Time to Talk Day: Our Mental Health Experiences To challenge the stigma of mental health in the workplace, we asked our staff to share their experiences of living with ill mental health. Here are their stories. Living with Anxiety and Depression - Jasmine’s Story For years I have struggled in ways that did not make sense to me. For years I have looked at my peers and thought “how can you do that so easily?” or “how have you managed to achieve that”. For years I have punished myself for having certain thoughts or for not being able to manage simple tasks. I was frustrated at myself for not being ‘good enough’ and I was embarrassed to talk to anyone else about it. I have always been what people call an ‘agony aunt’; always there for everyone and being that person to come to when something is troubling them. I loved being that person for my loved ones and friends; being able to support people to feel better and see them flourish. My love for helping others made me volunteer in this type of role for difficult topics such as suicide and mental health. It also made me want to pursue an education in Psychology so that I could understand people and learn more about how people behave and more about mental health diagnoses. Deep down I knew that this was the case and I was struggling, however I just kept pushing it to one side thinking “other people are struggling more than me.” But, in reality, the reason I loved being this person was because it was an easy way to distract myself from my own problems and thoughts. Deep down I knew that this was the case and I was struggling, however I just kept pushing it to one side thinking “other people are struggling more than me” or “I have studied all about this, I know what medication and therapy involves, I don’t have that problem”. People would describe me as being bubbly, bright and full of laughter and jokes, often being the silly one in a group and notoriously sarcastic. Although that part is true, the other part of me is wanting to be alone, in solitary; in a quiet and calm space so that I can focus on my breathing and sit in silence with my own thoughts. It took me a long time to be open about my thoughts, and I was brave enough to do this with my best friend. I felt that I could speak to her because she knew both sides of me, and because she was very similar to me in that way. Also, she had told me that she was receiving support for her mental health. I’m so glad I did. I used to talk to her about how I was feeling and about things that were happening in my life, thinking that they were completely normal, however she made me realise that is was not the case. My thinking patterns were all wrong and small menial tasks were so emotionally draining on me. She encouraged me (and it took a long time!) to talk to my GP about this. Eventually, after so many times of calling her up crying or days where I was struggling so much, I made an appointment. On the morning of the appointment, I text her to say that I was going to cancel it, as I still believed that I was wasting the GP’s time, and that other people were struggling more than me. But she persisted and told me that it was worth a try. I had my consultation with a GP who did not judge me and seemed to understand how I was feeling. I had previously filled out a questionnaire online to help show him how I was feeling, and he took this on board and discussed options with me. I was prescribed medication for depression and anxiety, and he signposted me to self-refer for Mindsmatter. This was nearly a year ago. It has been a hard journey for me, and I still have my bad days of complete depression, and days filled with dread and anxiety, but I am getting stronger by the day and I am proud of working on myself. I have been on medication that works well for me, and that makes me feel more like myself again. I also have been getting cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) through Mindsmatter, which is really helping me through the bad days. Without telling my best friend and confiding in her about things I perceived to be normal, I would still be struggling daily. Without telling my best friend and confiding in her about things I perceived to be normal, I would still be struggling daily. I was too scared to tell people how I felt, and that I was going to the GP, and in fact I kept it a secret to my partner and my close family until I had to tell them (due to severe side effects from the original prescription that I was on). When I had to tell people, I received mixed responses. Some were upset, confused and shocked, stating “I didn’t realise you weren’t okay”, and “why didn’t you tell me”, however unfortunately some were disappointed and unsupportive, telling me “I don’t want you to rely on a pill to be happy”. This was difficult for me to deal with, as the people I was closest to did not understand or support me. My relationship soon broke down because of this. It was upsetting that people started to treat me differently and this only increased my symptoms of anxiety and depression. I learnt to focus my energy on the supportive people in my life and leave toxic friendships and relationships in the past. I am now surrounded by people who understand and support me, and this has made me feel more confident to be open about my mental health and speak to people about it. From doing this, family members have opened-up to me about their own mental health and I have created an even larger supportive network. Since then, I have opened-up to my work colleagues and my manager about it, so that they understand that I might be having a bad day and to not take my actions, or quietness, personally. Speaking to my manager and being open and honest with her has really helped me to feel supported, and I feel confident talking to her if I am really struggling or need some extra support. It is so important to talk about mental health. I’m so grateful that my best friend pushed me to do so. It is so simple to do, simply asking people if they are okay, how their day has been, or if anything is on their mind. Talking about mental health can open a big honest conversation, but it also raises awareness so that they may be able to talk to someone else about it too. Remember that everyone has mental health, it’s just that some of us struggle with it. Start a conversation with a loved one or a friend and make talking about mental health normal. It might kickstart them to get help, like it did with me, but it could also save their life. For more information on MindsMatter and how to self-refer, click here. Living with PMDD - Vicky’s Story My story is one of menstrual and mental ill health. My monthly cycle is one of two halves - two good weeks starting the moment you get your period but then two bad weeks following ovulation mid-cycle in the luteal phase. What I mean by good and bad weeks is that in a good weeks you feel ‘normal’, and in your bad weeks, you feel like you have a permanent hangover (without even touching a drop of alcohol) amongst other systems such as irritability, brain fog and severe headaches. Turns out this is a real medical and mental health condition and is called Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder or PMDD. The best way I can describe it is ‘an abnormal reaction to normal hormonal changes’ or even simpler – as my gynaecologist calls it ‘PMS on steroids.’ I’ve had it all of my life (since puberty) but somehow managed to work round my cycle and hide it from friends, family and all of my former employers. How do explain that one day you are fine, and the next you are floored by depression and can't face getting out of bed! It is only in the last few years that I realised what was wrong, I found a support group on Facebook who helped me to understand my symptoms and help me to educate my doctor and get referred to a specialist. To deal with this condition, I have chosen to end my periods through a chemical injection every three months and deal with the consequences of early menopause. If it wasn’t for the supportive environment here at Advocacy Focus, I would have quit the working world a long time ago. For more info on PMDD, click here. Living with Arachnophobia - Becci’s Story Hi, my name is Becci and I am an arachnophobic. For as long as I can remember I have lived my life in deep fear of the nasty little eight legged creatures, I have no idea where it stems from, which is partly why therapy for me can be so tricky. I have absolutely no recollection of a horrifying incident from childhood, in fact as a child I would happily engage in watching the cartoon version of Charlotte’s web and singing Incy Wincy Spider without it resulting in any distress. My parents haven’t passed this phobia down to me (though my mum isn’t fond of spiders, she is nowhere near to what you would call “phobia level”, hers is a mere dislike of them). It also didn’t develop because I’d heard some horrifying information about spiders on TV or in a book that caused me to fear for my health and wellbeing. It has just always been there. I am, what you would call, the “on paper” stereotype of a person with a spider phobia, even my self-help book says so. I bought this self-help book probably about a decade ago when I was feeling very brave and proactive and thought “I’m going to beat this”, a decade later and I still haven’t read past chapter two, which pretty much makes me a massive failure as far as engaging in self-help goes. Anyway, chapter one of the book defines characteristics of an animal/ insect phobia as follows: Immediate and intense panic and fear when faced with the feared animal- TICK! As soon as I see a spider in my vicinity I immediately experience a sudden and sharp jolt of bad butterflies in my stomach, followed by a feeling of becoming very hot and dizzy and losing control of all logic and reason. Depending on how close and unexpected the spider is, my encounter can also result in: shaking, heart palpitations, sweating, crying, hyperventilating, talking to myself and shouting at those around me. Avoidance of the feared animal- TICK! As much as I can, I will avoid all possibility of coming into contact with a spider. Have I jumped out of a moving vehicle because I have seen a spider? Yes. Have I refused to sit on a park bench in fear of one of those little red spiders touching me? Yes. Have I spent hundreds of pounds trying to spider proof my house? Yes. Will I ever go on holiday to Australia? Absolutely not! Focusing attention on the source of the threat- TICK! As soon as I walk into a room I will scan all walls and floors for spiders. I’ve been late for work because there’s been a spider in my hallway, and I have been unable to leave until someone has come round to remove it from my house. I refuse to have any dark carpets of walls within the house because it would be difficult to detect a spider. Every night when I get into bed I will pull back my covers and pillows and check there are no spiders in my bed. If there is a spider in the room you can be sure I will find it, even if no one else has spotted it. So what is the impact of living with arachnophobia? The reality is that it affects not only me, but also those close to me. I’ve left my then-boyfriend’s (now-husband’s), parent’s house in the early hours of the morning because he was unable to find and remove a spider that had crawled up the bedsheets. More recently I’ve woken him up countless times during the night while I check the bed for spiders. My poor parents don’t get away from this either; when I lived with them, I once made them drive home from Liverpool in the middle of the night, mid-way through watching The Killers because there was a large spider in the living room, safe to say they were absolutely fuming with me, but they complied with my unreasonable request because I was hysterical. I also walked into their house in such a state from being faced with a spider, that they thought I’d been attacked (I refer to earlier incident of leaving my husband’s parent’s house in the early hours). I can’t count how many times I’ve shouted at my husband and my parents for not reacting, what I think, quickly enough in coming to my aid; or when they’ve tried to catch one, and the little critter has gotten away. The frustrating thing for me is that when not directly faced with my fear I understand that it’s completely irrational and I will often beat myself up that I should stop being a coward. I know that spiders can’t really harm me and I am aware that they are probably more scared of me than I am of them. Furthermore, it’s at these times I feel very sorry for my poor, poor family for having to put up with my behaviour. They’ve told me countless times that I should seek professional help to combat my phobia. I am very lucky in the sense that my close family do take my phobia seriously and they are willing to help me. However, I have often felt belittled and humiliated by the wider population when I have shared just how debilitating not being able to cope with this is; “attention seeker” and “drama queen” were phrases often uttered about me at school by my peers and teachers alike! It’s common to witness people tutting, rolling their eyes, and staring at me if I’m in public and become distressed by the presence of a spider. Wider family have put my phobia down to my parents “spoiling me” and “pandering to my ridiculous behaviour”, which is not nice for me or my parents to hear. It’s common to witness people tutting, rolling their eyes, and staring at me if I’m in public and become distressed by the presence of a spider. Many people still won’t even consider that a phobia is a mental health condition (FYI, it falls under anxiety disorder for you sceptics). It’s unfortunate, but it’s true that society still doesn’t take phobias all that seriously, especially animal or insect phobias. The general response I get when I disclose that I have arachnophobia is for people to laugh and say “oh yeah, I don’t like spiders either”, which is one of the most unhelpful things a person can say to someone with such a phobia, as it dismisses the severity of what us phobics have to go through and experience as part of everyday life. I suppose what I wanted from this blog was to educate everyone that there is a big difference between a dislike and a full blown phobia and that it isn’t something that should be taken lightly or be seen as trivial. So next time you witness somebody in distress, or having a full blown panic attack, in response to their trigger, instead of mocking and ridiculing the person, be a human being and help them! I am 99% sure that initiating this conversation will have a positive impact, as they will actually feel valued that you are taking them seriously. How do you help someone with an animal/ insect phobia you ask? Well I suppose that depends on the individual. For me it helps to remove the trigger, or move me away from the trigger. After this reassure me, listen to me if I want to talk about the incident; if I don’t then give me something else to focus on, try to make me laugh or play me a song that is uplifting or makes me happy. If you know someone living with a phobia, have a conversation with them; take some interest and ask them what works for them when they encounter the topic of their phobia, then do whatever that is if you witness them in distress due to being triggered. I am 99% sure that initiating this conversation will have a positive impact, as they will actually feel valued that you are taking them seriously. To end this, I just wanted to highlight that all hope is not lost for me, there is light at the end of the tunnel. I met with a Psychologist last year who helped me reflect on my phobia and gave me some tips and tricks to try. By no means am I cured, the bad butterflies still flutter in my stomach when I see a spider, however I am more aware of this feeling and will take a deep breath and try to let go of this feeling as quickly as it arrives (though this is much harder than it sounds). I am also happy to say that two weeks ago I made history and removed a spider from my house for the first time ever (I won’t disclose all the details, as I don’t want to offend). Ok, the spider was quite small, but it is still a big step in the right direction of finally breaking free from the grasp of those eight legs that are currently holding onto me. For more information on Arachnophobia, click here. Living with Generalised Anxiety Disorder - Lauren’s Story I have suffered with GAD since I was a teenager and have been able to manage the condition with medication for most of my adult life. But as life has a habit of doing, a knock here and there is all it takes to bring it to the forefront and make it unmanageable. Anything from personal challenges to a change of medication can set it off. I decided to confide in my manager who was really understanding and offered me full support. It’s great to be able to work somewhere where you can be honest about your mental health, as this takes off a lot of the pressure and relieves a lot of the anxiety in some respects. Now, if I’m having a bad day, I’m able to openly admit this to my manager and take my laptop home. Keeping my manager informed and updated allowed them to plan work accordingly which helped me out a lot. Now, if I’m having a bad day, I’m able to openly admit this to my manager and take my laptop home. I’ve got better at spotting the signs when my mental health will worsen or when a bad day starts and will take my work home in case it worsens. At one point, my anxiety led me to taking some time off work. Advocacy Focus offered me free sessions with their resident psychologist who helped support me back into work. I can’t express how important employment is to people with mental ill health, so wanting to get well enough that I could return to work was a core focus for me. Advocacy Focus offered me a phased return and the psychologist helped me develop new strategies and real improvements in my condition. Advocacy Focus help me manage my condition and offered their full support when I was at my lowest. For more information on Generalised Anxiety Disorder, click here. Living with Health Anixety - Jenny’s Story I never knew there was a name for how I was feeling. People would often joke about me being a ‘hypochondriac,’ but didn’t understand exactly how this disorder was ruling my life. It was stopping me from getting in my car, it made me not want to walk down the stairs and it even made me not want to live anymore, which was ironic because health anxiety stems from an extreme phobia of dying. I was just so lost in the grip of intrusive and overwhelming thoughts that I couldn’t imagine living the rest of my life like that. I truly felt as though my mind was working against me and was plaguing my body. I would assess every single symptom, function and change and every strange feeling or gurgle in my stomach. I assessed the riskiness of daily activities and it even had me planning what would happen if I died. I would imagine my son getting upset at school when they had to make Mother’s Day cards because I was no longer around. I would imagine him growing up without a mum and the impact this would have on his own mental health. I would cry myself to sleep thinking that I wouldn’t see him grow up. Although I’ve always been a bit conscious of my health, it was all amplified after I gave birth in 2016. I had a traumatic labour in which I thought, ‘hey, I could die here,’ and this thought alone would go on to cause months and months of debilitating thoughts before I would finally seek help. As mentioned above, health anxiety is an intense fear of dying. I know we all die and to some extent a little anxiety is good because it helps us survive – such as the fight or flight mechanism – but this anxiety can go to the extreme. It can take over your life and leave you unable to enjoy yourself. Anxiety UK says; Health anxiety is an anxiety condition that is often housed within the Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) spectrum of disorders. Those who are affected by health anxiety/illness phobia are convinced that harmless physical symptoms are indicators of serious disease or severe medical conditions. I remember the exact moment I admitted to myself I needed help. My son was only a few months old and I had developed a coldsore. I remember once reading about the herpes virus in babies and the panic started as soon as I felt the little twinge in the corner of my mouth. I refused to touch my son and even asked my sister who is a nurse to bring me some plastic gloves. I wore them constantly. I started washing my hands so much and using hand sanitiser that they started to crack through dryness. I refused to touch my son and even asked my sister who is a nurse to bring me some plastic gloves. I wore them constantly. Then one night, my coldsore brushed the side of his cheek, and that was when I completely lost it. I was pacing up and down the room, texting my sister asking for help and screaming to my partner to take us to A&E. I spent eight hours googling symptoms, looking at pictures and trawling health forums. I would read news articles from years ago and get myself even more worked up. It’s hard to explain exactly how worked up I was but also exactly how ridiculous I felt. I knew it was irrational but I couldn’t help it. I felt like I was losing my mind. My partner pushed me to get help and finally I went to see my GP who referred me to Minds Matter. I had to wait 12 weeks for Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. During this time my anxiety became so bad I lost my job, which looking back, actually worked out for the best because it led me through the doors of Advocacy Focus, who played a key part in my recovery. For months I felt I had to hide who I was, I didn’t admit to anyone how I was feeling or that I was waiting for CBT. But Advocacy Focus helped me accept my mental illness and gradually I began to talk openly about it. I started my own blog to document my journey with anxiety which has had so much great feedback from other people going through the same situation. So many other people suffered the same symptoms but never knew that it was an actual disorder. I’m living proof that even in the darkest depths of despair there is light and recovery at the end of the tunnel. In November 2017 I was discharged after six months of CBT a totally different person and as of today I have been medication free for three weeks after eight years on anti-depressants. I’m living proof that even in the darkest depths of despair there is light and recovery at the end of the tunnel. I still have my moments of panic but have learnt to manage them and accept that this is me. The past few years have really taught me the importance of talking about and normalising mental health and accepting that our minds can get sick too. So many people have said to me; ‘you don’t look like the sort of person who would suffer from anxiety’ and this is what we need to tackle. Anyone can suffer from ill mental health and absolutely nobody should feel as though they have to hide it. For more information on health anxiety, click here.