dunham this week revealed that she’s six months sober, after three years of misusing anti-anxiety medication Klonopin (Clonazepam). Speaking on Dax Shepard’s Armchair Expert podcast, the 32-year-old actress said: ‘I was having crazy anxiety and having to show up for things that I didn’t feel equipped to show up for. But I know I need to do it, and when I take a Klonopin, I can do it.’

Over time, Dunham added: ‘It stopped being “I take one when I fly” to “I take one when I’m awake”. I didn’t have any trouble getting a doctor to tell me, “you have serious anxiety issues, you should be taking this”.’

Continue reading at Grazia…

Are we stuck in a global sex recession? – for The Pool:

It’s probably telling that my response to a recent Atlantic article on the so-called “millennial sex recession” was a shrug. “Who the hell has time for sex?” I quipped. “We’re all too busy stressing about the end of the world.”

Hyperbole aside, it is clear that sex has slipped down our priority list. Over the last few years, an increasing number of headlines have mourned the millennial generation’s collective sex life, with study after study after study showing we’re having less sex than our parents – but why?

Continue reading at The Pool…

The truth about early menopause – for BBC Three:

Most women don’t even think about the hormonal roller coaster that is the menopause until they hit their mid-40s, with 51 being the average age for women’s periods to actually stop. But Adele Stevens is dealing with hot flushes, mood swings and the end of her fertility aged just 25. To make matters worse, she’s going through it at the same time as her mum, who is in her 50s.

Adele is a mum herself, to a six-year-old daughter. “All my friends are having babies at the moment and I still want another one, but I don’t know if it’s possible now,” she says.

Continue reading at BBC Three…

Recent writing: A more mindful recovery

For June’s issue of Planet Mindful magazine – Time Inc’s new mindfulness publication, launched January 2018 – I wrote two features, both exploring different aspects of how mindfulness has been an important part of my recovery from last year’s car accident.

Mindfulness is well and truly having its moment in the sun right now – no longer the preserve of hippies and Buddhist monks, mindfulness has grown increasingly mainstream over the last few years, backed up by scientific research proving its effectiveness.

As someone who’s fairly well immersed in the field of mental health and wellbeing, I’ve always really liked the idea of mindfulness – of existing in the moment, of compassionate acceptance of your circumstances, of taking time out of your day to simply ‘be’. But I’ve always really struggled with it in practice. Over the last 18 months I’ve made some small steps towards harnessing its power to aid in my recovery, and it’s those tentative, wobbly baby steps that I explored for Planet Mindful.

The first of the two features was about my love-hate relationship with running, the difficulty I had with returning to training after multiple fractures, and how mindfulness helped me rediscover my stride.

I’ve always had a complicated relationship with running. After 20 years spent avoiding any form of exercise at all costs, I first laced up my trainers as a bet when I was a student. After several months spent forcing my petite, puny legs up and down the Leamington Spa stretch of the Grand Union Canal tow path, and a 5K race around Hyde Park, I’d pretty much decided that running wasn’t really for me. Frustrated by my weakness, lack of speed or stamina, and all-round slow progress, I concluded that I just wasn’t built for athleticism.

Several years later, after two weeks spent doing as little as possible on an all-inclusive honeymoon, my husband and I decided we needed to do something to shift those newly-wed extra pounds. My trainers were dusted off again and, taking full advantage of our proximity to the beautiful Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, we got into a fairly relaxed routine of jogging together two or three times a week.

Life at the time was complicated. Besides settling into married life, I’d just quit a job that was making me physically and mentally unwell. I’d been on antidepressants for just over 12 months, and I was on the cusp of making the simultaneously terrifying and exhilarating decision to go freelance. Running, I then discovered, was an amazing release – an outlet for my anxieties and frustrations; a potent mood booster; and, as I (very) slowly but surely began to see improvements, a great way of building up my confidence.

Together we started running first 5Ks, then 10Ks and, while I was still one of the slowest in the pack, just the achievement of making it all the way round felt amazing. But then the whole world gave way underneath my feet. In a split second, an accident left me totally devastated, with two fractured vertebrae, a broken wrist, and grappling with the intense depression, stress and anxiety of PTSD. Running was well and truly off the table: it was 24 hours before I could even sit up; four days before I could walk; and much longer before I could leave the house without a heady cocktail of diazepam, fluoxetine, and codeine.

It also referred to two books on running and mindfulness that inspired me throughout my R.E.D. January journey. The first written by a runner who’s into mindfulness; the second by a psychotherapist who’s into running. I’d really highly recommend reading both perspectives, to help shift your focus and learn to run in a way that benefits both your body and mind:

  • Mindful Running: How Meditative Running can Improve Performance and Make you a Happier, More Fulfilled Person by Mackenzie L. Havey
  • Run for Your Life: Mindful Running for a Happy Life by William Pullen

In my second feature I wrote about my experience of craniosacral therapy – described by therapist Rosie Owen as “psychotherapy for your body”.

Craniosacral therapy is an incredibly gentle body therapy, rooted in the work of osteopath William Garner Sutherland. In the early 1900s, Dr Sutherland “observed that the cerebrospinal fluid that bathes our brains and nervous systems has its own pulse, and is essential to maintaining our health,” explains Beatrice Doubble from the Craniosacral Therapy Association (CSTA).

Today it’s used to release stored tension, stresses and traumas from the body. I’ve always carried stress in my neck and shoulders – and working at a laptop all day doesn’t help – but those issues have taken on a new dimension since fracturing vertebrae in my neck and lower back last year. Having already focused a lot of my energies on dealing with the emotional trauma of my accident, I was intrigued by what craniosacral therapy could offer my tense and achy spine.

During my first session with accredited craniosacral therapist Rosie Owen, in her peaceful, intimate studio near London Bridge, she likened the treatment to “psychotherapy for the body”. After giving Rosie a history of my injuries, medications, aches and pains, I slipped my shoes off and lay myself face up on her massage table, fully clothed, and covered with a cosy blanket. Starting at my feet, then my lower back, and then my head, she placed her hands on my body with the lightest, gentlest of touches – barely there, like being softly caressed with a feather – chatting to me all the while about what sensations were going on in my body.

It’s difficult to describe how the effects of craniosacral therapy really feel. For me, the first session felt like a very deep relaxation combined with an intensely mindful awareness of all my body’s physical sensations. It’s not uncommon for clients to fall asleep, Rosie tells me, and to be honest I was surprised that I didn’t doze off. As Rosie slowly worked around my body, I experienced a pleasant, subtle tingling sensation up my legs and spine – as far as my ever-rigid neck, at least!

In the couple of weeks between my first and second session, I felt hyperaware of every little twinge and niggle in my body. Nothing felt noticeably improved as such, but I certainly noticed what was going on a lot more that I had before. I went into my second session with a mind and body that felt more open and receptive to the therapy, and I noticed the difference in depth that Rosie and I achieved together. We talked about the feelings – frustration, anger, resentment – that I felt I was holding in the tensest parts of my spine, and Rosie asked me to visualise this pain as a shape or symbol while she worked, shrinking it or moving it around the body as I saw fit.

Continue reading both articles in the June edition of Planet Mindful, published by Time Inc., available in W.H. Smith, Marks & Spencer, Waitrose and Sainsbury’s.


IF YOU NEED SUPPORT

Please note that I am NOT a psychologist or healthcare professional. If you are struggling with mental health problems, contact Mind on 0300 123 3393 or Rethink Mental Health on 0300 5000 927. In a crisis, call the free, 24/7 Samaritans helpline on 116 123.

However, if you would like to get in touch about your own experiences, or a story that you’re keen to tell, please feel free to drop me an email.

R.E.D January: Running away from the blues

It is a truth universally acknowledged that January is, well, always a bit shit. Grey and austere, after a month of twinkling lights and festive indulgence. A dark, cold, gloomy return to work and reality, after a week spent drinking hot chocolate and watching Christmas films in your pyjamas, unsure of which day of the week it is, and totally oblivious to any kind of real-life responsibility.

It’s usually around this time of year that I find myself casually daydreaming about running away. Last year it was a week on my own by the sea (albeit in Suffolk, not Sri Lanka) and we all know how well that worked out. This year I’ve been browsing Skyscanner for flights to visit my friend in New Zealand, but in reality I know I’m not going much further than sunny Stevenage any time soon.

R.E.D January

Back in December though, I signed up for R.E.D (Run Every Day) January, for an alternative kind of running away. R.E.D’s a New Year fitness challenge, in association with mental health charity Mind, that harnesses the mental health benefits of running to help participants beat the January blues, while also fundraising to support Mind’s work around the UK.

Despite the on-off, love-hate relationship I’ve had with running over the years, I know it’s always made a massive difference to my mental health. I really resented not being able to put my trainers on and get out when both my back and my mind were at their worst last year. Plus, it felt like a good way to up my recovery training in the New Year, now that I’m actually starting to notice a difference from my weekly yoga and Pilates sessions.

Running as self-care

Then, a couple of weeks before Christmas, I had a bit of an epiphany about where I’ve always gone wrong with running in the past. I was interviewing the always-inspiring behavioural change specialist Shahroo Izadi for an article on binge eating and she said something that – although it didn’t make it into the article in its entirety – really stuck with me:

Usually Sunday evening was my hardest time not to overeat because I lived by myself and, especially in the winter, I’d get bored – but I didn’t want to go out and spend money. So one day I just decided to go to a karaoke booth by myself in Brick Lane. It was really cheap, like a fiver, they gave me a microphone, I got myself a coffee, and I sat and sang for one or two hours.

Since then, whenever I have a desire to binge, or I’m triggered by something – because it does still happen – what I tend to do is try and book a karaoke booth. I’ll tell myself: “Shahroo, you can do whatever you like, you can eat whatever you like, just first go and have a sing, and see if you still want to afterwards”, and to this day I’ve never wanted to afterwards. The craving passes, singing’s a really mindful activity in general. For me, mindfulness just means when I’m so engrossed in one thing that nothing else is coming in, and I’ve found that through singing.

By the way, I’m not a good singer – I’m not training for anything, it’s not to any end, and I think that’s the other really important point around self-care. It’s about reinforcing that you like yourself, and that’s why you’re doing this. The more I do things that are just purely for joy, with no outcome – I’m not recording an album, it’s just purely because I feel good about it – the more I’m reinforcing my self-worth. Tiny things I do each day just to acknowledge that I have a body worth taking care of, I have a brain worth taking care of, and that leaks into all your little habits.

So that’s the approach that I’ve taken into R.E.D January: not worrying about my time, or my distance, or how much of each run was actually spent walking and wheezing; just enjoying how it makes me feel.

Best laid plans

Of course, as often seems to happen with all of my best laid plans, my body had other ideas. I was struck down by that brutal Christmas cold that everyone’s had, just in time for New Year’s Ever. Thanks, crappy immune system! It’s meant missing a couple of days, which were spent in bed feeling totally wiped out and miserable, but otherwise I’ve quite impressed myself (so far!) with my ability to stick with it, and even to compensate for missed days by adding in extra activities  and then actually enjoying them!!

It doesn’t make the reality of January any less grim, but it does give me 10-60 minutes a day away from my racing thoughts and chaotic feelings, just to focus on my breathing, the thudding rhythm of my feet against the pavement, and the beauty of our new town – and that’s absolutely invaluable. If you’d like to help raise money for Mind by sponsoring me, you can do so at my JustGiving page: justgiving.com/fundraising/sarah-graham-red

World Mental Health Day: Perfectionism, financial anxiety, and what it’s really like to be sectioned

Today, 10 October, is World Mental Health Day. This year’s WMHD has a theme of workplace wellbeing, and also sees the launch of Natasha Devon’s latest campaign, The Mental Health Media Charter, which I’m proud to support.

Here are a few of my recent articles on mental health – exploring perfectionism, the anxieties around financial uncertainty, and what it’s really like to be sectioned…

Following on from my MHT article on the Mental Health Act, in September I wrote for NetDoctor about what it’s really like to be sectioned as a psychiatric patient under the Act. Many thanks to Andrea, Kate and Alika for speaking to me so candidly about their experiences, and to Rethink Mental Illness for connecting us.

For The Debrief, I wrote about a recent study into perfectionism as a risk factor for suicide. Perfectionism is particularly associated with young, high achieving women, so I looked into the impact it can have on mental health – from anxiety and depression to eating disorders and OCD. Thank you to self-confessed perfectionists Lizzie and Sam (not her real name) for chatting to me, and to psychologist Dr Nihara Krause, who shared her expertise in clinical perfectionism.

Finally, I wrote for Nationwide Building Society about the links between money trouble and mental health problems, and what customers can do to tackle financial anxiety.

This is what it’s really like to be sectioned – for NetDoctor:

Mental Health Act

Mental health is on the agenda more than ever before. While there’s still plenty of work to be done, many of us now feel increasingly comfortable talking about common issues like mild to moderate depression and anxiety, and their impact on our everyday lives. But more complex and severe mental health conditions remain heavily stigmatised, particularly when they involve patients being detained and forcibly treated under the Mental Health Act – known as sectioning.

47-year-old Canadian Andrea has a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, and has been sectioned several times since moving to the UK when she was 23. The first time, she recalls: “I had been given antidepressants, ignoring the fact that a proportion of us with bipolar cannot take antidepressants. I became psychotic within 48 hours.”

Continue reading at NetDoctor…

Is Your Perfectionism Affecting Your Mental Health? – for The Debrief:

‘Perfectionism affects every aspect of my life in some way or another. I have to be perfect in every way, shape or form,’ says 23-year-old Sam*. ‘I set very high standards for myself, and if I don’t reach them – which 99 percent of the time I don’t because they’re impossible – I then attack and belittle myself over it.’

Sound familiar? Perfectionism can affect anyone, but it’s particularly associated with young, high-achieving women – whether it’s a constant need to look flawless, or staying hours late at the office to tinker with that one piece of work that’s not quite spot-on.

We might think of it as a fairly harmless personality quirk – just ‘being a bit anal’ – but perfectionism can actually have a pretty sinister impact on your long-term mental health. The Journal of Personality recently published the most comprehensive study of its kind into perfectionism as a risk factor for suicide, concluding that ‘self-generated and socially based pressures to be perfect’ make people more susceptible to suicidal thoughts.

How to cope with financial anxiety – for Nationwide Building Society:

For a long time, mental health has been associated with serious, long-term mental illnesses like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. But we all have mental health, and it’s affected constantly by the pleasures and stresses of everyday life, from money and work, to family and relationships.

Financial uncertainty – whether it’s the threat of redundancy, or an out of control debt – can take a huge toll on your mental health, leading to common issues like stress, depression and anxiety.

The impact of this can be huge, not only on your personal and family life, but also on your career. Work-related stress accounts for 45% of all working days lost to illness (This link will open in a new window) in the UK – and struggling at work is a sure-fire way to sink into the vicious cycle of financial anxiety.

But there are simple, practical steps you can take to cope with financial anxiety and regain a sense of control.

Continue reading at Nationwide…


IF YOU NEED SUPPORT

Please note that I am NOT a psychologist or healthcare professional. If you are struggling with mental health problems, contact Mind on 0300 123 3393 or Rethink Mental Health on 0300 5000 927. In a crisis, call the free, 24/7 Samaritans helpline on 116 123.

However, if you would like to get in touch about your own experiences, or a story that you’re keen to tell, please feel free to drop me an email.

Recent writing: Womb cancer, sexual health, and anxiety during pregnancy

It’s been a busy month for my two favourite (and frequently overlapping) subjects, mental health and sexual health. September is Gynaecological Cancer Awareness Month, but it’s also packed full of other great awareness weeks. Most notably for me, Pre and Post Natal Depression Awareness Week (PNDAW) fell from 4th-10th, and this year focused on antenatal mental health, while Sexual Health Week ran from 11th-17th.

So, I’ve been writing lots about vaginas, wombs, hormones, fertility, periods, pregnancy, abortion, and mental health – from antenatal anxiety to womb cancer, and why straight men find it so difficult to talk about their partners’ vaginas.

Over Half Of Men Are Uncomfortable Talking About Their Partners’ Vagina – for Broadly:

Straight couples are uncomfortable talking about sexual health

hen was the last time you and your boyfriend talked about sexual health? Can he say “vagina” out loud without giggling? And would you trust him to notice if something was wrong down there? Unless you do lot of yoga, most of us physically can’t get a good look at our own vulvas all that often. So you’d hope that our sexual partners are at least keeping an eye on things.

However, despite their ideal vantage point, only one in five men feels confident enough to mention a change in their partner’s vagina, and more than half of them aren’t comfortable discussing gynecological health at all. That’s according to a survey of 2,000 people, published by UK gynecological cancer charity The Eve Appeal.

Continue reading at Broadly…

What it’s like to have anxiety when you’re pregnant – for NetDoctor:

Antenatal anxiety is often overlooked when it comes to perinatal mental health

“I had such mixed feelings when I found out I was pregnant – lots of emotions and excitement, but then also this feeling that my life was over, as awful as that sounds,” says 25-year-old Jade, who was 23 when she had her son. “I was about five months pregnant when the anxiety really hit me. I’d been having panic attacks, struggling to leave the house, and then one day I just broke down. It was completely overwhelming.”

Antenatal anxiety affects around 13 per cent of pregnant women, while 12 per cent suffer from antenatal depression, and many experience both. Like at any other time in your life, some amount of anxiety and worry is totally normal and understandable during pregnancy, but it becomes a problem when that anxiety begins to affect your everyday life.

Continue reading at NetDoctor, or continue reading at Cosmo UK…

What It’s Like To Lose Your Fertility To Uterine Cancer In Your 20s – for Broadly:

Lydia would often bleed through her clothes

Lydia Brain has had heavy periods since she was a teenager. In her early 20s, they got so heavy that she would regularly bleed through her clothes in public—but Lydia never imagined it was a sign of endometrial cancer.

“I can’t remember ever not having to use a tampon and a sanitary towel. For years my periods got heavier and heavier,” Lydia says. “Sometimes I’d get stuck on the toilet for hours. I couldn’t go on holiday or out for a day if I was on my period, because I had to make sure I could always get to a toilet.”

Continue reading at Broadly…

What Happens to Your Body in the Hours and Days After an Abortion – for Vice UK:

One in three women in Britain will have an abortion at some point in their lives, but if it hasn’t happened to you, you might not know much about the actual process. Outdated horror stories involving iron forceps still loom large in the public consciousness, when the majority of abortions today begin with taking a pill.

There are two main types of abortion: medical (using pills to induce a miscarriage) and surgical (where the pregnancy is removed during a minor operation). Exactly what happens and how long it takes varies from woman to woman, and, obviously, depends on how far into the pregnancy you are. But if you’re going for a medical abortion, here’s a rough idea of what you can expect to happen during the 72 hours afterwards.

Continue reading at Vice… 

Recent writing: Mental health support, boozy break-ups, and PMS that makes women suicidal

It’s been a while since my last work update – August has been as busy as always, with work including my first health feature for the i newspaper, and a native content collaboration with Closer and the British Army, which I’ll share more about in an upcoming blog post. I was also delighted, earlier in the month, to attend the launch party of The Femedic – an exciting new educational website from Curated Digital that’s dedicated to tackling taboos around women’s health.

August’s work highlight was chatting with Laura Murphy, founder of the Vicious Cycle: Making PMDD Visible campaign, about medical sexism and her experiences of severe PMS. It’s such a glaring example of where science and medicine fall short on women’s health, and Laura’s doing an amazing job of raising awareness while also tackling the condition herself. I’ve also written about supporting a loved one with mental health problems, and the impact of booze on getting over heartbreak.

My PMS is so bad I’m having my womb removed – for i News:

I’ve suffered from hormone sensitivity since I was a teenager. For years I would go to the doctor and receive the same response: ‘it’s just PMS, it’s what all women go through’.

After 20 years of being dismissed and going through a process of trial and error with treatments, I’m now waiting to undergo my last resort: a hysterectomy.

At its worst, PMDD feels like a deep bereavement every month. I would be fine for two weeks and then suddenly floored by depression for five or six days before each period.

Continue reading at The i News…

How Much Do Drink And Drugs Stop Us Getting Over A Break-Up? – for The Debrief:

‘Most nights would end with me in tears after a few too many shots of tequila,’ says 27-year-old Babs. She is, of course, talking about a breakup.

And no matter how amicable the intentions of a breakup, they’re always pretty messy. Whether it’s untangling yourself from shared flat rentals and bills, letting go of their friends and family, or even just returning the old T-shirt of theirs you’ve been sleeping in since the second date. There are stereotypical ways to handle these things – the ice cream, the sobbing, the days in a dressing gown – and there’s advice, but so little of it can seem to help.

‘When you’re young, emotions in relationships run very high. Developing a relationship is not just about having fun together, but also about forming your own identity in relation to the other person,’ explains Marc Hekster, consultant psychologist at Insight London. So, when a relationship ends – particularly if it’s been really intense – it can feel like you’re losing a part of yourself,’

Continue reading at The Debrief…

How to support a friend or partner with a mental health problem – for NetDoctor:

At least one in four of us will struggle with our mental health at some point in our lives – so why are we still so bad at talking about it? Mental health stigma has come on a long way in recent years, but when faced with a friend or partner who’s struggling, many of us still feel uncomfortable, or panic about saying the wrong thing.

It doesn’t have to be complicated. If you’re concerned about someone important in your life, here are six ways you can help them seek the support they need.

Continue reading at NetDoctor…


IF YOU NEED SUPPORT

Please note that I am NOT a psychologist or healthcare professional. If you are struggling with mental health problems, contact Mind on 0300 123 3393 or Rethink Mental Health on 0300 5000 927. In a crisis, call the free, 24/7 Samaritans helpline on 116 123.

However, if you would like to get in touch about your own experiences, or a story that you’re keen to tell, please feel free to drop me an email.

Recent writing: Bowel disease, and good mood food

I’ve been a little quiet on work updates since Mental Health Awareness Week. Not because there hasn’t been any recent writing, but because there’s been so much of it! I’m going to share May and June’s articles over the next few weeks, grouped together (vaguely) thematically. First up: a couple of my recent pieces for NetDoctor.

The first, my interview with Crohn’s sufferer Ed Corrie, was a real pleasure to work on. Some people are so much fun to interview that it doesn’t feel like work, and Ed was definitely one of those interviewees! Not only that, he’s also incredibly inspiring in his efforts to break the push-up world record and start some difficult but important conversations.

The second, on food and depression, was more personally significant. Many thanks to Lucy, Kirsten and Bexx, who spoke to me about the benefits – and the limitations – of changing your diet to improve your mood.

Bums Out Guns Out: The man using push-ups to get men talking about bowel disease – for NetDoctor

“Being diagnosed with Crohn’s disease as a 14-year-old boy was crippling,” recalls Ed Corrie, the fundraiser behind the cheekily named Bums Out, Guns Out campaign.

“When you’re rushing off to the toilet for 45 minutes at a time, you can’t really disguise it – and the worst was on school trips, where you’re sharing a bedroom with two other guys. I used to pretend I had a vomiting problem, because it seemed more manly somehow.”

Twenty years on from his diagnosis, 34-year-old Glaswegian Ed is on a mission to break the Guinness World Record for most press-ups in an hour. As well as raising thousands of pounds for Crohn’s and Colitis UK, Ed wants his “fun and irreverent” campaign to get more men talking about inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).

Continue reading at NetDoctor…

The complicated truth about food and depression – for NetDoctor

“It’s your diet that’s the problem, you just need to eat better.” I’ll never forget those words, said by a university counsellor when – faced with friendship dramas in my shared house, and all the usual student stresses of exams and essay deadlines – I went to her suffering from depression and anxiety.

For most people affected by depression, it’s a familiar story: all those well-meaning people who so regularly dismiss very real distress with advice to simply “eat better” or “exercise more”.

Of course, there is some truth in it – rationally, we all know that we feel better when we’re eating well and getting plenty of exercise – but changing your diet isn’t a quick and failsafe fix for depression, and it’s often the last thing you want to hear, or do, when depression takes hold.

Continue reading at NetDoctor…


IF YOU NEED SUPPORT

Please note that I am NOT a psychologist or healthcare professional. If you are struggling with mental health problems, contact Mind on 0300 123 3393 or Rethink Mental Health on 0300 5000 927. In a crisis, call the free, 24/7 Samaritans helpline on 116 123.

However, if you would like to get in touch about your own experiences, or a story that you’re keen to tell, please feel free to drop me an email.

Recent writing: Mental Health Awareness Week 2017

This week has been Mental Health Awareness Week, an annual event organised by the Mental Health Foundation. It’s a great week for getting friends, family, celebrities and politicians talking more about mental health – particularly in the run-up to a General Election! But it can also feel a bit tokenistic, because we desperately need to get better at having these conversations, and actually converting them into actions, all year round.

The theme for this year’s MHAW was ‘surviving or thriving’. I’ve written articles for NetDoctor, Sebastian & Millicent, The Debrief, and Mental Health Today, exploring what it means to thrive with mental health problems.

Is anxiety sabotaging your career? – for NetDoctor:

Mental health problems affect one in six employees in the UK, and work-related stress is the number one health and safety concern for 70 per cent of businesses. Yet, for employees suffering from anxiety, a lack of support at work too often means lowering their ambitions to fit in with their emotional needs.

35-year-old Unite representative Tom* works as a telesales advisor for an energy company, and believes that his long-term anxiety has “held me back from applying for higher roles in the business, as management don’t really understand mental health.” More recently, he adds, “I have been off work due to the severity of my anxiety, and instead of being supportive they are over-riding my fit notes and taking me through disciplinary procedures to sack me.”

Continue reading at NetDoctor…

Is There Life After SSRIs? – for The Debrief:

More of us than ever are on antidepressants. Doctors in England wrote out more than 64 million prescriptions for them last year, and use of antidepressants is now seven times higher than 25 years ago, in 1991. The most widely used antidepressants are selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) like fluoxetine (aka Prozac), sertraline and citalopram, which act on your levels of mood stabilising neurotransmitter serotonin.

Some people need antidepressants and anyone who has a problem with that should get over it, stat. There is no shame in taking antidepressants and for many people, they are life-changing. There is no ‘one-size fits all’ treatment when it comes to depression. But, with so many of us taking these pills as part of our normal daily routine, it’s worth asking whether there can be life after SSRIs, in which it’s possible not just to survive, but to actually thrive? We spoke to three women who’ve been there, plus Dr Mark Salter from the Royal College of Psychiatrists and mindset coach Ebonie Allard, to find out.

Continue reading at The Debrief…

The troubled mind of fashion – for Sebastian and Millicent:

How much does what you wear say about you? Anecdotally, we all know there’s some kind of link between how we feel and what we wear. Who hasn’t spent whole days in their pyjamas, or a tracksuit, while feeling stressed, burnt out, or depressed? Not to mention the burst of confidence and self-esteem that comes from pulling on your best outfit and leaving the house looking a million dollars. In recent years, scientific research has confirmed what many of us already knew: how we feel affects what we choose to wear, and what we wear affects how we feel.

Continue reading at Sebastian and Millicent…

Using art therapy to thrive – for Mental Health Today:

“Writing and performing gives me the freedom to speak clearly, and the power to make my audiences listen,” says 45-year-old Ugandan refugee Jade.

Jade is involved with writing and drama groups run by the charities Freedom from Torture and Women for Refugee Women. For her, creativity, humour, and community have been crucial elements of her journey towards healing from the traumas she suffered back home.

“It’s very therapeutic to have that time with friends, writing together, listening and supporting each other,” Jade says. “I write a lot of poems and short stories now, but I always try and write something that will make people laugh. If I dwell on what happened to me, those people will have won.”

Continue reading at Mental Health Today…

The dark side of meditation – for Sebastian and Millicent:

The ancient eastern practice of meditation and mindfulness has been around for thousands of years, but far more recently exploded into prominence in the western world. It’s now rare to go a week without hearing or reading about the much-celebrated wellbeing benefits of taking time each day to focus on your breath and the sensations of your body, and enjoy simply ‘being’ in the moment. A key component of mindful meditation is the idea of noticing the small pleasures in life, and habitually bringing your wandering thoughts back to focus on your present situation.

Continue reading at Sebastian and Millicent…


IF YOU NEED SUPPORT

Please note that I am NOT a psychologist or healthcare professional. If you are struggling with mental health problems, contact Mind on 0300 123 3393 or Rethink Mental Health on 0300 5000 927. In a crisis, call the free, 24/7 Samaritans helpline on 116 123.

However, if you would like to get in touch about your own experiences, or a story that you’re keen to tell, please feel free to drop me an email.

Priority: Low

Priority: Low

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!

Mood altered

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.

Low priority

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.

Recovery

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.

Surviving

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.