In Australia it is estimated that 45% of the population have experienced some form of mental illness. At any one time, 1 million people are experiencing a depressive disorder and over 2 million people are living with anxiety. So I know, and throughout my own adventures with ill psychiatric health I have known, that I’ve got company. I’m not alone in these experiences. In general though we don’t hear much from all these millions of people. If they are talking they’re not very loud.
And it’s not hard to take a guess at why.
Over the last decade, I’ve had three reasonably significant, and somewhat horrendous, episodes of mental illness. And in dealing with each one I learnt new lessons about disclosure, I tried out new techniques and practices and eventually I became a little bit more confident about talking about this stuff.
When I first became unwell, I was one of the people I advise all my clients and everyone I know, not to be. I was a treatment avoider. It took me a long time to seek out professional help and support, despite knowing full well that the earlier I sought assistance the better the probability of recovery and prognosis.
There are a couple of reasons for why I farted around before getting some help. Firstly, I was a trained mental health professional. And for some reason that made me a bit of a wanker. At the time I believed that I knew so much about mental illness and how to treat it that I could surely diagnose and treat myself. It didn’t work. I just got worse and because my own smarts and snobbery couldn’t save me I felt weak.
Secondly, I felt ashamed. Ashamed that because I was a mental health professional I should have been able to prevent the illness from occurring. On reflection, this seems reasonably ridiculous and on par with expecting that an orthopedic surgeon shouldn’t ever accidentally break his leg. But at the time it was real and true. And these feelings of shame followed me around in that initial episode and I only informed my nearest and dearest of what was going on. Eventually I sought some treatment and began what has become an enduring relationship with my psychiatrist.
When the second episode popped its head up from under the covers, I felt a little more comfortable telling a few more people. I’d had the time to incorporate my previous experience into my story and identity in a more healthy and appropriate way and the degree of shame involved had lessened. But I was still cautious. I was cautious and fearful because even though I was unwell I wasn’t stupid. Both my previous experience with mental illness and my professional experiences had taught me well that the stigma surrounding mental illness is alive and well. Unfortunately some people are just ... well ... dickheads. Talking to someone about a personal experience of mental illness is a moment of real vulnerability and there is a lot of uncertainty about how certain people will respond. While I was more ready to open up to others, I definitely wasn’t ready to take on the dickheads.
Following my third episode, things have changed a lot for me and I have a much greater acceptance of my struggles and experiences – past, present and future. This is a sign that I’m well. That I’m not in any current distress or that my judgment is being clouded by distorted thinking. I am much more willing to speak about my mental illness experiences and have found that talking about it with others can really enhance relationships, as it can be the beginning point for truthfulness, trust and intimacy. And I do feel much more connected to those around me, whether that be as a result of talking about mental health issues with my friends, family and colleagues or just because I’m no longer hiding something.
Despite all of this though, I’m still not silly. I’m not keen on having discussions about my psychological wellbeing with everyone I meet because I still am not convinced I can be certain of an appropriate response. I think the stigma is still there. I think the dickheads still exist. Talking about mental illness can be great - if it’s with the right people, when you’re ready and when you’re well.