Meet the Cockroach
2018 and there is still a stigma around mental health in Ireland. What the f*ck is that about. ‘It’s ok not to be ok’ is written everywhere but that’s not quite true. I certainly don’t feel ok about not being ok, do you? That damn STIGMA is still crawling around like one a’ those Cockroaches that JUST WON’T DIE. Apparently no-one wants it around. We’re all stomping on it, trying to kill it but It’s still crawling around with it’s lethal bite.
So what is keeping the Cockroach alive?
US, all of us. We are preserving the Stigma. By staying quiet, by neglecting our mental health and by keeping it a secret when we do get help. To be frank, we need to cop on and stop feeding this cockroach with so much judgement and secrecy. I am no exception. I lived, laughed, walked to college, drank coffee and talked about everything and anything with my best friends every day for 2 years, all the while seeing a psychotherapist and did not tell them. I didn’t want to burden them. I couldn’t imagine anything worse than their pity. If I was going home on a Friday evening for an appointment with my psychotherapist, I would give different reasons for going home. I had no problem telling them if I was going home for a Physiotherapy appointment. Why? Because no one judges a pulled hamstring or looks at you differently for having shinsplints. I know now what I didn’t know then; By not not talking, by keeping it a secret, I was saving the Cockroach. I’m not saying that everyone should publicise their private issues to the world, that would be a terrible idea. But we should aim to be able to speak as openly about seeing a councillor or therapist as any other kind’ve appointment. Would you hesitate to tell your friend that you broke your foot? Probably not. Would you hesitate to tell your friend that you’re feeling particulary low? Probably yes. We need to start seeing Mental health as we do Physical health. You can’t have one without the other.
Where does the Stigma come from?
This Cockroach has been around for a while. It’s not long since we were throwing people with psychiatric issues in ‘Looney bins’ so it’s no surprise that it’s still lingering around. Growing up we learned everything from our parents and teachers. How could they teach us how to deal with our issues in a healthy manner when they came from a generation like that? So they just didn’t really teach us how to do that and this fed the Cockroach.
Most of us received less than a mental health education in school. I do remember getting a talk on depression once. Two ladies taught us how to identify depression in our friends. They listed 5 criteria to meet and if those symptoms lasted more than two weeks, your friend was depressed. Odd, they never told us how to deal with it. Probably because they didn’t know themselves. The next time I thought about mental health I was in 5th year. I was the quintessential rebellious teenager. Getting in a lot of trouble, I dyed my hair black in a mad effort to have any hair colour other than ginger. My Vice principle took this as a sign that I was now gothic and depressed and let me off any trouble I was in. That worked for me. Her solution was to send me to the school guidance counsellor. I tried to give the woman a chance, she was giving me an opportunity to miss class at the very least. I didn’t feel depressed but I was down and confused as to why. Nothing and everything was wrong at the same time.. if that makes any sense. I was constantly distracted and always looking for attention. I knew I was smart but I couldn’t bring myself to work. I told her this. You know what her guidance was? Her professional counsel… “Get a watch and check it every five minutes in class to keep yourself engaged” That was it. Back to class. Never to be addressed again. Wow.
When you progress to third level there is a larger emphasis placed on mental health. That’s great news but the cockroach is still crawling around. There are better facilities there at your door but it’s rare that students will realise they should use them if they’re not presenting with an actual mental illness. When you come to college, issues that were grumbling away throughout your childhood and school life really come to the fore so you need to be careful to mind your mind. Add the pressure of moving out of home, passing exams without studying, fitting in, making all of your life decisions yourself, dealing with esteem issues, learning self-discipline, potential problems at home, relationships, excess alcohol etc into the mix and even if you didn’t have mental health issues coming in, you may very well now. Believe it or not, everyone has mental health issues, no-one is mentally perfect. It’s how we manage them that counts.
Stress can manifest differently for everyone; anxiety, depression, panic attacks, eating disorders, esteem issues, body issues, addictions, psychosomatic disorders, digestive problems, alopecia, mouth ulcers, chronic pain, or maybe even just an overall sense that something’s off. The list goes ON and really highlights this impermeable link between body and mind that I’ve been harping on about.
Sort your plumbing out.
Are you happy? Do you even know? Figuring out what’s wrong is the hard part. Awareness, as they say, is key. The simple truth is that due to the failings of the generations preceding us and the fact that nobody talks about it, we’re not equipped with enough knowledge to figure out and deal with mental health issues by ourselves. That’s a concept I struggled with because I liked to think I knew it all. That’s where professionals come into the equation. In most walks of life we accept the need for trained individuals to do their respective jobs so we don’t end up wasting our time and money making a muck of something we’re not trained or equipped to do. Plumbers to sort our pipes, electricians to sort the wires, doctors to fix our broken bones, teachers to educate our children etc.. Yet when it comes to something as valuable as our sanity, we like to think that we can do it all on our own. Yes you may get through it but you might end up with the mind equivalent of a self-plummed home ie. A f*cking mess. I will admit that initially I had to be dragged to see someone, I eventually realised that even the best pipes can acquire a leak under enough strain. It took me a few tries to find the right plumber for me. She was young, relatable and more than that, I could tell she knew her stuff and so I respected her. It simply wouldn’t have worked otherwise. I found psychotherapy the best for me but there are many other routes. Google can be a help but the best way to go is via your GP for a recommendation. Finding the right person for you may happen straight away but you may also have to kiss a few frogs first. What’s knew eh.
There you have it folks, the stigma around mental health is alive and well. Now, how can we kill the Cockroach?
Be Proactive~ like Prehab for the mind
You need to tend to your own oxygen mask first. I get this part is difficult, it’s tempting to try to fix and help everyone else first. (Hence this very blog and the fact that I decided to become a doctor) But I did learn, the hard way, that you really can’t help anyone else until you give yourself honest time first. It’s so much easier to prioritise everything else on your to do list because you can see the direct consequences. If you don’t study, you fail. If you don’t train, you don’t perform. Not caring for your mental health doesn’t have the same direct, tangible consequences. But just like in sport, you need to learn to get to know your own body and mind. You need to be able to recognise when you need a break and to identify niggles that need tending to before they become real injuries. Why wait until mental health issues present themselves as conditions to jump to attention? Life is hectic and stressful and so self-care gets pushed to the bottom of the priority list. The problem with letting this happen is that it will eventually feed into all other aspects of your life; relationships, work, sport, confidence, your ability to be alone, to be in the moment, will suffer. Take a step back, slow down, get to know yourself. It’s not as easy as it sounds so have patience.
Knowledge is power.
The Cockroach feeds on our fear of the unknown. The education system failed us here so we need to teach ourselves about mental health. It’s the way to tackle the stigma around it. Knowing the little bit that I do about mental health is what has gotten me through everything to date. I experienced my first panic attack when I was 18. I was out running late one night in Salthill. There was a lot going on in my life at the time, none of which I wanted to deal with. However as I ran and got more and more tired, I was no longer focusing on keeping up my walls and started thinking about everything I had been blocking out. I felt a sharp pain in my chest. I pulled out my earphones only to realise I hadn’t been breathing properly. My phone died from the cold and I was at least 2 miles from my house. The only thing that prevented me from freaking out in that moment and panicking was that I knew what was happening and knew what to do to wait it out. So we need to get informed. ‘To attain knowledge, add things everyday.’ Watch that documentary, read that book, go to that talk. Get the knowledge into you and you’ll find mental health problems won’t seem so scary or alien anymore.
Honey, we need to talk.
To the right people. Be careful about who you open up to. When you’re down, you’re vulnerable and more sensitive than usual. Social media is probably not the best outlet because you’re opening yourself up to the opinion of too many people who don’t know or care about you. (Big hypocrite, I know) If you open up to the wrong person and they don’t react the way you need them to or they break your trust then it will just make you feel a lot worse. Even your parents might let you down with how they deal with things, as I said, their generation was even worse than ours for dealing with emotions. This is why I like professionals, they usually know the right thing to say to give you clarity and they literally cannot tell anyone else. It doesn’t have to be a therapist, what about a priest or chaplain? If you don’t have someone to talk to that you can trust or you just really don’t want to, then write. Write it down. Just get it out, don’t lock your feelings away. You’ll find writing it down or talking it out will give you clarity and a better perspective on what initially appears to be the world crumbling around you.
You may think that by me sharing the fact that I have mental health issues that I am revealing something big and personal about myself to the blogosphere. Let me reveal something about you too, You have mental health issues. Everyone does. Or else you would be mentally perfect which is not mentally possible. The presentation and extent of these issues varies of course, it’s how we manage them that counts. If we kill this cockroach it will be a lot easier to manage things in the right way.
How are you right now? Happy? Sad? Bored? Do you even know how you feel? Not many will be able to answer that question, we’re that out of touch with ourselves. Life is becoming exponentially more hectic and complex. It’s becoming easier to find ways to distract ourselves and separate ourselves completely from what’s really going on inside our minds. Take a step back, take a time out. See how you are and try to stay actively in touch with your own mental state- Easier said than done. We need to talk about things to those we trust and get educated. If we do all of this, step by step, we will chip away at this stigma and eventually it will actually be ‘ok not to be ok’. Eventually we will see mental health as we see physical health. We will realise that they are equal and inextricably linked. Our generation will get there because we’re trying. You care enough to read this whole thing so I have faith in us, we just need to keep pushing.
PS. I hope you realise that you have a 100% success rate of getting through even the toughest days of your life. Keep going