Read June’s experience of mental health problems and recovery. June is working with See Change to help end the stigma of mental health problems
About the Make a Ripple campaign
This series of blog posts are part of the See Change Make a Ripple campaign, an initiative to help end the stigma of mental health problems by sharing experiences and building public understanding. If you’d like to tell your story, you can visit the Make a Ripple stories portal. If you’d like to write a longer piece like the one below, you can contact a member of the See Change campaign team firstname.lastname@example.org or on 01 8601620
To paraphrase one of my heroes author, producer, comedian, actor and inspiring mental health advocate Mr Stephen Fry, one in four of us will suffer from a mental health problem at some stage in our lives, the problem is, that many more people have a problem with that.
Stigma and discrimination ruin lives. They deny people with mental health problems the opportunity to live their lives to the full.
One of the largest barriers to accessing treatment world-wide for people with mental health problems is stigma.
For some who are overwhelmed not just by the burden of an illness such as depression, but by the ignorance, fear, prejudice, misunderstanding and at times deafening silence that surrounds the condition it can tragically become too much and they take their own lives.
A recent survey carried out on behalf of the National anti stigma campaign SeeChange, found that more education and information was required to promote a greater understanding of mental illness and that a lack of information and poor understanding leads to stigma.
According to the survey 1 in 2 people agreed that they wouldn’t want others to know if they had a mental illness and 1 in 4 agreed that it would be hard to talk to someone with mental health problems.
But the one statistic that stood out for me was that only 1 in 5 people thought that the majority of people with mental illness would recover.
So a massive 80 per cent of the Irish population think that all mental illness is a chronic, recurring condition, a disease that is incurable, hopeless, terminal and one that condemns the sufferer to a life inherently devoid of any hope of recovery. That is simply not true. It is not a diagnosis that consigns you to isolation and abandonment by society, that is a measure of our lack of civilisation, rather than a measure of the nature of mental illness.
Recovery from mental illness is possible. I learned that lesson the hard way, but I am very glad that I did.
On Thursday 25 August 2005 my perception of mental illness changed forever. I was voluntarily admitted to St Edmundsbury Hospital, – a private psychiatric hospital in Lucan Co Dublin – suffering from an acute episode of depression and anxiety.
I was to remain there for seven weeks. Three weeks later I returned to work and six years later my experience has taught me that with the right supports in place it is possible to recover from mental illness – a lesson we all, not least those responsible for funding mental health services, need to remember.
In hindsight my mental health had been deteriorating for some time before I finally shut down. I had been suffering from frequent panic attacks, weight loss, early morning waking, sweating and nausea.
I couldn’t stop crying and was in a constant state of heightened anxiety and panic. Imagine for a minute that you have just been told the worst news ever- that sick feeling in the pit of your stomach, adrenaline pumping, shaking, heart racing, fear and a sudden need to be physically sick – that was my 24/7 reality as someone suffering from repeated episodes of panic.
I was also overcome by an unrealistic fear that I was suffering from an unknown physical illness for which there was no cure. The physical manifestations of anxiety and depression were for me the most striking thing about my illness. While my doctors tried to reassure me that these symptoms did not have a serious organic basis I continued to believe that I was very seriously ill and would almost certainly not recover.
My appetite and all interest in food disappeared completely. When coaxed to eat I physically could not swallow any solids. For weeks I existed on yogurts, fruit juice and coffee and as a result lost three stone. My speech became slurred and I found it difficult to speak. I walked slowly and was hunched over like an 80- year- old woman despite being just 34. I also suffered from diarrhoea, pins and needles, excessive sweating and exhaustion. I was hypersensitive to noise and it felt as if someone had turned up the volume button to max on everything.
I also suffered from a very specific and acute pain located in the right hand side of my lower back, which at times made it almost impossible to sit or lie down.
I later learned that physical pain is a well-known side effect of depression. Amazingly to this day if I find myself getting overly stressed that same pain starts to kick in but thankfully never to the same degree as it did when I was mentally ill.
Depression and anxiety make for terrible bedfellows. You lose all your powers of concentration and cannot read a label let alone a headline in a newspaper. This for me and for a lot of people I know who have suffered from depression can be particularly distressing.
When I finally gave in and acknowledged that I wasn’t recovering at home my GP, who was a fantastic support throughout my illness and continues to be to this day, finally said the words I was both dreading and longing to hear “You are not beating this at home June, are you?”
The next day I was admitted to St Edumundsbury Hospital. And while my own ignorance of inpatient care at the time lead me to believe it would mean months of padded cells and basket weaving, part of me was relieved. It meant that I could give up fighting and allow someone else to take over. At that point I was both physically and mentally exhausted.
I was broken, terrified, sick, weak, confused, too tired to fight too exhausted to care. I just wanted it to stop.
I was not improving at home and needed help in an environment where it was ok to stop fighting, where like for any other acute illness, expert clinicians were on hand to help me beat this disease and where I could take the time out I needed to recover.
I was put on a treatment programme that included medication and psychological therapy.
Once I felt up to it I was allowed home for weekends and after seven weeks I felt well enough to come home for good.
While depression is a truly horrendous condition for all involved it also has a massive impact on carers, the all to often-silent voice of mental illness.
To illustrate this important point I asked my husband for his thoughts on my 2005 admission.
“I felt a mixture of sadness and relief when you were finally admitted. I knew that anything that could be done for you at home had been done and there was no choice, but, partly through ignorance and a vivid memory of watching ‘One flew over the cuckoo’s nest’ I felt very afraid for you and what you may be subjected to ‘inside’.
“There was some easing of the pressure I had been under but I didn’t really notice that until you were home again for good and well on the way to recovery.”
“The sadness, the unfairness of what you were going through, the fear it might not get better, that I might lose you, or the you that I was used to, didn’t really hit me until much later.”
“Once I saw where you were and spoke to the staff, especially the late Prof. Clare (who I do credit with saving your life) I was happy to let them do their work and for the process to take it’s course.”
“Being admitted definitely led to your recovery and enabled us to carry on our life together and for that I will always be grateful,” he said.
Despite everything, I am hugely aware that I was one of the lucky ones. Lucky to have the unwavering support of my wonderful husband, family and friends.
I can honestly say that to the best of my knowledge I did not suffer from any direct stigma as a result of my illness, and that too makes me one of the very lucky ones.
I did however witness it during my hospital stay where I met countless other patients who were terrified to tell their friends and even family members that they were in hospital. Stories of being ‘away’ or ‘on holiday’ were concocted to explain their long absences. One lady who was in the hospital with me did not have one single visitor for the entire length of her stay, and that for me was heart breaking. Can you imagine a patient in a cancer ward or coronary care unit afraid to tell their closest friends and family that they were there?
I was also privileged to have been in the care of the late great Professor Anthony Clare.
And while it galls me to say it, as a patient in Ireland’s increasingly inequitable health service, I was fortunate to have private health insurance.
I did hope at one time that when the recommendations in A Vision for Change were implemented, that no patient would be disadvantaged through not having private health insurance. However as the years slip by I am saddened by the real fear that rather than a reality ‘Vision’ will remain one of a number of numerous expert reports gathering dust in Hawkin’s House.
As a medical journalist I have written countless articles about mental illness, the need for improved services, increased funding, more commitment from Government and the importance of overcoming the huge stigma still associated with mental ill-health in Ireland today.
I am aware that by talking openly about my personal health experience I run the risk of being written off by the ill informed as ‘not normal or unwell’. However, by not talking about it am I simply adding to the stigma of mental illness? By not talking about it am I contributing to the uncomfortable silence that continues to surround the issue?
I am not saying that it is easy or that I am completely cured, I know that my illness is there and if I am not mindful of it I am prone to a recurrence. This was brought home to me the Christmas before last when I suffered a relapse and was very ill for some months. However with continued medical help and support from family and friends thankfully I also recovered from that episode.
What I am saying is that with the appropriate supports and treatment recovery is possible.
I am one of the one in four people who according to the World Health Organisation (WHO) will experience mental ill health at some stage in their lives. This is a quarter of the Irish population, or approximately one million people.
Unfortunately because of the inherent stigma attached to mental illness, a quarter of the Irish population is at a real risk of being excluded from society, from work and their communities. I was very lucky too in that I was able to return to work and continue to work in a profession I thoroughly enjoy.
Another great mental health advocate Spike Milligan said “ I see no value in my having been depressed…It is a dreadful scourge that has caused me terrible pain…it is a disease no question of that and one, which like all the others, demands to be understood and relieved. Yes, of course I have learned who my true friends are and who can stay by me in my worst times….it does help to know that there are others and that slowly people…are beginning to learn something about it. But it has been around an awfully long time, a lot of people are suffering and it is about bloody time we took it seriously.”
If you have been affected by June’s story and need to speak with someone, or if you need help, please click through for a list of organisations that can provide support
See Change understands that there is a complex multiplicity of perspectives on mental health problems and the experience of being unwell. See Change encourages the publication of material that promotes understanding of mental health problems, the experience of being unwell, and recovery. The opinions expressed by contributors to the Make a Ripple campaign are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of See Change, funders, or partner organisations.