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Opinion A mental health nurse’s experience of mental health issues

I grew up thinking mental health was someone else’s problem. Then, when I was affected, my own prejudice and fear that kept me from talking about it.

I AM AN ordinary married man, with three children, a semi-detached house in the suburbs and I commute daily to a job as a mental health professional.

I also have mental health issues.

Does that surprise you? It surprised me, and I have worked in this area for over a decade.

I grew up thinking mental health was someone else’s problem. That it was that man in a bus shelter who talked to himself. That it was the ‘cat lady’ down the street who rarely set foot outside her home. I never realised that mental health touched my life and that it touched the people I loved.

My story is all too common, without celebrity or scandal. I was bullied as a child. It took me to a dark place in my head and I learned to hide it from the world on a daily basis. I would put a ‘front’ on; a mask that only I knew was there. A mask to hide the anxiety I felt going near school or other children, the low self-worth I was experiencing that kept reminding me I was no good. Soon the voices in my mind were negative enough to keep me down and I no longer needed the bully to help.

I quickly became an expert at hiding it

I kept the front up to make people believe I was strong and confident when inside I was scared and unhappy. I went to a dark place in my head more than once where I would have been more than happy to not wake up the next morning. I had a loving family who did not even realise it was going on because I quickly became an expert at hiding it.

It was my own prejudice and fear that kept me from talking about it. This same fear kept me alone in my feelings when, actually, all around me there were supports that could have lessened my burden. I didn’t even understand what depression or anxiety was back then and until recently I believed these were things ‘other people’ experienced. It was my own sense of stigma that got in my way.

In 2012, research showed that 56% of Irish people surveyed would not want others to know about their mental health problem and 24% would hide it even from close family.

I don’t tell you this story to make you feel sorry for me. I tell it because fear, worry and self-doubt are feelings everyone can relate to and yet we continue to think mental health is someone else’s problem. The WHO uses statistics to show that 1:4 people will experience a diagnosable mental health problem at some point in their life. However mental health isn’t just about diagnosis. We don’t have to wait to have a heart attack to begin eating well or take regular exercise. We do it because it keeps us well.

The statistic should be 4:4; we will ALL experience a mental health problem in our lives. It has happened, or will happen when we have a problem at work, in a relationship, a grief issue, a financial worry or an anxiety about something. Surely we can all relate to being afraid, grief stricken, worried or feeling down about something.

I survived

I also tell the story to show I am OK, more than OK actually. I am loved by people who care for me; and I do my best to care for them. I survived this time and while like everybody else I continue to have my mental health issues, I take steps to take care of myself – to ‘mind’ my mental health. To take responsibility for my own mental health the same way we take responsibility for our physical health. I developed and nurtured resilience in my life and I didn’t even have the language to describe how I managed that. I had supports I wasn’t even conscious of.

People with mental health problems can and do recover. However these same people often report that living with the stigma of mental health is often worse than living with the illness.

Just like we all have physical health we all have mental health. At what point did we decide to treat ourselves as if our head and mind was not always attached to our body and that our mental health was something to be scared of?

I work for Saint John of God Hospital and See Change. Together with over 70 partner organisations we are supporting the fight to end stigma around mental health. This month has been GreenRibbon month. A whole month to get people engaged in talking about mental health.

I hope everybody reading this will start a conversation about mental health with their family and friends, their husbands or wives, and their children or colleagues, talk in schools with teachers, at home with parents and children, around coffee tables and board rooms. You don’t have to be an expert to show someone you care and are willing to listen if they are having a bad day, or even a good day. Let’s change minds about mental health, one conversation at a time.

Visit the Saint John of God Hospital website or Facebook page, and learn more about the Green Ribbon campaign #greenribbon #makearipple

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